"The Transfiguration of Christ" by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1487)
Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
2 Tim 1:8b-10
“Life is short; death is certain,” wrote Blessed John Henry Newman, “and the world to come is everlasting.” It is a fitting introduction to today’s readings, for together they form a powerful discourse about the life, death, and eternity.
There are several rich, if subtle, connections to be found between the reading from Genesis, which describes God’s covenant with Abram, the reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the young Timothy, and the Gospel reading, which recounts the Transfiguration on the mountain. The three that I’ll highlight here can be summarized as calling, blessing, and anticipating. And while these three are always essential to the Christian walk, they have perhaps an even greater force of meaning during the Lenten season.
Calling: The first words of God to Abram (or at the least the first words recorded) are a call to faith and action: “Go forth from the land of your kinfolk…” In a culture in which one’s extended family was the core of one’s social and religious life, this was a call to a completely new life. It required immense trust, especially since Abram would likely never return to see his father’s household and his homeland. But the promises of blessing were just as immense: “I will make you a great nation, and will bless you…” This blessing, of course, was presented in material, temporal terms; there was not yet an understanding of blessings in the afterlife. And so Abram anticipated blessings of a temporal sort: land, a great name, offspring, and far-reaching renown.
Blessing: Paul’s words to his spiritual son, Timothy, could also be applied to Paul’s spiritual father, Abraham, who was saved and called to a holy life, not according to his works, but according to God’s design. And, conversely, God’s words to Abram could also be applied in a certainbut far more profoundsense to the Son of God: he was called to go forth and enter “a land”, that is, first-century Israel. And he became Incarnate so that he would be a blessing to “all the communities of the earth”, and would build a great nation, the Church (cf. 1 Pet 2:9). By taking on flesh and becoming man, Paul notes, God’s grace was “made manifest”. Our savior Christ Jesus, having entered a fallen and sinful land, would destroy death and bring everlasting life.
Anticipating: While in the desert, Moses the lawgiver had taken Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu with him up the mountain to see God (Ex 24:9ff). Elijah the prophet had also been in the presence of God on the mountain (1 Kng 19:8ff). Yet despite having close communion with God, both men experienced rejection at the hands of their own people. Jesus, in taking Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor, was calling them to a deeper discipleship, to a clearer (and unsettling) understanding of Jesus’ identity and calling, and their own identity and calling. They were blessed, but their blessing came by the way of the cross, for the cross is the doorway to communion with God.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2011 Lenten Address, wrote, “The Cross of Christ, the ‘word of the Cross’, manifests God's saving power (cf. 1Cor 1: 18), that is given to raise men and women anew and bring them salvation: it is love in its most extreme form.” The Transfiguration was a foretaste of the power and glory of God; it was a grace meant to shine in the dark night that enveloped the apostles following the crucifixion. It would remind them of their calling, make real their blessing, and keep alive their anticipation.
“The Gospel of the Transfiguration of the Lord,” writes the Holy Father, “puts before our eyes the glory of Christ, which anticipates the resurrection and announces the divinization of man. … He desires to hand down to us, each day, a Word that penetrates the depths of our spirit, where we discern good from evil (cf. Heb 4:12), reinforcing our will to follow the Lord.”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 20, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)