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Sunday next before Lent

09 February 2018


2 Kings 2.1–12; Psalm 50.1–6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9


BEFORE we walk the way of the Cross in Lent, the Church is offered a foretaste of Christ’s victory. The timing of this Gospel reading in the lectionary echoes the timing of the transfiguration itself: it is just before he begins his journey to Calvary that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the holy mountain.

Mark tells the story sparely: “He was transfigured before them.” The glory of the vision cannot be fully captured in words; but its implications were drawn out clearly by Paul, and by the Greek Church Fathers. Because God’s glory has shone through the incarnate Christ, the whole created order has the potential to reveal the divine life.

Traditionally, the transfiguration was the first image depicted by every Orthodox icon-writer. The story shows that we live in a sacramental universe. There is, therefore, the possibility of a physical representation of God which is not a graven image. Whereas an idol is something that has become an object of devotion in place of God, the material world around us can also be an icon: that is, the means by which we behold his light and life.

The transfiguration does not offer us only a foretaste of the Easter victory: it sets before us one of the central purposes of Lent. Through our forthcoming fast, God can detach us from the things that we have come to worship in his place. It is only once we have died to them as idols that we can receive them again as gifts of grace.

Idols have a powerful hold on us, as individuals and as communities. The Evangelist tells us that Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. Like them, he will confront the idolatry of status, wealth, and power. As John Chrysostom observes, both of these Old Testament figures have “courageously withstood a tyrant: one the Egyptian, the other Ahab”. Each of their lives reveals God’s glory in things the world counts as naught: “One was slow of speech and weak of voice; the other a rough countryman.” In the humility of his earthly origins, and in his confrontation of religious and political leaders, Jesus stands in the line of Moses and Elijah.

Such confrontation can prove costly. Jesus’s clothes “became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”. This is an allusion to the robes of the martyrs — and to the vocation of all baptised Christians to enter into the death of the Lord that they might rise with him in glory.

Through our baptism, “we are clothed with Jesus in light and we ourselves become light” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in Jordan to the transfiguration). In the eucharist, we enjoy the first-fruits of a transfigured creation, and unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ, and of the martyrs of the Church in every age.

Lent originated as a time of preparation for those who were to be baptised and receive their first communion at the Easter vigil. For the Christian, “mountain-top” moments of worship and contemplation are never detached from taking up our cross and confronting the powers of evil.

After the vision, in their terror and confusion, the disciples hear the Father’s voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”. In our epistle, Paul describes how hard it is for fallen humanity to hear and see the truth. The good news is “veiled to those who are perishing”. As St Ambrosiaster explains: “God dims the sight of worldly people because they are hostile to the faith of Christ. He is giving them what they want.”

To walk the way of the Cross is to do battle not only with the external forces of injustice and oppression, but also with the internal forces which obscure his light. Our hearts are divided. We, too, do not always want to know the truth. This is why this Sunday’s readings speak not only of the glory of the Lord, but of the darkness of the human heart and our need of God’s transfiguring power.

As Paul reminds us, “it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6).

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