Sunday of Lent (A):
Gen 12.1-4; 2 Tim 1.8-10; Matt 17.1-9
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OPSt Paul Hospital
and Church of the Incarnation
“Rise, and do not be afraid!”
Are you wondering yet why you decided to take on a Lenten fast? Why you chose this or that bad habit to surrender to the desert? Are you finding yourself counting the days maybe, just waiting it out, maybe twitching a little now and then, maybe standing up and marching right into that Chinese buffet or right into that Marble Creamery or right into that tobacco shop? Is your tongue itching to tell someone off? Or maybe your credit card is keeping you up at night softly sobbing from loneliness? Imagine calling the whole thing off. Right now. Just stop Lent and get off. Stop the fasting, the abstaining; stop the extra prayers and just break those promises of weekly confession and daily Mass. Just stop. Just say NO to Lent. And get off this purple-hazed roller coaster of a liturgical season! I mean, really now…is Jesus coming back in 2008? 2009 even? Who knows?
Imagine the disciples for a second. There they were WITH Jesus, their beloved teacher, and they are having trouble understanding all this cryptic talk of suffering and dying and coming back to life again. The disciples! The guys who know him best, the ones who have known him face-to-face are struggling with this whole desert-thing. Here we are 2,000 years later and we’re trying to understand, to believe, to obey, and to benefit from the lessons of his own temptations among the sand dunes. Sure! You had better believe I would conjure up some bread after forty days without food. Not to mention a case or two of good German beer! Of course, I would call down angels if the Devil appeared to me and started talking. And, yes, ruling the world seems like a heady vocation. But I, like you, must do what Christ did and will do again. And in case we’re scared out of our minds, frightened at the very idea of what’s ahead, we have Christ on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. And we have his promise: “…his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.” What sort of promise is this? What are we to make of the transfiguration?
The disciples, gawking in fear at the sight of the transfigured Jesus, Moses and Elijah with him, fall flat on their faces in the dirt. Jesus touches them and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid!” When they rise, Jesus alone remains standing before them, brilliant bright, shining clean. He stands there for a moment. Moses and Elijah are gone. The joyous light dissipates. All he says to the dumb-struck disciples is: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That’s it. That’s his explanation of what just happened. So, what just happened? What are we to do with this theatrical revelation now that we have it?
Let’s go back to Paul and his second letter to Timothy. Paul writes to this friend, “[God] saved us and called us to a holy life, NOT according to our works but according to His own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus…” What makes this holy life we are called to possible? Nothing other than the gifts we have received from God, the grace “now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus…” Paul, writing long after the revelation on the mountain, is reminding Timothy that he must “bear [his] share of hardship for the gospel…” How? “…with the strength that comes from God.” Jesus’ transfiguration, his transformation before Peter, James, and John is our Lord’s seal on an ancient promise: endure with my strength, endure with the gifts you have been given, endure with one another, and you too will be transfigured; you too will shine like the sun, white as light.
What do we do ‘til then? Jesus touches his frightened disciples and says to them, “Rise, and do not be afraid!” We can hear echoed here all of the promises our Lord made to Abram: “I will make you a great nation…I will make your name great…I will bless those who bless you…All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” None of this is ours by right or inheritance. It is ours in faith by the promise of He who blesses His creation with His presence. We cannot lay claim to a single blessing, not one gift from our Lord if we are face down in the dirt…frightened by our promised future. Or if we will not look up into the eyes of Christ; or if we refuse in our sinfulness to be transfigured, to be changed into He Whom we adore. So, rise and do not be afraid! Do not fear small sacrifices or large ones; do not fear little fasts or days of abstinence; do not fear that the Body of Christ is sick beyond healing, or that the Word is mute against the world’s unbelief and violence. Meet your temptations for what they are: lies. Meet the Devil for who he is: a liar. And rejoice that you have been given a seal on the promise of your salvation! A bright shining promise made by he “who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
What awaits our Lord in Jerusalem is an ignoble death on the Cross. He knows this. Yet he rides into Jerusalem like a slave on a donkey. And though he is cheered as a king, he is abandoned like a beggar to beg for his life. . .even as he dies. His face shone like the sun on the mountain. But it bleeds on the Cross. His clothes become white as light on the mountain. But when he is lifted up on the Cross, he wears a king’s purple red with his own blood. And when he stands before the disciples shining and bright on the mountain, he stands with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets; yet in the garden he is alone. On the Cross he is among thieves, a criminal. He knows all of this. And he appears to his disciples to seal an ancient promise of mercy. He appears, transfigured, to ease their doubts, to strengthen their resolve, to bolster their lagging faith.
Are you ready yet to abandon your Lenten fasts? Your desert sacrifices? Are you ready to chat with the Devil and shop among his illusions of wealth and glory? Are you ready to stop this crazy ride and get off? If so, hear this one more time: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Listen to the emptying Cross. Listen to the crash of the temple veil as it falls. Listen again to Paul: “Beloved, bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Listen to Jesus say as he touches your hand, “Rise, and do not be afraid!”