Every year, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Christ. This year, we hear the account from the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration takes place after Peter acknowledges Jesus to be the Christ of God and just as Jesus begins His journey up to Jerusalem, where He will be crucified and die.
The Transfiguration is an event that takes place with Jesus’ closest disciples: Peter, James and John. Jesus takes them up a mountain and there they see Him transfigured before them. As He appears radiantly transfigured, He is also seen in conversation with the great prophets of God—Elijah and Moses. Peter is so overwhelmed by this experience, that he wishes to preserve it and ensure that it continues by building a house for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He does not want the experience to end. And yet, no sooner does he propose this project and Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus returns to His usual appearance. However, before the experience is over an another extraordinary event takes place. God the Father can be heard proclaiming from the cloud: “This is my Son, the beloved.”
Strangely, once this experience is concluded and they are on their way down the mountain, Mark tells us that Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about what had taken place on the until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. And so, Mark tells us, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
What are we to make of this event? Why take His disciples up the mountain for this experience if they are not permitted to speak about it?
Jesus takes His disciples Peter, James and John up the mountain for the Transfiguration experience so that they might be strengthened for the trials that are ahead of them. As I mentioned, in the Gospel of Mark, this event is recounted after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah of God, and as Jesus begins His journey up to Jerusalem, where He will be arrested and crucified. Jesus gives this experience to His disciples to strengthen them for this difficult ordeal. God the Father tells Peter, James and John who Jesus is, and thus affirms Peter’s confession, so that when they face the difficulties and uncertainties of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion they may be strengthened. The whole experience is intended to help them understand who Christ really is and what the rising from the dead will mean for them and all humanity. Once they understand this “rising from the dead,” they will truly know who Christ is and the significance of His message for all people.
The experience of the Transfiguration is intended to strengthen these disciples for the journey that is ahead of them. It is to help them be aware of who Christ is so that they may not despair in the face of the tribulations they will face on the road.
What Christ gives to these disciples, in the experience of the Transfiguration before His Resurrection, is the kind of affirmation that you and I are called to receive after His Resurrection in the Eucharist. For you and I today, the food for our journey, and the experience of Christ that is intended to remind us who Jesus is for us, is that which we receive of His presence in the Eucharist. Today, in the Eucharist, you and I receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in order that we might remember that Christ has overcome death and has won for us the gift of eternal life. No matter what trials you and I face in this life, Jesus is with us. In the Eucharist, we are reminded that He has overcome death and that we shall also rise with Him. There is nothing on earth that can defeat us—not even death itself. Just as Jesus took His beloved disciples, Peter, John and James, up the mountain to strengthen them, so too, each time we go up to the altar to receive the Eucharist, the Risen Christ gives Himself to us to strengthen us today on our journeys.
That Christ is always with us is something that Paul hopes to remind us of as he writes in today’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will He not with him also give us everything?” This passage calls us back to the Transfiguration to remind us that God the Father, the Creator of the universe, has given His only Son so that we might be saved. If God has given His Son, so that we might be saved and know eternal life, what is there that we should fear or that can conquer us?
If we really believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He has died and risen so that we might have eternal life, what is it that we should fear and that can overcome us?
Just as the Transfiguration affirmed Christ’s identity before His Resurrection to Peter, James and John; so today, the Eucharist is to remind us that He is still alive and with us in our tribulations. As these disciples died and rose to share in Christ’s Resurrection, so too shall we, no matter what we face in life.
Lent is the season in which we are called to renew our baptismal promises. This means deepening in our belief that Jesus has risen from the dead and destroyed death for us. As a result of His victory, we believe that He has ascended to Heaven and sent His Holy Spirit to dwell with us until we come to share in His Resurrection. He is with us through the Holy Spirit and comes to us in the sacraments to strengthen us until we are with Him for all eternity in Heaven. We are never alone and if we place our faith in Him, there is nothing that can harm us on earth.
The extent to which God loves us and desires that we be saved is emphasized in the first reading today from Genesis. Here, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. We hear this story and ask how a father could be asked to sacrifice his son. Many are moved to say that such a sacrifice is totally unreasonable. It is important to note that God does not demand this sacrifice of Abraham. In fact, many Scripture scholars state that God replaces the sacrifice of Isaac with His own Son Jesus. As Isaac goes to find the wood for the sacrifice, it is ultimately Jesus who will be the sacrifice to save all of humanity on the wood of the cross. This story is intended in the history of salvation to help us realize the significance of God’s sacrifice of His Son to save us and give us eternal life. If God would go that far to save us, what do we need to be afraid of? This is the point that Paul is attempting to make as he writes: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will He not with him also give us everything?”
One of the Lenten practices that is intended to help us remember the extent to which God has gone to save us is the Stations of the Cross. As we pray the Stations, we recall that Jesus died so that we might have eternal life. I know some people who find the image of Christ on the cross disturbing and troubling. This powerful image is not intended to glorify suffering. It is intended to remind us that no matter what we suffer, Christ has overcome it. As He suffered and died, if we suffer and die with Him, we shall also rise with Him. The Stations of the Cross help us to deepen in an awareness of Christ’s great love for us. Although we are unable this year to pray the Stations in the church together, we are able to do so be visiting the church individually, or by doing so at home or online. There are resources on line that allow you to pray the Stations of the Cross at home. One example can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEIvGC1WsbM There are many other versions available through a “google” search.
Although we continue to be under a stay at home order in Toronto, and the capacity of the number permitted in the church is limited to 10, our parish church continues to be open every day for those who wish to receive the Eucharist. I am in the church Monday to Friday from 7:30 to 9:00 A.M., Saturdays from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M., and Sundays from 8:30 to 11:30 A.M. During this time, I am distributing the Eucharist and celebrating confessions for those who ask. Please, if you wish to go to confession, just ask. If you require a longer period of time, please make an appointment. If you do come at these times, especially on a Sunday, please consider limiting your visit to about 15 minutes. Given that we are only permitted 10 people in the church at a time, if a few people decide that they will stay all morning, this means that others must be turned away. It is my hope that we can accommodate the needs of all during this difficult time.
While Mass cannot be celebrated publicly at this time, I am doing so privately each day and if you have any intentions that you wish me to pray for, please call the office and leave a message (416-534-4219). I will happily remember all intentions at Mass each day.
As we continue to face the uncertainties of the COVID 19 pandemic, today’s Gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus reminds us how Jesus strengthened His disciples with this experience so that they might face the tribulations ahead of them as He would be arrested and crucified in Jerusalem. This same Jesus strengthens us in the Eucharist, and His promise that through baptism He will be with us throughout time. As this Lent offers us a privileged season of grace to reflect on all that Jesus did to save us, we are invited to be aware that His love will never fail us. Given all that God has done to save us, what can we fear?
May this season of Lent help all of us to take to heart Paul’s beautiful words from the Letter to the Romans: “Brothers and sisters: If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will He not with Him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8: 31).
Blessings in this Lenten season!
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario.
This reflection based on the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent— Year B: Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31b-35, 37: and Mark 9: 2-10.