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Second Sunday of Lent

March 20, 2011

Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes

It is centuries-old tradition that on the first Sunday of Lent, our forty-day communal retreat to prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal vows, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and that on the second Sunday we listen to the account of his transfiguration before several of his disciples. I suggested last week that, as the baptismal vows are prefaced by a threefold rejection of sin and evil, our preparation for those vows begins by considering Jesus’ threefold rejection of the core temptation: the denial of the intrinsic goodness of being a creature. Why, then, are we presented with the transfiguration story as the next step toward re-affirming our baptismal commitment at Easter?

Perhaps it is to direct our attention forward, to remind us of where we are going, and to assure us that Lenten penance will end in Easter joy. Certainly the splendor that is revealed to Peter, James and John in their vision on the mountaintop is a foretaste, a glimpse in advance of the glory of the resurrection. I think, however, that the wisdom of the tradition in focusing our attention on the transfiguration story at this early point in Lent may have something else to tell us, something directly related to our baptismal renewal.

Who or what changes on the mountaintop? The question may seem silly. Surely the account in the Gospel is clear: Jesus “was transfigured before them.” For a moment he is invested with the glory that the Father will give him at the resurrection. Jesus’ “figure,” his form or appearance, was changed for a time and then reverted to the condition familiar to the disciples. The Christian tradition, starting in the scriptures, has often spoken of Jesus’ story in terms of the Son’s putting aside or emptying himself of divine glory, humbling himself in humanity, and being endowed with or restored to his original glory in the resurrection, and the transfiguration account can be read in accord with this way of telling the story. But what if we shift our perspective and read the story in another way? What if we consider how Peter, James and John are changed? What if it is not Jesus who becomes different on the mountaintop but the three disciples and, by extension, the hearers and readers of the story? What changes is not the way Jesus is but the way the disciples see.  Peter, James and John do not suddenly see who Jesus will be and what he will become later but who and what he is now and always, as the voice from the cloud proclaims. They see what was always there but which they did not see before.

There is a hint of this change of perspective in the reading from 2 Timothy which precedes the transfiguration story at the Mass of the second Sunday of Lent. The reading speaks of “the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus.” Grace, God’s self-gift to all that exists, did not begin with coming of Christ. There was never a time when creation was not engraced; it was bestowed “before time began.” What is always and everywhere present, however, is not always and everywhere seen. Indeed, often what is always present is precisely what is overlooked and ignored. The passage from 2 Timothy maintains that grace was always present but became “manifest,” i.e., was embodied in such a clear and unmistakable way that, although it may be rejected, it cannot be overlooked, in the person and work of Christ. This principle that what is always and everywhere true must be embodied, incarnated, manifested in some concrete way in order to be acknowledged and accepted and celebrated is very, very deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition. It is the principle of sacramentality. 

In our tradition, of course, we recognize seven public communal sacraments. But all of us have our personal or familial sacraments which sometimes speak more powerfully to us than one or other of the seven public sacraments. For example, surely among the most fruitful and grace-filled sacraments for the vast majority of people are their children. I offer as a brief descriptive definition of “sacrament” in this broad but deeply traditional sense that any person, place, thing, or event, any sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch that causes us to perceive the deep grace at the roots of all creation is a sacrament. The grace is always there but not always noticed. A sacrament is whatever causes us to see, embrace and give thanks for the self-giving of God which undergirds everything that exists. I have long thought that we owe the most beautiful statement of this sacramental principle in the English language to the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting.”

What happened to Peter, James and John atop the mountain is that they begin to see sacramentally. They see Jesus as he truly and deeply is. The story is at least as much about the disciples’ changed way of seeing as Jesus’ changed way of appearing. And that may be why the transfiguration story is traditionally read on the second Sunday in Lent. As we prepare to renew our acceptance of and commitment to the sacramental event which introduced us (many of us even as infants) into the transfigured world that Christ embodied and revealed, we are reminded that grace, the self-giving love of God, is all around us and within us at all times. The whole of Catholic life in worship, in action, in reflection, individually and communally, is an immense formation program designed to produce sacramental beholders. If we are prepared to see sacramentally, we are ready to go where Lent will take us next.

Alumni Responses to Second Sunday's Reflection

Rita ‘01 — Engraced by God, as you state Fr. Himes, it is no wonder that we survive through our feeble humanness. Just like the three amid the transfiguration, we have Christ in our midst but cannot or refuse to see that in our own reflection He is manifest, and even more so in the neighbor not recognized, the lonely stranger, and/or the foreigner. I appreciate your reminder that  through our baptism we have the lenses to truly see Christ in self and in others thus prompting us to move forward together through the remainder of Lent and onto the glory of Easter.

Rosemary Sullivan, MA‘81 — Thank you once again Fr. Himes for reminding us again of our creatureliness. I have been reflecting on this since I heard you speak at the Conference on Aging last year. It has enabled me more, not always,  to stop and reflect and quiet the thoughts that would take away His peace. My dependence on  God is total but I do know but I also forget that. When I remember, in the midst of not so peaceful activity/anxiety of the mind/body, that I am HIS Creature and that He knows me in all my failings and goodness, it helps me to free myself from the tyranny of my own mind and I hope will contribute to greater humility on my part. I love being His creature and I want to walk through the world with that in mind. Thank you so much.

Cathy — It is so easy to look around us to see change: our job, spouse, health, neighborhood, the weather, the world all change. Thanks to Fr. Himes for reminding us to look within ourselves to see the movement of God and the superabundance of grace in all situations of our life.

Fran — I think that is what Jesus was telling us over and over again about the blind not seeing. It is that blindness that allows us to ignore all the wonders of creation and of grace that are really present when our eyes are opened. We have too often been “looking” but not really “seeing.” It is almost as if we have cataracts  which removed really literally let us see through what we missed before and everything becomes extraordinarily clear. So this happens in contemplative prayer. Thank you for the insight.

Sandra ‘09 — In today’s reflection, you are reminding us of our internal and external transformation as we journey especially through Lent, and also when we are called to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Thank you, Rev. Himes, for your words.

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