Every year on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church offers for us the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mt. Tabor. At first glance, it might not be entirely clear why the Church gives such importance to this event during our Lenten journey. In fact, the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated officially in the Church’s calendar on August 6, so the question may arise as to why it is repeated in Lent. The short answer is that the custom of reading today’s Gospel near the beginning of Lent may have come from the ancient tradition which held that the Transfiguration of Jesus took place forty days before Good Friday. But that only raises another question: why did the Transfiguration take place forty days before Christ’s suffering and death? To answer that question, we can reflect briefly on how it is that we approach our reading of the Bible.
The Sunday readings are connected to one another, particularly the first reading and the Gospel. A helpful point to consider when looking at a passage is to examine what is happening immediately before and after a passage so as to better understand the context of that passage. In the case of our Gospel reading, understanding the context is essential to seeing why this passage is so appropriate at this point in Lent. In the verses just prior to the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus shared with His disciples the first prediction of the Passion that He would undergo in Jerusalem. This prediction was received with disbelief, as we hear Peter when he rebukes Jesus, saying: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). This response indicates a weakness on the part of Peter and the disciples to understanding the path that would ultimately lead to the redemption. Aware of the weakness of His disciples, Jesus decides to take three of them to the top of Mt. Tabor to show them His glory and to strengthen the hearts of His disciples with a view to His coming Passion.
The importance of the Transfiguration during Lent is best understood when it’s considered in the context of the Cross that lies ahead in the journey. The event of the Transfiguration also offers an image of not only our Lenten journey, but of our entire lives while we are here on this earth. Life involves a series of ups and downs as we encounter various joys and sorrows.
As with the disciples at the Transfiguration, the Cross is the central reference point for all of the events of our lives, both the good and the bad. For the disciples, the cross was a sign of scandal, a sign of failure. When confronted by it at the Passion, all but a select few fled. Even though the Lord had prepared them for His Passion, when they experienced it, it was too much for them, for they had not yet fully believed that the Cross would lead to the Resurrection. The Lord blesses us with times of peace and joy, times where we are especially mindful of His love and concern for us, His children. These moments of joy help to serve as reference points of encouragement when we face times of difficulty and suffering, assisting us to not give up in the face of setbacks.
We who now live in the time following the Lord’s victory over death in the Resurrection have the privilege of seeing the Cross in a different light, no longer seeing it as a symbol of failure, but rather, as the symbol of victory. Instead of being a shameful reminder of death and defeat, it is a source of encouragement to us as we continue to journey toward the Resurrection.
During Lent, we are invited to refocus our attention on the Cross, to see it as that sign of triumph. The gift of our faith helps us to see beyond the suffering depicted on the Cross and to focus on the glory of the Resurrection. In a very real way, looking upon the Cross serves the same purpose for us as the Transfiguration did for Peter, James, and John, to encourage us not to despair in our journey but to persevere in following the often difficult path that leads to our participation in the Resurrection.
There is an interesting story that helps to highlight the importance of the Cross for us as a constant reminder to not lose hope. In 1953, a British expedition led by Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary, set out to do the impossible: climb to the top of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. Before setting out on the expedition, a Catholic priest sent a small crucifix to Hunt, along with a letter which read:
“I would be deeply grateful if you would leave this little crucifix at the highest point your expedition reaches, if possible, at the summit itself. It will, I am sure, give you added courage and determination to face all the difficulties and dangers which lie ahead of you; at the same time, it will be seen by many as a symbol of God’s eventual triumph and the rededication of the world to his service.” Colonel Hunt was moved by the request and gladly took the crucifix, passing it on the Sir Edmund Hillary who, upon reaching the summit, buried the crucifix at the top of the world.
The short letter of the priest expresses well the significance of the Cross as being a source of courage and determination, precisely because it is the symbol of Christ’s triumph over suffering and death. This triumph is guaranteed to each of us who embrace the Cross daily, and follow the path marked out for us by the Lord.
As we continue our Lenten journey, let’s take some time to ponder the great power of the Cross and all that it means to us as Christians. May it be for us what the Transfiguration was to the disciples, a source of strength to not give up as we face the difficulties of climbing the mountain of Christian perfection. May all our joys and sorrows be seen in reference to the Cross, the symbol of victory and the promise to us that through it we, too, will come to share in the glory of the Resurrection.