The tradition of hearing the account of the transfiguration of the Lord on this second Sunday of the season of Lent is a venerable one. In the midst of the disciplines and penances of this sacred time, Christ comes to us in the words of the holy gospel to encourage us in our pilgrimage through the wilderness, journeying as we are from slavery to sin to the freedom of the promised land of our heavenly inheritance. By revealing his glory to his apostles, the Lord impresses on them the reality of his divine person that it might, as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it, “keep up their faith in that trying time, when the outward eye would see nothing in his person but weakness and humiliation”. As it is with the apostles preparing to witness the passion and death of Christ, so it is with us who draw closer and closer now to the unsettling events of Holy Week, when we will again become participants in the mystery of the Lord’s sacrifice.
Some weeks ago now, in the days following the feast of the Lord’s nativity, the Church celebrated the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. It is a surprising event because Christ, whose divine person is possessed of no sin, has no need of the sacramental washing that results from baptism; the effect which that sacred action has on us cannot have the same effect on him. Rather, the baptism of Christ does not sanctify him, but the water which we in turn receive, and which opens for us the portal of the sacred font as the way to our salvation. As Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes that by his baptism Christ buries the whole of the old Adam in the water, thus putting to death the sin of our first parents—the original sin of the Garden of Eden—and preparing for us a new and living way to be united with Almighty God for all eternity (Or 39, 14-16.20). So through baptism in Christ nothing remains in us to impede our entry into the heavenly kingdom (CCC 1263).
In his meditations on the liturgical year the saintly Bishop Richard Challoner recalls an important lesson found in the texts of today’s Mass. In the reading from the prophet Joel the Lord God calls us to conversion: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning; the ashes we receive are a sign of that—‘an emblem of contrition and humility’— and thus an exterior reminder of an interior disposition. To receive the ashes is to give expression to a spiritual reality which is presumed to exist in us; by bearing the mark of the ashes we affirm something that (at least in theory) is already present in our lives.
In her wisdom, however, the Church knows that we fall short of this ideal and so recalls us to the standard demanded of us by baptism through the stark character of this Lenten season. The ash we receive, which Bishop Challoner calls ‘a remembrance of our mortality, of our frail composition, and of our hasty return to our mother earth’, is a sign of the death we deserve; a reminder of the result of sin and the vacuum that exists by our rejection of the Lord’s grace. Yet we receive those ashes in the sign of the cross. They are a bitter warning, but by them is also revealed the means of our salvation. As the baptismal font is both the tomb of our death to sin and the place of our birth into eternal life, so by accepting these ashes as a memento mori we are enjoined to embrace that which itself kills sin and returns us to the Lord, and to the unending life he offers.
Through the sacramental cleansing of the waters of baptism the festering wound in our soul, the uncleanness caused by original sin, is healed, and we are restored to the life given to our first parents, Adam and Eve, before the fall. Those reborn by water and the Holy Spirit at the font are made new creatures, adopted children of God, partakers of the divine nature, members of Christ and co-heirs with him, temples of that same Holy Spirit (CCC 1265). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, through baptism nothing remains in us that impedes our entrance into heaven, the Kingdom of God (CCC 1263). And yet, as we know, the pure and spotless baptismal garment which is draped around the newly-baptized does not remain so for very long. Even though original sin is forgiven in baptism, we nevertheless remain subject to the consequences of the fall, and continue to struggle against our inclination to sin; choosing our way over that of the Lord. When we sin after baptism the relationship we share with God is attacked and is either wounded (by what we call venial sin) or destroyed (by what we call mortal sin, because it puts to death the bond with enjoy with God). Thus the disfiguration of our soul—the muddying of our baptismal robe, we might say—separates us from the spotless perfection of God.
One of the distinctive elements of our life in the personal ordinariates is the calendar which regulates our celebration of the liturgical year as a particular community within the wider Catholic Church. For the next three weeks will we differ from the celebrations in many diocesan parishes, where they continue with the Sundays of the year or Ordinary Time, and ourselves embark on the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesimatide. The apostolic constitution Anglicanorum cœtibus indicates that the liturgical books approved for our use by the Apostolic See are amongst the principal means by which legitimate elements of our Anglican patrimony are to be retained in the Catholic Church, both ‘as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared’ (AC III). As we begin this distinctive season, then, it is worth asking how this treasure might offer us (and, perhaps, others) that nourishment of faith, and so bring us to a deeper, more sincere knowledge of the mystery of our salvation in Christ.