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.
In our Lenten journey, and indeed in the whole of our life, it is the revealed glory of the Lord that gives us hope; meditating on the radiant splendour of Almighty God and the gift of eternal life in his presence, the Christian is necessarily driven to a crisis when he must decide either to reject Christ or convert his life. The revelation of the Lord’s glory spurs us on to accept the sacrifice we must first undergo, and the liturgical year emphasizes this: if we did not know of the Lord’s nativity, how could we celebrate Advent? if we did not know of his victory over death, how could we keep a holy Lent? That pattern of contradiction, which is at the heart of the Christian life (dying that we might live) is not only a real and effective means of growing in our relationship with the Lord, but also a cycle that establishes deep within us practices and disciplines that lead us further into the loving heart of our God.
We might characterize all of this as something of a “carrot and stick” approach to the spiritual life. The glory of the Lord revealed to us on Mount Tabor, and the knowledge that we must “die to self” revealed to us in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, both entice us on toward the hope of heaven. And so we must ask where it is that we find these encouragements in our life here and now, that we may come to benefit from their fruits, receiving the strength that we need to bear the heavy burden of the cross, and thus enter more deeply into the life of redemption that awaits us.
For this we must turn to our reading from the Book of Genesis. The account of the transfiguration is paired with that of the testing of Abraham, who is bid by the Lord: ‘Take your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go offer him as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’ (Gen. 22: 2). The sacrifice of his son which Abraham offers, and which we recall in every Mass, is favourable in the sight of the Lord God, who declares: ‘your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies’ (Gen. 22: 17). Through the sacrifice of Christ—the Lamb that takes the place of ransomed Isaac; the Son that takes the place of the son of Abraham—we share in that inheritance of Abraham’s line as those who rejoice in the ministry of the successor of Saint Peter to whom Christ said, ‘on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Mt. 16: 18).
It is in our sacrificial offering, then, that these realities are presented to us anew. The perfect glory of the Lord revealed in the transfiguration and the perfect sacrifice of Christ, prefigured in the offering of Abraham, are intertwined in the august and holy sacrifice of the Mass. The altar of our church becomes our own ‘high place’ where, moved by the Holy Spirit, we offer to God the Father the most perfect sacrifice of his only-begotten Son. The altar is our own Mount Tabor, where the glory of the Lord is shown to us as the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back and the full splendour of God’s presence revealed. It is for this reason that the Priest prepares for his ascent to the altar with the words of the psalmist: ‘bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling, that I may go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness’ (Ps. 43).
So it is in the gift of the Most Holy Eucharist that we find, as it were, both the carrot and stick; the glory and the cross. Our worship here in earth is a temporal participation in the eternal adoration of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity: God the Son offering himself to God the Father in God the Holy Spirit. Thus our incorporation into the life of Christ, and our offering of right worship in the Mass is at once a witness to us of the sacrifice and the prize. As we gaze on the cross we see not only the death of the Lord—a death which we must also surely undergo—but also the fruits of that sacrifice in the eternal worship of the heavenly realm.
In these days of Lent, then, let us keep our eyes resolutely on the cross; not as an end in itself, but that through it we may see the glory of the Lord which is revealed to us as that tree of death is transformed into the tree of everlasting life. And let us redouble our efforts to enter with profound reverence the contradiction of the life-giving sacrifice of the Lord’s cross, which is re-presented for us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. May we recognize our utter dependency on this divine gift, which feeds us and strengthens us for the work of our sanctification. And may we seek to embrace more fully that sacrifice in our lives, that being drawn closer and closer to the passion and death of the Lord—to this cross—we might come to share also in his glory.
I have chosen the above photograph of the high altar of Rolduc Abbey for a number of reasons. Not only does it depict the three sacrifices – Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and Melchisedech – mentioned in the ancient Roman canon, but the veil around the cross and the curtains around the altar itself are symbolic of the ideas discussed in this sermon. More photos of the abbey can be found here.