A Season of Holiness

Once again it is the responsorial psalm that sets the tone for the readings proclaimed this Sunday. The “kindness” referred to here is the covenant love that binds God to covenant partners. This lovingkindness is the basis of God’s compassion and generosity. God cares for those in need, and so “our soul waits for the Lord, who is our help and our shield.” Examples of this divine kindness appear in today’s readings.

The first reading gives an account of the call of Abram. For no other reason than that God loved humankind, Abram was chosen to be the progenitor of a great nation. Not only would God bless Abram and his descendants, but all other peoples of the world would be blessed through Abram. This story reveals the unexplainable graciousness of God.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul heralds God’s goodness. He declares that God “saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works, but according to [God’s] own design.” Again we see that the goodness that God shows is not a reward for righteous living. We have done nothing to deserve it. It is a free gift from God. Rather than compensation for righteous living, this good gift is itself the impetus for conversion and change of life.

Paul takes a further step in his teaching when he insists that this grace was there for humankind even before time began. It is only “now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus.” From the beginning God was caring for human beings, ready to pick them up when they fell, to care for them when they were in need, to offer them life in the face of death.

When we turn to the Gospel, we wonder just what happened on that mountain. The scene described is quite dramatic. Jesus seems to have been taken into another realm, a realm of light and brilliance, and he converses with men long dead. What does this mean? Moses and Elijah represent respectively the Law and the prophets, the fundamental religious tradition of ancient Israel. Their association with Jesus confirms his authority and gives his teaching legitimacy. The brilliance of Jesus’ transfiguration signifies that this is a religious moment, a manifestation of God. It is no wonder that Peter wanted the moment to last.

But the real moment of revelation was yet to take place. The apostles may have been transfixed by the change in Jesus, but it was the revelation from heaven that was more than they could bear. The voice from the cloud identifies Jesus as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In reality it is God who legitimizes Jesus, not Moses and Elijah. God not only affirms Jesus’ teaching (“listen to him”), but identifies the intimate bond that joins them.

At first glance, nothing in the readings for today suggests Lent and the penance that we associate with that season. They do, however, offer us glimpses of the kindness that God extends despite our unworthiness. Such glimpses make us want to repent of our sinfulness and change our lives. We may wish to stay on the mountain and enjoy the experience of God, as the apostles did. But, as Paul maintains, God has “called us to a holy life.” It is not easy to leave our old life, as Abram did, and venture out into unknown terrain. But that is what we are asked to do.

As children we were taught that Lent meant that we should “give up” candy or movies, that we should “do penance,” say certain prayers or “make the Way of the Cross.” But Lent is more than a time for subtracting or adding. It calls us to look first at what God has done and continues to do for us. Out of love for us, God “called us to a holy life”; out of love for us, Jesus “destroyed death and brought life and immortality”; out of love for us, God gave us his beloved Son that we might “listen to him.” Responding to God’s lovingkindness will require some kind of transformation in all of us. Hence penance enters the picture. We may have to give up much more than candy or movies; we may have to travel a real way of the cross. But we will accept these challenges in response to God’s goodness, not as a sign of ours.

The Gospel narrative ends with Jesus charging his apostles to tell no one of the experience until he has been raised from the dead. Between the transfiguration that occurred on the mountain and Jesus’ ultimate transformation at resurrection is life in the real world. It is a life of struggle and frustration, not unlike ours. It is a life of fidelity in the face of challenge, a life that models the “holy life” to which we have been called. Lent is an opportunity to respond to that call.

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