Each year on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel reading concerns the transfiguration of Jesus. With the presence of Moses and Elijah, the transfiguration narrative reminds us that what we commemorate during Lent is part of the history of our salvation. The transfiguration also anticipates or previews the glory and splendor of Jesus at Easter and beyond, as well as our own hopes for holiness and eternal life. Thus it leads us to look backward and forward.
In the Bible the history of our salvation begins with the call of Abraham (Genesis 12). After Adams sin, Cains murder of Abel, the flood and the Tower of Babel, the call of Abraham marks a fresh start and the birth of the people of God. Speaking directly to Abraham, God promises to form him into a great nation, to make his name great and to bless him and his descendants.
The transfiguration narrative introduces two more great figures in salvation history, Moses and Elijah. Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt, received the Torah on Mount Sinai and brought Gods people to the edge of the promised land. Elijah, the great prophet in northern Israel during the ninth century B.C., performed healings and other miracles and stood up to Israels external enemies and the wicked within Israel. Their presence in Matthews transfiguration account emphasizes Jesus continuity with the Law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) in salvation history.
The word transfiguration refers to a change of form or shape. The Greek word for this is metamorphosis. At the end of Matthews account Jesus describes the event as a vision. On a mountain somewhere in Galilee the disciples experience the transfiguration, or metamorphosis, of Jesus. His face dazzles like the sun; his clothes become radiant with light. The disciples are given a preview of the glorious figure Jesus will soon become at Easter and beyond. Their experience reaches its climax with an interpretation given by a voice from a cloud (a symbol of the divine presence): This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him. These are the same words used to identify Jesus after his baptism by John. They mark him as Gods son and servant, as well as the authoritative teacher.
Reading about Jesus transfiguration early in Lent reminds us that Lent moves inexorably toward Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. In order to observe Lent properly we need to remember that the central mysteries of Jesus death and resurrection give Lent its meaning and direction. The transfiguration reminds us that the way of the cross leads to resurrection and eternal life, and that the purpose of Lent is to help us better to enter into those mysteries.
The significance of the transfiguration in our lives is captured very well by todays selection from 2 Timothy. The Pauline writer prefaces what was very likely an early summary of Christian faith with a call to bear your share of hardship for the Gospel. He goes on to recall that God has saved us and called us to a holy lifein Christ Jesus. The theological word for this is sanctification.
In the biblical context holiness is primarily an attribute or property of God; God is the holy one par excellence. Persons and things are holy by virtue of their relationship or contact with God. All holiness is a reflection and extension of Gods holiness. One of the titles applied to Jesus in the New Testament is the Holy One of God. This theme is present in the transfiguration story, which highlights the brilliance of Jesus and identifies him as Gods beloved Son. As the Holy One of God, Jesus makes manifest the holiness of God the Holy One.
This way of talking about Jesus is present in the early Christian profession of faith quoted in 2 Timothy. In Christ Jesus our savior, the grace of God has been made manifest, and he is the one who has brought life and immortality to light. We can become holy by listening to him as the voice from the cloud recommends. We listen to Jesus when we take seriously and act upon his wise teachings, when we follow his example in bringing healing and compassion to those in need and when we try to remain faithful in the face of the sufferings that may come into our lives. The transfiguration of Jesus makes us look backward over the sweep of salvation history and forward to our own resurrection and eternal life with God.