Every 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel is always one of the accounts of the Transfiguration when Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and manifests to them his glory. In this experience, they get a clearer picture of who Jesus is as his divinity shines through. Why did Jesus do this? Just before the event of the Transfiguration in the Gospel, Jesus, for the first time, speaks about his passion and death – that he would be a Messiah who suffers. We know this was disconcerting to the disciples because it was then that Peter rebukes Jesus and says, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Then Jesus reproaches Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt. 16:22-23). Peter has his own ideas about Jesus and stops listening and stops following Jesus as soon as the path ahead seems not what he expected. “Get behind me” is another way of telling Peter to “follow me.” Jesus goes on to tell the disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). So the purpose of the Transfiguration is so the disciples experience that, if they let Jesus lead them, they will come to know who Jesus is and that the Passion or cross leads to the glory of the Resurrection. The experience of the Transfiguration is an anticipation of the Resurrection that prepares and strengthens the disciples to face the cross.
So, perhaps, the Church asks us to meditate on the Transfiguration the 2nd Sunday of Lent because, just over a week into Lent, we like the disciples, are off to a bad start. If you are like me, you have already fallen short. My “grand plan” for Lent – what I want to accomplish – what I want to do – what I have mapped out – is not working too well. The sacrifice and “taking up the cross” really is not that appealing. I find myself “renegotiating” a plan that is more “doable” for me. But here is the problem. Lent is not about what I can do or accomplish for God. The Transfiguration reminds us that Lent is about getting to know who Jesus is by letting him lead us – following him and, most of all, listening to him. In the midst of this experience, Peter, trying to be helpful, wants to build something – make three tents. He is babbling on when the voice of the Father cuts him off and says, “This is my beloved Son… listen to him.” Shut up, Peter. What you have to say is not that important. What you can build is not what matters. Your focus needs to be on Jesus. How much of our Lenten practices tend toward what we can do or give up or how many more prayers we can say – thinking that will make a difference? How much of what we do during Lent actually helps us to listen to Jesus and to focus on him and him alone? In order to listen better and to focus better on our relationship with Jesus, it helps to be quiet – to practice silence. Have we considered “fasting” from the radio, the television, video games, our news feed, Facebook, or devices or screens in order to give more time and mental space to a conversation with the Lord? Doing spiritual reading or a Bible study is not the same as listening. They can be helpful as a first step. But learning about Jesus or the scriptures is different than talking to Jesus – entering into prayer – having a conversation with God about one’s life and being open to what the Lord is revealing and calling us to through a dialogue with the scriptures. It is in these quiet conversations with the Lord – often when we intentionally take some time apart by ourselves with the Lord, that his light begins to shine through – that we see our life in his light. That’s when we begin to recognize his presence with us and his love for us. It is having this relationship with Jesus that makes all the difference when it comes to facing the cross. We have to think in personal terms – like a personal relationship – when it comes to our Lenten practices. Is what I’m doing helping me to know Jesus better and to recognize his presence in my life? Is what I’m doing opening me to his plan for me and his grace? Our own works will not save us. Our own strength is not enough when faced with the cross. St. Paul tells Timothy, “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus… made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus…” A transformation takes place in us – from fighting to following – from rebellion to openness – when we recognize his presence and begin to listen. Facing the cross is only possible with a personal relationship with Jesus. I’ve found this analogy helpful. If you were walking home and a total stranger came up to you and slapped you, how would you react? Most likely with anger or fear. It would be natural to take a defensive posture or even to strike back. But what if you walk into your home, and your mother slaps you? In that case, the response would be, “Mom, why did you slap me?” The slap is the same thing, materially, so why the different response? It is because of the relationship one has with one’s mother and the certainty that she loves you that you don’t hit her back but ask, “why?” Having a relationship with God – when we recognize his love in our life – allows us to rise and to not be afraid when getting hit by something unexpected or having to face pain and evil. The trial or cross becomes instead an opportunity for conversion, for purification of some sort, or for a deeper experience of prayer and dialogue with the Lord. The cross humbles us to continue following but in a different way. For many of us, Jesus is still a stranger. May this Lent be for us a time for real listening – listening to Jesus. Listening is how we get to know another person. It is a real sacrifice to listen – to give one’s attention to another. That is why it is so hard. But that is how one learns and grows – not merely in knowledge but in faith – the faith that will allow us to face the crosses in our life and be for us a foretaste of the Resurrection.