Sermon on the second Sunday of Lent

by a Dominican friar

“After six days, Jesus taketh unto Peter and James and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart.”

What was the purpose of the Transfiguration? St Leo the Great, the pope of the fifth century who defended the doctrine of the Incarnation perhaps more vigorously than any other pope or bishop before or since, tells us that it was to take from the hearts of the apostles the scandal of the Cross. What does this mean? When the apostles saw Our Lord silent and apparently helpless before His enemies, they would be tempted to lose faith in Him, even though He had foretold everything that would happen. He wished therefore to fortify the three principal apostles in advance, by giving them this sight of His glory. Much later, St John, one of the three, would refer to this event in the prologue to his gospel, which is read at the end of Mass. “We saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only-begotten of the Father.” On the Mount of the Transfiguration, Jesus allowed the glory of His divinity to shine through His human soul, and so into His body, and even onto His garments themselves.  

He did not take all the apostles with Him. An event so sacred deserved to be set apart. He took Peter, because Peter would later take Our Lord’s place in the midst of the apostles; James, who was to be the first martyr of the twelve; and John, the virgin apostle who would outlive all the others, speaking for some seventy years of what he had seen on the mountain. To these three were joined Moses and Elias. Why them, among so many great saints of the Old Testament? Perhaps because they had been so zealous for the honour of the God of Israel: Moses, who broke the two tablets of the Law at the foot of Mount Sinai, when he saw the Israelites dancing around the golden calf, and Elias who was able to say to God Himself, “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts.” Their appearance on Mount Thabor at the Transfiguration was both a reward for their zeal and a vindication of Christ, against those Jews who said that He was detracting from the honour due to God. They came, these two saints, from hidden places, known to God alone: for of Moses, the Old Testament tells us that no man knew where his body had been buried, while Elias was taken up from the earth still living, in a chariot of fire. They also seem to represent the past and the future: for Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt when they first became a people, fifteen centuries before; and Elias “shall come and restore all things” before the end.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated by the Church in August, on the sixth day of the month. That is also, as it happens, the date of St Dominic’s passing out of the world. But the gospel is read also in Lent, since, as we have seen, the transfiguration was a way for the apostles to be prepared for the Passion. St Luke tells us that when Moses and Elias spoke to Our Lord, they conversed about the departure that he should accomplish in Jerusalem. The word used by the evangelist for “departure” here is exodus. Moses knew that his own exodus from Egypt at the head of the people had been a foreshadowing of our Lord’s departure from this world with the souls whom He had ransomed from the Limbo of the Fathers; Elias knew that his miraculous departure from earth in the chariot of fire was an image of Christ’s passage from this world to the Father in the power of the Holy Ghost.

But there is another reason why this gospel is read in Lent. It describes what Lent can be for us. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and “bringeth them up into a high mountain apart”. He invites us during Lent to a greater separation from the world, from both its pleasures and its cares. He invites us to make time for prayer and some spiritual reading, and so to grow in the theological virtues: the spiritual interpreters of the gospel tell us that these three apostles represent, respectively, faith, hope and charity – Peter, the first to confess the faith in the incarnation, James, whose hope for heaven brought him first to martyrdom, and John, the disciple whom Our Lord loved with a love of predilection. And the presence of Moses and Elias reminds us that He has power over both what is past and what is to come, lest we should be weighed down by thoughts either of past sins or of future problems.

You will say to me perhaps, “We are not likely to have a vision of Christ in glory, this Lent, even if we say our prayers and do our penances.” It is true that we cannot expect a miracle like that of Thabor, not granted even to nine of the college of apostles. And yet, He is present to us, and present in His glory. Every Catholic church is a Mount Thabor, with the tabernacle as its summit. He is there in the Holy Eucharist, where His eucharistic Face is shining as the sun. We do not see Him with the eyes of the body, because the appearances or accidents of the host, like the bright cloud which covered the apostles, conceal Him from our gaze. Yet we are as close to Him as they were, and closer still, when we receive Him in Communion. Then, if we wish, we can imitate Elias and Moses, and speak with Jesus Christ about the exodus which He accomplished in Jerusalem, in gratitude for the death that He endured.

Finally, St Peter on the mountain cried out, as if in an ecstasy, “It is good for us to be here.” He was not wrong: it was good for them to be there. Even though he could not stay, as he wished, neither he nor the other two apostles ever forgot what they had seen. He wrote of it just before he died, recalling how they had heard the voice of God the Father coming down from heaven, as they lay flat on the ground. And although we may not all be able to remain a long time in Christ’s real, eucharistic presence, the time that we spend there in faith will change our souls. To spend time before the Blessed Sacrament is to practice for heaven; therefore, let us seize whatever opportunities we may have.