The Lenten Journey

Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10

Transfiguration-Perugino

If you single out almost anyone in the Bible – the Old or the New Testament – the chances are pretty good that the individual made a journey. Our ancestors, from the very beginning, were incredible travelers. And those Scriptural travelers have several things in common. By any standard they were, most of them, remarkably ill-prepared for their journeys, many were unwilling to set out on the trip in the first place, and all of them were transformed by the process of getting from here to there.

Being transformed by the journey – or at least being open to the possibility of transformation – is what sets travelers apart from tourists. It doesn’t make any difference how long a journey is, tourists will take their little world and all their prejudices with them – and although they may come home with a pile of pictures, they will come home exactly the same people they were when they set out.

It’s not that way with travelers. Travelers come home – IF they come home – different. We see this in each of the individuals we encounter in our readings today. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and St. Paul all took journeys that transformed them, and in each case their lives ended quite differently than they began.

That, of course, is the reason we encounter them in today’s readings. We set out on a journey a week or so ago, and throughout these forty days of Lent the Scriptures remind us that we cannot be mere tourists on this journey, we have to be travelers, and we have to be open to the possibility of being changed by the process of getting from here to Easter.

The distance is unimportant. What counts during Lent is not how far we go, but how deep. Once he grew up, Jesus never got more than eighty or ninety miles from home, but a lot happened along the way, and today St. Mark gives us a picture of what took place at one of the spots where he stopped. 

 Six days before they climbed the mountain in today’s gospel – this is in the section of Mark’s gospel right before the one we just heard – Jesus told his disciples that he must “suffer many things…be rejected by the elders and the chief priests…and be killed….” Then, for good measure, he adds, "If any man would come after me…let him take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

The disciples are often a dull-witted lot, but they can hardly miss the point that Jesus is talking about them. And were I one of them, this would be the time that I started to remember all the things I had to do to at home, and began inventing excuses for why I couldn’t possibly continue this journey – at least not now, and certainly not with Jesus. So Jesus leads us up the mountain, where he is transformed.

Transfiguration-Raphael

I’m fond of saying that we have the advantage of reading the Gospel after it happened, so we know how the story is going to end. And in case we miss the point, the preface of today’s Mass will make it very clear: “…after he told the disciples of his coming death, he manifested his glory, to show, by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.”

As I say, we know how this story is going to end, but the disciples didn’t have any idea. But seeing Moses and Elijah must have given them a clue, because Moses and Elijah set out on their travels, and no one ever knew where they ended up. These two travelers told the disciples – and they tell us – Jesus doesn’t invite us to join a tour during Lent; he challenges us to make a journey. And if today’s gospel can be believed, we won’t look quite the same when we reach our destination. 

That’s the reason we give up things during Lent. I used to wonder what the point was — after all, we’ll probably just go back to them after Easter. But then one day it dawned on me that Lent is a chance to learn. And, perhaps, to change. To learn the difference between what we need, and what we want. What’s really necessary, and what we can do without.  And so that we might have the opportunity to change, each year Jesus gives us forty days to die. To ourselves. Just a little.

I mentioned that in the Bible travelers are almost always ill-prepared for their journeys. Most of them set out with nothing more than their clothes – and our first parents, who were also the world’s first travelers, didn’t even have many of those. They did, however, have one another, so Lent also teaches us that this journey isn’t a solitary retreat, it’s the common pilgrimage of God’s people.

This is an important point, and it’s at least part of the reason Jesus took Peter, James and John with him when he climbed the Mount of the Transfiguration. The Scripture says the testimony of two or three is required to prove a charge, so Jesus invites three of his disciples to witness his glory.

Today’s gospel presents a remarkable picture: the great leaders of the Old Testament facing the great leaders of the New. Moses, who led the Israelites on their pilgrimage in the Old Testament looks out at Peter who will lead God’s people into the Promised Land of the New Covenant.

Peter is forbidden to erect tents because Christ has a far great building project in mind for him. Not three temporary tents on a hillside, but one eternal Church throughout the world. Built upon the events that took place on another hillside, with another temporary structure, the cross. 

The similarities between the mount of the Transfiguration and the mount of Calvary are unmistakable, and Calvary is the opposite of all the glory St. Mark describes today. Here Jesus calls his disciples to see him glorified; there Jesus is dragged by others so that his disciples can see him shamed. Today Christ’s garments are bathed in light; on Calvary Jesus is stripped of his garments and the world is plunged into darkness. On Calvary Jesus is crucified between two criminals; today he stands between two saints.

The point here is not merely literary. St. Mark wants us to see in Christ all the pain and all the anguish we humans have to endure – and at the same time, to see in Christ what we all long for, which is our humanity, transfigured into a state of hope and glory.

Lent is a time of pilgrimage, and a sign of the spiritual journey each of us is called to make throughout our lives. Travel may be easy these days, but “easy” is a relative term. No matter how far we go, we have to make choices, we have to be open to the possibility of change, and we have to be prepared to leave something behind. Everlasting life is free, but it isn’t cheap. 

This, of course, is the message of these forty days. They tell us that while we may want a great deal, we don’t really need very much. And they remind us that our future may hold more than we can possibly imagine – but at the cost of sacrificing some of our short-term dreams. And finally these days remind us that we have one another. Lent isn’t just about giving up, it’s a lot about looking in – and looking around.

--by Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.
March 1, 2015

 

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