Transfiguration is a big word. Big words seem to intimidate us and so obscure the meaning of what is being communicated. So, it is important for us to realize that nowhere in today’s Gospel do we encounter the word transfiguration. Instead, we hear that Jesus "took Peter, John, and James… up the mountain to pray" and "while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white" (Lk. 9:28b-29). Transfiguration means nothing other than being changed. The change God seeks to bring about in us through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is not just in appearance, it goes far deeper, as St. Paul indicates in our second reading when he writes that Christ "will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself" (Phil. 3:21).
This leads us to ask the question, what is the power that enables the Lord to subject all things to himself? Is it the power of almighty God to bend all things to his holy will by hook or by crook? If Jesus is the revelation of God, we can automatically rule out that answer, not because God is not all-powerful- omnipotent, to use another big word- but that Jesus never does that, ever! The power that enables Jesus Christ to subject all things to himself, which is the power that created and redeemed the world, and is now at work conforming our lowly bodies with his glorified body, is love, which is given as grace, a free gift to all who accept it.
It is clear from St. Luke’s account that the three disciples were not sure what they experienced. This is different from not knowing what they had seen. They saw Jesus’ appearance change, his clothes become dazzling white, and they saw Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the prophets, respectively. Their response was silence, as was Abram’s. In both instances perception is enhanced by the obscuring of their senses. Abram, Peter, John, and James knew what they had seen and what they had heard, but it was only in the silence of their hearts and through subsequent experience that they came to understand what it meant.
We talk about Lent as a time of baptismal renewal in preparation for Easter because it was through our baptism that Christ began his work in us, conforming us to himself. What happens in baptism? Well, like Abram’s encounter with God and the disciples witnessing Jesus’ changing in appearance and his conversing with Moses and Elijah, more than we could ever say, write, think, feel, or paint. When we bless water to use for baptism, the celebrant prays that "all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism [may] rise also with him to newness of life" (RCIA, par. 311). Death, then, is how Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, changes our lowly bodies "to conform with his glorified body." The first and most obvious effect of our dying, being buried, and rising to new life in baptism is that we become members of Christ’s body, the church.
It is by passing through death to new life that Christ conforms us to himself. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday by being marked with ashes in the shape of the cross with the words, "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." These words were spoken by God in Genesis to our first parents after they were disobedient (3:19). Earlier in Genesis, God breathed life into the creature fashioned from the elements of the earth, in Christ Jesus, God gives us his Word, his very breath, which is not only life-giving, but the source of life! Indeed, cruciform is the shape anyone’s life takes who truly follows Christ.
Lent is about dying to ourselves, mortifying, that is, killing our sinful behaviors through penitential practices, which is how we cooperate with God, expressing our desire for that change he is bringing about in us, making us ever more who we already are, who we are created to be, which is not someone else, but our true self. We must not forget that Lent isn't an exercise in negativity. It is not a time, as Resurrectionist Fr. Harry Williams put in an Ash Wednesday homily many years ago, "to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are." Jesus Christ is not only proof that God loves us, he shows us how much God loves us. Hence, the means we use during Lent to willingly conform ourselves more to the Lord are all positive: prayer, fasting, and intentionally performing acts of charity daily and doing none of these things ostentatiously.
In thinking of death we must not evade the fact that someday we will die. Death, as philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, is the horizon against which we, as human beings, live our lives. This is captured well by the Latin phrase memento mori, which means remember death. The use of this phrase, appropriated by long ago Christians, pre-dates Christianity and is said to have been whispered in the ear of conquering Roman generals by a slave as the conqueror rode his chariot through Rome in a parade celebrating his conquest. So, my dear friends in Christ, let us gently remind ourselves and each other over the course of this Lent that we are, indeed, ashes and dust, but let us do so with an eye toward Easter and with the understanding that, in and through Christ Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, God accomplishes great things working with these materials, like bringing life from death because God is love and love is stronger than death.