In seminary, when I was being taught some methods on how to pray, one of them involved the use of the senses. The idea was to apply your senses to the scene from the Gospel you were reading. I was doing that in preparing to speak to you today and it struck me how, using the sense of sight, we will be seeing many different and striking faces of Jesus over Lent and Easter. Last week, the picture was one of a guant and pale-faced Jesus, hungry after 40 days’ fasting, assailed on all sides by Satan. This week, it is a picture of blazing immortality on that same face, affecting even his clothes, and surrounded by Moses, Elijah and the Cloud and Voice of the Father. In the coming Sundays, we will see him in a one-to-one dialogue with the Samaritan woman and then with the man born blind. We will see him questioning Martha and Mary about their faith and calling Lazarus from the tomb. We will see him in humble majesty on the donkey, bloodied and bruised on the Cross and then risen from the dead.
You can’t but be struck by how all these various pictures of Jesus bear out now his true humanity, now his true divinity. Of them all, it is the Transfiguration which is the most glorious. His divinity emerges in his body like the light gradually growing brighter in one of those light bulbs you can gradually switch on. And it is done as a gift for the eyes of Peter, James and John. Jesus is giving them advance vision of his eternal glory, advance consolation you might say, to strengthen them for the experience of the Cross. A glimpse of heaven before the hell of Calvary. And as if to say to them that they need not only depend on his word for it, Jesus is confirmed in his divinity by the voice of the Father and by the presence of Moses and Elijah. Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the greatest prophet, give testimony to who Jesus really is. Each is saying: the law is fulfilled in you, all prophecy is fulfilled in you. Interestingly, they speak to Jesus, but the Father speaks to the three apostles, as if to say, “don’t just listen to the law and prophets or even just to Jesus because he says you should. Listen to him because I say so.” The voice of the Father literally put the fear of God into them and snapped them out of their dreamy desire to stay safe on the mountain with Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
I suppose you could say that the Transfiguration was given to Jesus as a boost to help him on his way to his Passion. But the text of the Gospel shows rather that it was given to prevent the Apostles from falling away when faced with the scandal of the Cross. It tells them that the law, the prophets and God the Father all know that the Cross is the purpose of Jesus’ life. The Cross is where God’s glory will truly shine forth, the glory of love, the glory of the victory over sin, death and hell. The Cross is ablaze with the glory of God.
By implication, the Father is also saying to us that our lives too will only find their purpose in listening to Jesus and in being drawn to the Cross of Jesus. Only through that will we come to the blazing glory of Jesus. Truly to listen to Jesus is to learn the wisdom of the Cross, it is to find our deepest selves attracted to him. On the Cross, Jesus is at his most vulnerable and so at his most attractive. His heart is at its fullest, its most tender, its most merciful, its most compassionate. “I thirst”, he says. Yes, he thirsts, for our faith in him, for us to listen to him and to receive the fullness of truth, love, forgiveness and peace in Him.
To be drawn to the Crucified will mean being drawn away from what holds us back from him, from what is not worthy of the Cross, from what is not worthy of love, divine love. We are inclined to want the glory without the Cross. The Lord knows that and so he has given us the Transfiguration to boost our will and resolve, to attract us away from lesser loves, however legitimate, and from harmful ones.
But now that poses some tough questions.
Do I want the glory of Christ? Do I want the Cross? Do I want to pass from the sinful parts of me to his grace? Do I want the good that is in me to become even better? Questions like these have to form part of any serious spiritual life and they will involve a struggle. When we truly want something in life we work for it, we give it time, we even sacrifice other legitimate things to have this greater prize. When that something we want is true love, there is no question that we will stop at nothing to gain it. Many a man and many a woman has died in the search for love. And so the further question arises, and it is both serious and difficult: honestly, with all my cards on the table, is Jesus the greatest love of my life? Do I want him to be so? And if I say yes, do I really listen to Him as the Father bids me? Would someone look at me and say, “there is someone in love with Jesus Christ”?
These questions are not questions we can answer once and for all this side of eternity. They are companion questions that go with us throughout our lives. They constantly seek, not so much an answer, as to stir in us a growing desire to beanswered. Saint John of the Cross famously said that, “in the evening of life, we will be judged on love.” Said differently, “in the evening of life I will have to answer those questions before the glorious face of Christ.” In the meantime, the questions are a bit like the poker with which you poke the fire to stir it into a flame. They nurture our desire for Christ. At the end of each day, I can usefully ask myself, “How have I loved, or desired to love, Jesus today? Where have I felt him attract me to his Cross? To what words of his have I listened this day?”
It is good to make a conscious effort at some point in the day to consider what has been happening in your relationship with Christ. As I mentioned at the start, you can use at least a few of your senses as a guide. Where have I seen Christ today, where have I failed? Where have I heard Christ today, where have I failed? And so on. When it comes to taste, remember the words of the Psalm, “Your promise is sweet to my taste, Lord.” The word of God can be savoury, sweet or bitter to our spiritual taste. When it comes to smell, think of how we say colloquially, “that doesn’t smell right.” The odour of Christ would be those things you experience in your day which strike you as having been inspired by Christ in your own life or in the lives of others.
My friends, if the word Lent comes from lengthen, referring to the longer days in spring, it is a God-given call to spend more time getting to know and love the Lord Jesus. For, as he once said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Indeed, apart from him, we are nothing. By implication, with him we are everything and can do anything, and if our desire for his love has been true, then, in the evening of life, when our time comes to be judged, we will at last hopefully answer those questions with a resounding yes. And we will in turn, in our very flesh, be transfigured into the glory of Christ.