Our Lenten Transfiguration

The Transfiguration by Ludovico Carracci, c. 1594-95.

Our Lenten pilgrimage has only just begun. We have received ashes, symbol of repentance and renewal; and we have begun our ascetical program.

On the first Sunday of Lent the Church invited us to consider the Lord’s victory over Satan in the desert, and we were reminded that Christ is with us in all our temptations. Through Christ’s victory, our temptations become opportunities for greater self-awareness and growth in virtue.

But now on the second Sunday of Lent, the Church places before us something unexpected, a Gospel icon that challenges our penitential mood — glorious illumination, bright beauty, Christ transfigured:

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:1-3).

This manifestation of Christ’s divinity at the Transfiguration strengthened Peter, James and John through an experience of contemplative vision. It enabled them to endure what they would shortly witness in Jerusalem. They would soon become active participants in the betrayal, passion and death of Christ; and through these agonizing events they would confront their own inadequacies and need for healing.

For more than a thousand years the Church has insisted that we meditate on this Gospel at this early stage of our Lenten journey, so that we undertake all our Lenten practice in the beautiful light of Christ’s love for us. We contemplate His Transfiguration in anticipation of His glorious resurrection so that we, like the Apostles, may understand His suffering and passion as the mysterious revelation that Christ has transformed all human pain and suffering into paths of union with Himself.

Our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Churches insist that this icon of the transfiguration proclaims that contemplative vision is a channel of divine grace. St. Paul attests to this by using the Greek word for transfiguration (metamorphosis) to describe what happens within us when we direct our inward gaze towards our risen Lord:

“The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transfigured (metamorphoumetha)into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”(2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

The Eastern churches use the word “deification” (theosis) to describe the change that takes place within us when we gaze on the transfigured Christ, or meditate on the Word of God, or receive the Sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church invites us as Western Christians not to be afraid of this language, but rather to boldly recover this understanding as part of our own spiritual tradition. In Part III of the Catechism (under “Grace and Justification,” n. 1988), we read:

“Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ's Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself: ‘[God] gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature.... For this reason, those in whom the spirit dwells are divinized.’”

To Catholics this can seem strong, even misleading language, but the Catechism reminds us that St. Thomas Aquinas employed it (CCC, n. 460) and that it is part of our theology of baptism (CCC, n. 1999).

Lent is a season for change and renewal, but this Sunday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration should warn us that we make a serious mistake if we imagine that this holy season is primarily about our own ascetical efforts to transform ourselves. The Lenten journey that God will use to remake us more and more into the image of Christ is first of all about accepting what Christ has done for us.

Then, as the Holy Rule of St. Benedict reminds us, we may “open our eyes to the deifying light ... [so that] as we advance in this way of life and faith, our hearts open wide, and we run with unspeakable sweetness of love on the path of God’s commandments.” 

Benedictine Father Luke Dysinger is professor of bioethics, spirituality and history at St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, and a monk of St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo. This is the second in a series by the priests of St. John’s Seminary.


Easter and beyond

Anne Hansen

We move quickly from our major religious holidays each year. It’s not intentional. Life hurries along and as soon as the sun sets on one holiday the next is being touted by merchants looking to sell us whatever the next big day brings. To remain in the spirit of the religious holiday — in this case Easter — takes deliberate intention.

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April 25, 2015

  • Saturday, April 25

    Super Groovy 5K Run/Walk, 8 a.m., Woodley Park, 6350 Woodley Ave, Van Nuys. Sponsored by St. Euphrasia School, this year’s “Super Groovy” theme celebrates the school’s 50th anniversary of its founding in 1964 and serves as a tribute to that nostalgic era of peace and love — the 60’s. At the finish line, all runners and walkers will be puffed with clouds of psychodelic color. Registration $25-$40. For more information, contact Susie Sempelsz, (818) 488-1598. info@knights5k.org.

    5th Annual Car Show, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Junipero Serra High School, 14830 S Van Ness Ave., Gardena. Featuring classics, hot rods, and muscle cars as well as food, music, vendors and raffles. (310) 324-6675. la-serrahs.org.

    Challenge Weekend for Men, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and April 26, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Povorello Retreat House, 1519 Woodworth St., San Fernando. Presented by St. John Eudes and Our Lady of Grace Men’s Fellowships. Men will not board overnight; lunch is provided both days. $90 or donation. Register at knowingweekend.eventbrite.com. For more information, contact Fred Perez, (818) 749-5126.

    First Annual Sacred Heart High School Gala, 5 p.m., Los Angeles City College New Student Activities Center, 855 N Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Proceeds from the event, themed “United to Empower,” will benefit the Comet Scholarship Fund.

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