Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Transfiguration to Lent

The Last Epiphany is always about Transfiguration. The Church will not let us enter Lent without first seeing Jesus in all his glory, if we can in fact see and understand glory. As Peter suggests in the tale, understanding the truth of glory is easier said than done.

So every year I ponder glory and I ponder Lent, but I never know if I get it right, or if, like Peter, I am building my own booth around God. I suspect that the Church wants me to see light as the doorway into Lent, because Christians over the ages have tended to be too unhappy. Make no mistake. The Cross traumatized Europe. In such a spirit, therefore, it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in mortification and penance during Lent, in giving up the thing that brings me comfort at the end of a long day’s work as if in so doing I might bargain with God. What ends up happening is that I simply feel constant nagging guilt over the small and daily failures of being human. So up there on the mountain, Jesus whispers to me, “Lent isn’t about death. Lent, like Advent, is a time of preparation for Life. It’s just a different kind of life than baby life.” I read that sort of thing in the Lenten writings, too. “Lent isn’t about giving up bad habits,” says this year’s pamphlet, “it’s about taking up good ones: prayer, charity, delight in God.” You don’t know how badly I wish to believe this! But no matter what I may think today, on Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday will arrive tomorrow, and then I will go into the desert with Jesus on the First Sunday of Lent and will be faced with all that I cannot do. Jesus does not fast for 20 hours as I do on Ash Wednesday, but for 40 WHOLE DAYS, all the while resisting the temptations of Satan who is trying to give him a lovely home in Belvedere, a custom built world saving hybrid, an unlimited travel account and the ability to set up enough charities to achieve all eight Millennium Development Goals. Next to this, I look pretty pathetic. No one has ever wanted to tempt me with all the kingdoms of the earth.

So I try harder. It’s the American Way. Be all that you can be. Isn’t unlimited potential the obligation of all of us who live in a Free Country? Isn’t Lent about my unlimited potential to get better?

I never make it through Lent in one piece. I always turn up on Good Friday like some poor salmon, bruised and bleeding, scraping against the rocks of my own ignorance and saying “I surivived just enough to get here. Now let’s just get it over with.”

And thus I reveal my shocking ignorance of God in my very own words. “Now let’s just get it over with.” The point is that there is nothing to get over. Life is forever, sweety, and it’s good pre partum care to behave as if you know it. Lent is not about giving up chocolate or meat or alcohol or coffee or hot baths, nor is it about self-improvement. Healthy living is a good thing, but it is not the meaning of Lent. Lent is not about giving up, it is about letting go, and yes, giving up is different than letting go. I control what I give up. When I let go, on the other hand, I give it all into God's hands.

Which is why Lent, with its practice for eternal life, makes no sense at all unless the final revelation going into it is Transfiguration. If I don’t understand the mystery of Transfiguration, says the Church year in and year out, I cannot understand the task of Lent. Every year, therefore, I try to understand Transfiguration. If you have ever heard me preach about it, you’ll know that it’s one of the hardest of all teachings for me to get.

Transfiguration is one of those moments in our sacred story for which there is no explanation. Jesus begins to glow and Moses and Elijah appear beside him. I suppose one could call it hallucinatory suggestion, but that is just as beside the point as Peter’s offer to build sukkahs for the whole gathering. To answer as did Peter is like responding to the glory of God by opening a shopping mall. Transfiguration sits outside our common experience. At his Transfiguration, Jesus is doing nothing less and nothing more than giving his disciples a glimpse of the world beyond. He is parting the curtains of human sensory limitation and showing us Truth. For all its horror, the Crucifixion is nothing more than a particularly painful birth. No one is lost. To have experienced Transfiguration is to find the courage to get on with life. It is to find freedom. It is to stand before Pontius Pilate, and when he asks, "What is truth?" to pity all that "power" does not know.

And that is how, this year, I will begin my Lent. I will begin a dizzy descent from the mountain. I will begin to look, not for the achievements of mortification, but the truth that will set me free.

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