Each year the last Sunday before Lent commemorates the strange episode in the synoptic Gospels where Jesus is transfigured before his disciples, and they get a glimpse of his glory. This Sunday I preached about the transfiguration and the logic of apostolicity: how the vision of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ drives us out on mission. After church someone mentioned that throughout his entire Christian upbringing he’d never heard a single sermon on the transfiguration. I don’t know whether this is a peculiarity of his upbringing, or if it’s indicative of a general trend within low church Protestant/Evangelical churches, but as I think about it, I think that the transfiguration also serves to explain another facet of the church’s life that may be foreign in low church/Evangelical environments: the season of Lent.
I remember, early in my pastoral ministry, trying to introduce my (ostensibly Baptist) congregation to the practices of Lent. I was excoriated for organizing an Ash Wednesday service, which was deemed “weird” and “catholic.” And I heard frequent comments about how silly it was to think that we could impress God by giving up chocolate and the like for forty days. At the time, this was frustrating and painful, though now I realize that it’s fair enough. Lent was foreign to that tradition, and so it didn’t make sense to people who’s theological imaginations had been differently formed. I bring it up because I think it shows a common enough response to the idea of Lent with its disciplines and fasting.
But the transfiguration gives us a window into the “why” of Lent. The transfiguration occurs just after Jesus first predicts his coming suffering and death. The road he is on, on which he is leading his disciples, leads to the cross. The transfiguration occurs at this crucial juncture, as a preview of Christ’s resurrected glory. It shows that though this road leads to the cross, at its end is a gloriously transformed existence. In the same way, our journey through the wilderness of Lent leads to the darkness of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday, but its end is the glory of Easter.
The transfiguration is not just about something that happened to Jesus. It shows the destiny of the human nature: to be radiant with the glory of God. This is the existence to which we are called, which has been made our future by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our Lenten discipline is not to impress God (trust me, he’s not impressed). Instead, as we discipline ourselves—whether it’s by removing distractions or by engaging in positive practices of prayer and service—we are focusing ourselves upon Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), and training ourselves for the life to come,transformed from one degree of glory to another. Lent is not about what we’re going to do for God, but what we’re going to put ourselves in a position for God to do for us.
This Wednesday, we’ll gather, corporately repent of our sins, and be reminded of our own mortality. From the greatest to the least of us, we’ll have dirt smeared on our foreheads and be told that we are going to die. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.
But just as the transfiguration came before Jesus’s suffering and death, it also comes before our Lenten journey, reminding us that the outcome of our discipline is a weight of glory beyond all comparison; not because we’re somehow scoring points with God, but because we are journeying in fellowship with Jesus who suffered, died, and was raised for us and for our salvation.