Imagine the scene. Jesus and the disciples have been pressing on in ministry for nearly three years. The demands have been great. Miracles have been performed, the sick healed, the dead raised, all under constant accusation and threat by the Jewish priestly class who are now conspiring to kill him. The crowd swell of followers has been growing, and just recently 5,000 were gathered on the hillside to be healed, not only by his touch, but by his words – words that preach love as the path to salvation – words that were a healing balm to a weary soul. Scripture tells us that on that quiet hillside, Jesus also fed all 5,000 with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Such scenes have become somewhat commonplace for this itinerant preacher and his band of travelers. It has been a lot, so it is no surprise that Jesus makes his way up the mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John – also a common practice. But this time, it was different. This time, something extraordinary happened, and it was a pivotal moment in the Jesus story. More on that later.
Transfiguration is defined as to change the appearance of someone or something, such as Jesus’ face changing and his clothes becoming dazzling white. This should not be confused with transformation, which is to change the composition of said someone or something. For instance, we never refer to the transfiguration of someone’s heart. We instead refer to the transformation of one’s heart. Transformation is more of an inside job, whereas transfiguration is about the outward manifestation of something transformative happening on the inside. You might think of transfiguration as the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace of transformation.
I wonder what it was for Jesus. What was it that had so transformed him over the previous three years of ministry that was manifested into this dazzling event on the mountain? How does it speak to our own lives and how we have changed over the course of our own spiritual journey? As we ponder these questions, one thing is clear. This is about change – big change (after all, Moses and Elijah don’t normally just pop in for a visit). It’s about changes that brought us to this moment and changes that lie ahead.
The story of the transfiguration, as I mentioned before, is a pivotal moment. It’s a huge axial moment in the Jesus story. From this moment forward, the sights of Jesus, his followers, including us, shift away from Galilee, and are now firmly fixed on Jerusalem, where destiny awaits.
In three days, we will arrive at Ash Wednesday, marking (both literally and figuratively) our own turning toward Jerusalem. We will hear the words of our existence from dust to dust as we accept the imposition of ashes on our foreheads for all the world to see. It is another outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It’s a grace that will take us on a forty-day journey from this transfiguration moment to the entrance into Holy Week. Along the way we will pray. We will confess. We will fast and give. And we will change. How deeply we change is up to us.
All of us are on a journey in life. That is true regardless of where we might be in this particular moment or whatever our circumstances might be. Some of may have an idea where we are going, while others may be unsure. I am often one of those unsure.
The journey of Lent is one taken within ourselves. It is one of discovery and self-awareness; of getting down to the real nature of our human condition, one that leads us to our true selves. The journey can lead to profound freedom regardless of who we are, where we have been, what we have done, or had done to us. It is a freedom found only through the grace of God and some real work on our part. It’s available to all of us if we are willing to do that work. This is the journey of Lent. If traveled with intention, how could we not be changed by it?
There are no short cuts along the Lenten Road. Just as Jesus had to experience the crucifixion, so too must we do the work of bearing our own cross as we move toward our liberation and peace than can only come through uncovering and discovering the truth of who we are. We do not travel this road alone. We are in the company of other pilgrims with whom we will witness and hold truth for each other.
I have met many such pilgrim friends in my years of kinship with friends living behind the walls of prisons. I think in many ways the incarcerated life is a perpetual Lent. First, there is more prayer happening in prisons and jails than anywhere I have ever been. It’s an unending chain of prayer. There is also a spirit of commitment to ongoing personal discovery, desire for personal growth and desire to grow closer to God. Our friends inside meditate, fast, study holy scripture, share what they have with others, and regularly confess their failings to God and others.
When we do the work of Lent and move into the holy week of our own lives, we may just come to the other side and look in the mirror and see something different. We just might see that outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace. We just might see ourselves as someone who is ready for something extraordinary to happen.