e-mail us


Transfiguration story: to take holiness, insights into the groaning cities

Second Sunday of Lent


Of all the questions with which the Lenten journey to the center of the soul confronts us, the one that emerges out of the gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent may be the most determining of them all. Once this question is answered, everything else falls in place, an uneasy place, perhaps, but in place, nevertheless. The question is a deceptive one, simple at one level, dangerously profound at another. The question of the second week of Lent is not “What should we do to make ourselves religious?” It is “What should we do to make ourselves holy?”

An ancient story from another tradition may make the point more clear: “Once upon a time,” the story tells, “a seeker went from land to land to discover an authentic religion. Finally, the seeker found a group of extraordinary fame. They were known for the goodness of their lives and for the singleness of their hearts and for the sincerity of their service.

“I see everything you do,” the seeker said, “and I’m impressed by it. But, before I become your disciple, I have a question to ask: Does your God work miracles?”

“Well,” the disciples said to the seeker, “it all depends on what you mean by a miracle. Some people call it a miracle when God does the will of people. We call it a miracle when people do the will of God.”

There is a tension in religion today that swirls around the struggle for authenticity. Is adherence to doctrinal purity the true mark of the committed Christian? Or is it deference to hierarchy? Or does authenticity lie in being citizen Christians whose intention to maintain the Christian world lies in fashioning into law and public structures the theology of one denomination or another: Enshrining the Ten Commandments in every courtroom, for instance, in a pluralistic society; maintaining a common Sabbath and a common religious calendar of holidays. Or does real spirituality lie in withdrawal from the fray into some kind of pious Nirvana where the cares of the day and the questions of the time touch us not?

The answer, I think, lies in our own story, this one from a scripture that is often translated as a glimpse of glory or a case for contemplative withdrawal from the chaos around us but which, I believe, is really an insight into the spirituality of courage. It is a call for the kind of involvement that changes things. It is a commitment to work miracles for the poor and marginalized rather than maintain them in the name of tradition and authority and good order.

The story that really makes a difference for us today, I think, is the story of the Transfiguration.

Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration, is one of those places that is not “on the way” to anywhere. It is steep and rugged and hard to scale. The path that leads to the top of the mountain is hand-hewn out of rock. It is also narrow and dangerous and long: a journey not to be made lightly.

Then, at the top, with the exception of the view of the vast, unending plain of Jezreel below -- there is nothing there. It’s an out of the way place that has all the character of a dead end.

And it is bleak, isolated, stark Mount Tabor to which Jesus took Peter, James and John.

If we want to understand precisely to what kind of Lenten conversion we ourselves are being called on the Second Sunday of Lent all we need to do, I think, is to look at Peter, James and John on Tabor.

In the first place, Peter, James and John thought they had been called to go up the mountain to be with Jesus alone. So, the scripture says they “left the world” below and went off by themselves, prepared, apparently, to follow Jesus and find God, to become “contemplative.”

But mountains in ancient spiritualities, Judaism included, were always thought of as points of contact with God since they were the places where earth touched heaven. To go “up to a high mountain” -- to which there are eight major references in the Judeo-Christian scriptures -- is always then to be seeking a very special relationship with God.

A pietist’s dream

On this particular excursion up this particular mountain theirs was a very select group: No one else was with them and they had Jesus all to themselves. It was a pietist’s dream.

And, sure enough, scripture records that a strange and wonderful thing occurred there. Up on the top of that faraway mountain, Peter, James and John got a new insight into Jesus. Up there by themselves, they began to see Jesus differently. And he was a great deal more than they had ever imagined: He was dazzling and intense and all-consuming. The idea was overwhelming. And very, very heady. It was also very, very disturbing. Because then and there, in a gospel that is apparently about the mystical, the privatized dimensions of religion we begin to see the perennial struggle between piety and Christianity, between religion-for-real and religion-for-show.

There, on the top of that mountain, right in front of their eyes, Jesus, the scripture says, became transfigured before them. He was radiant as the sun. And he was talking to Moses and Elijah. And that’s the part of the story that makes the difference.

If we’re going to understand the difference between piety and Christianity, if we’re going to be able to make the distinction ourselves between the keeping of Lent and the coming to conversion, it’s important to realize four things about this gospel.

In the first place, Peter himself opted first for piety. “Jesus, it’s good for us to be here,” Peter said. “Let us build three booths.” Let’s live in this nice comfortable religious cloud, in other words. Let’s institutionalize the mystical. Let’s concentrate on the next world. Peter knows a good thing when he sees it and Peter plans to settle down in a nest of pieties and wait. At the very moment of his deepest revelation and clearest call, in other words, Peter decides that the spiritual life has something to do with building temples and keeping the rituals and enlarging the facilities and floating above the fray. Indeed, if there is a temptation in Christianity on the Second Sunday of Lent, it is probably the temptation to play church. To dabble in religion. To recite the prayers without becoming them. And therein lies the second significant dimension of the story: the almost cacophonous cry of this scripture. No sooner has Peter decided to be a church bureaucrat, a weekday mystic, an office manager, than the irony of the situation shocks us all: Scripture dashes the entire thought in mid-air. “While he was still speaking,” the scripture records, “The voice of God said, ‘This is my son ... Listen!’ ”

To the dirty towns

Then the passage continues beyond today’s reading of it to the end of this chapter in Luke, to the fulfillment of this incident. Slowly but surely, Jesus begins to lead them around the edges of the cliffs, over the rocky road, back down the mountain to the very bottom of the hill: to the dirty towns and hurting people and unbelieving officials and ineffective institutions below, where the sick and outcast, the abandoned and infected waited for them, expecting the miraculous, expecting to be healed.

The fourth and determining development in the story implies very clearly why they had a right to expect the impossible. Jesus, you see, didn’t appear to Peter, James and John with David the king, or with Aaron the priest. Jesus didn’t show himself to the disciples with those who interpreted the law or with those who maintained its temples in society. Jesus didn’t reveal his work as either royalty or ritual. No, Jesus identified himself on Tabor with Moses and Elijah. With Moses who had led people out of oppression, and with Elijah whom King Ahab called “that troublemaker of Israel,” -- the one who condemned Israel’s compromise between true and false gods -- the one, in other words, who exposed to the people the underlying causes of their problems.

Jesus identified himself, not with the kings and the priests of Israel who had maintained its establishments and developed its institutions, good as they were. Jesus identified himself with the prophets. With those who had been sent to warn Israel of its unconscionable abandonment of the covenant. With those who poured out their lives for the people around them.

This Lenten gospel is the very bedrock lesson of the Christian life. If the great spiritual journey is to have any meaning whatsoever in our times, we, you and I, too, will have to wade into the throngs of hurting people on every plain of this planet, listening, listening, listening to the prophet Jesus, and exposing to people the underlying causes of all the wounding in this world and healing what we touch.

And all of that in the face of those institution-types for whom saving the system is much too often a higher priority than saving the people.

The call to a Christianity that is profoundly prophetic presupposes of course a long, long journey up a mountain to find God. It certainly implies a deep personal spiritual life. But the call to Christianity also means that we cannot have a real Christian life and expect to stay on the top of our antiseptic little mountains.

Profoundly prophetic

The call of the spiritual life is the call to take all the insights into the life of Christ that we have ever been able to gather and to go alone back down our private little mountains to the grasping, groaning world of our own time.

It is one thing to be devout. It’s relatively easy, in fact, to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of pious practices. It is another thing entirely to live a life worthy of a follower of Jesus, the prophet.

If the question of the Second Sunday of Lent is “What must we do to be truly holy,” the call to Christianity in this second Sunday of Lent is surely the call to be aware of the root causes of suffering in this world and to have the courage to work a few miracles of our own.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001