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.


Things beyond our imagination

Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

Recently, at an academic dinner, I was sitting across the table from a nuclear scientist. At one point, I asked him this question: Do you believe that there’s human life on other planets? His answer surprised me: “As a scientist, no, I don’t believe there’s human life on another planet.


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October 4, 2015

  • Sunday, October 4

    Gerard Thomas Straub Book Signing, 9 a.m.- 1p.m., Holy Family Bookstore, 1519 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Straub will discuss his newly re-released book, “The Sun and Moon Over Assisi.” (626) 403-6133.

    St. Kateri Mass, 11 a.m., St. Marcellinus Church, 2349 Strong Ave., Commerce. Everyone is welcome to honor and follow in the footsteps of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Potluck and raffle immediately following – bring a favorite dish to share!

    Faith Support on Our Cancer Journey, 2-4 p.m., Mary & Joseph Retreat Center, 5300 Crest Rd., Rancho Palos Verdes. This afternoon of reflection will explore ways for those struggling with cancer can nurture their spirits and seek divine guidance and support. $25 ($20 if paid in full by September 25). (310) 377-4867. www.maryjoseph.org.

    “Come and See” Vocation Event, 2-7 p.m., Heart of Jesus Retreat Center, 2927 S Greenville St., Santa Ana. Single women of high school and college age are invited by Sacred Heart Sisters to learn more about religious life. Dinner will be provided. RSVP by Oct. 3 at (714) 557-4583 or heartofjesusrc@sbcglobal.net. 

    Once Upon a Time: Stories to Awaken the Mysteries of the Heart, 3-5 p.m., Mary & Joseph Retreat Center, 5300 Crest Rd., Rancho Palos Verdes. $25. (310) 377-4867. www.maryjoseph.org.

    Rosary and Mass for Life, Rosary: 4:30 p.m., Mass: 5 p.m., St. Cornelius Church, 5500 E Wardlow Rd., Long Beach. Contact Sylvia Aimerito (562) 429-1965. Audiogirlministries.com.

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