“Looking for Transfiguration”

IIKngs2/IICor4/Mk9

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Once in a while, people will confuse our church with a neighboring parish. They’ll ring the door and say they are looking not for the Church of the Incarnation, but for the Church of the Transfiguration. When I give these visitors correct directions, I use our neighbor’s nickname: I tell the visitors how to walk a few blocks to “the Little Church Around the Corner.”

Spiritually, however, it is a long way from incarnation to transfiguration. Many of us find the change portrayed in the Gospel story for today elusive.

We believe that Christ is incarnate in our hearts. We may be convinced that the spirit of God is within us. And yet, our lives seem to proceed as though we had never made a religious commitment.

In theory, we have a connection with God. But that connection hasn’t changed us—as Christ’s appearance was changed on the mountain. We hold a belief in God, yet we still lope along from day to day, with little sense that our spiritualism is making us happier or better.

Lent is the season when many people adopt disciplines that alter their routine. These disciplines might be expected to provide the spiritual boost that we need. Many Christians give up something they like or take on a special service project during Lent.

Yet while we make such vows with the best of intentions, they often prove disappointing. For example, as Lent progresses, we may discover that the tasks we have set for ourselves are much harder than we thought they would be.

While I myself try not to make any Lenten pledge that I will find too challenging, my vows end up to be always more difficult than I anticipated. In fact, I can’t remember a season of Lent when I didn’t at some point feel miserable!

And this makes the lofty vision of spiritual radiance that was presented in the Gospel lesson seem all the more remote. Of course, we can’t expect to be transformed as Christ, the Son of God was. But shouldn’t we have at least some sense that we are moving forward?

We don’t want to feel like those “unbelievers” whom Paul describes in the Second Lesson where he says that, “the god of this world has blinded the unbelievers’ minds…to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Yet isn’t it true that much of the time our “minds are blinded?” We claim to be Christians, having been baptized into the incarnate body of Christ. But we don’t feel that we are moving toward a greater vision.

Ironically, the problem may be that we are focusing too much on ourselves. I say, “ironically,” because Lenten devotions are intended to help us break away from the self-centeredness that plagues ordinary life for many of us.

Notice that Paul goes on to say, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord…” Unfortunately, attempts at spiritual discipline can have the opposite effect. They can make us “proclaim ourselves.” They make us feel superior to those who don’t bother with Lenten vows. In this case, the virtue of self-discipline has been perverted into the vice of pride.

Of course, self-control is supposed to make us better persons. So, as our discipline brings us closer to God, it should also make us more compassionate towards the other people whom God loves. As Jesus taught, the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor are so intimately linked that they form a summary of the entire Hebrew law.

But behavior that doesn’t lead to a transcendence of the self risks sinking into an unpleasant moralism. Happily, though, this risk of moving up or down on the spiritual ladder suggests a good method of determining the right priorities. We can ask ourselves: Does our behavior contribute to our spiritual growth or does it confine us in a mental straight-jacket?

On this holiday weekend, it can be helpful to reflect on how two of our greatest presidents were transformed through their acts of moral courage. While Washington and Lincoln’s virtues are obvious to everyone, for Christians trying to change, their examples are particularly valuable.

First, both men were blessed with a sense of providence. They believed that America would be transformed if its citizens trusted in the power of God to lead —in Washington’s case, to lead the nation to independence; in Lincoln’s case, to lead to freedom for all citizens. However bleak the battlefields were at times, both Presidents trusted God to guide them.

And second, because of their trust, they were able to act beyond their personal interests. Washington and Lincoln made unpopular decisions and endured withering criticism; they put popularity aside in order to serve—in Washington’s case, to found our nation; in Lincoln’s case, to keep the country together.

Finally, as we remember American history at the same time that we begin Lent, we can take heart that necessary change, once accomplished, quickly becomes natural to us. Freedoms gained are prized; transfiguration is good for the soul. So personal change inspired by God and under God’s benevolent hand shouldn’t seem daunting. And if we look to the benefits we will gain when change arrives, we’ll be more willing to endure the hardships of spiritual growth.

Just as now we look back gratefully on our national heritage of liberty, so we will one day look back and remember personal battles with pride and selfishness that we were able to win.

That means that we can seek transfiguration and not worry! By looking beyond ourselves, by trusting in the Providence of God, we find that we are carried by the divine Spirit, and we advance toward becoming the persons we want to be—the persons God makes us by his transforming power.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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