Then all goes quiet, and the poor disciples are left to make what sense of it they can, which appears not to be very much sense at all. Ever since that day, Christians have continued to wrestle with what the Transfiguration really means.
But a few things are clear. For one, this story points to the meaning of the entire Epiphany season. Think back to how Epiphany began, nearly two months ago. Our Gospel reading that day was the story of the wise men from the east who travelled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child. In that story, a miraculous star led them to the child born king of the Jews, more, to the child who was God incarnate.
Now, two months later, we get the story of Christ shining with his own miraculous light. In this story, Christ is his own star. But the message remains the same. The miraculous light helps us to recognize the very Word of God who has taken flesh to dwell among us. Like the wise men, like Peter and James and John in their more goofy way, we are invited by this story to see Christ for who he really is, to see Christ in his glory, to see Christ even now as he will appear after his resurrection.
That is the Epiphany meaning of our Gospel reading. But today is the end of Epiphany. Lent begins on Wednesday. And our Gospel reading is not only the climax of Epiphany. It is also a good transition into Lent, and for at least two reasons.
First, this vision of Christ’s glory may have been some comfort to the disciples as they went through the horrible events of holy week and especially Christ’s crucifixion. After Christ’s resurrection, the disciples can again see the glory that they glimpsed for the first time in our gospel reading for this morning. But until they get there, this vision has to carry them.
To some degree, that is true for us too, if in a less dramatic way. As we prepare ourselves to enter the season of Lent, as we brace ourselves to hear once again the horrible story of Christ’s crucifixion at the end of the season, we carry with us this anticipation of how it will all end, this vision of the living Christ shining with the glory of God. Thanks be to God for that.
But our Gospel reading teaches us about more than Christ’s divine glory, important though that is. Christ’s transfiguration also shows us something about our own destiny. After all, Christ is fully human as well as fully divine.
Paul makes this point in our reading from Second Corinthians. In one of my favorite lines from the entire letter, Paul says, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” That is a most amazing line!
Paul is saying that, as we meditate on the glory of the Lord, as we picture to ourselves the scene described in our Gospel reading, we ourselves experience transformation, we increasingly come to reflect the glory of God shining on us through Christ, we come more and more to resemble Christ himself in his glory. In our reading for this morning, Christ shows us not only who he is, but who we are, not only his destiny, but our destiny as well.
For most of us, it is hard to picture ourselves shining with God’s glory. But that is the promise and the invitation of our passage: to see ourselves freed from sin, freed to love, living as God created us to live. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ, who makes it all possible!
I emphasize this point as we prepare to enter Lent because Lent can seem like a dreary season. During the next several weeks, our music will be less upbeat. We’ll stop saying halleluiah—all of us except Barbara, and thank God for her! Many of us will give up simple pleasures. Many of us will take on mild disciplines. It can seem depressing.
But the point of Lent is not depressing at all, not in the long run. Lent presumes this Epiphany vision of our nature and destiny. Lent is rooted in the glory of God that God reveals in Christ and that God invites us to share.
All too often we fail to live in a way that reflects God’s eternal glory. We put the light of God in us under a bushel. We cover over God’s reflected glory with our own sin. That is why we need Lent. We need a season of repentance, a season in which we honestly acknowledge our own failures.
But—this is really important—Lent is not about failure. Lent is about possibility. Lent finds its meaning in this Transfiguration vision, this anticipation of Easter and the good news of Christ’s resurrection. The whole point of Lent is to do what we can, with God’s help, to shine a little more brightly, knowing that God’s glory is our destiny.
So on Wednesday, we will gather for one of the most important services of the entire year. We will receive ashes, with the sobering reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We will go through the long litany of penitence. It seems like it would be discouraging.
But every year Ash Wednesday comes after the story of the Transfiguration for a reason. The entire season of Lent is bracketed by the Transfiguration and the Resurrection. That is an important lesson. Sin and death are real. But in Christ, sin and death are overcome by life and love and joy and divine glory.
During Lent, we will repent, but not as a way of beating ourselves up, so much as because we want to shine a little more brightly with God’s glory. During Lent, we will acknowledge the inevitability of death, but always remembering that death does not have the last word, that Christ defeats death on our behalf, that Christ opens the way for us to eternal life.
Lent will be here in three days. That means no more sweets for me, which is a grim prospect. But here is the good news, and it is good news indeed. Everything we do in Lent is shaped by the Transfiguration vision of the glory of Christ that will someday be reflected in us. Our task in Lent will be to do we can, with God’s help, to polish our mirrors so that we can reflect God’s love and goodness a little more clearly.
Over the next seven weeks, we will do the Lent thing. But I encourage you to hold onto the Transfiguration vision through the whole season. Remember always that the point of Lent is to better reflect the glory of God on display in Christ’s Transfiguration. And so I invite you to enter Lent with thanksgiving for the divine glory revealed in Christ and available to us. And I pray that we may both worship Christ as our Lord and reflect Christ’s glory in our lives. In His name, Amen.