We’re at the point in the liturgical year when the calendar is moving very quickly. Over just the past ten weeks or so we’ve zoomed through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and we’re now just three days before the start of Lent. And, in those churches which follow the common lectionary, that means that today we remember once again the Transfiguration. It’s a story that comes around often in our lectionary. I’ve written previously about how the Transfiguration is a paradigm of the life of faith, demonstrating our calling to be light in the world, in and through our bodies. And when the feast came around in August of this past year, I reflected on our tendency to be afraid of seeing things as they truly are. What might this story have for us today?
Let’s start by refreshing our memories of the story. Jesus takes his inner circle of Peter, James and John up to a mountaintop. There, Jesus begins to shine, brighter than the sun, and is accompanied by Elijah and Moses, embodied signs of the Prophets and the Law. A voice then comes down from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And as suddenly as it began, the theophany ends, and they go back down the mountain.
As Christians have contemplated this story over the centuries, they have understood it not as something that happened to Jesus, but as something that happened to the disciples. Jesus was just as he always was, but in those moments, Peter, James, and John were given to see Jesus as he truly was, in all his divine splendour and glory: the one to whom the Law and the Prophets had been pointing all along. It was as though the veils had been ripped from their eyes.
This language of veiling and unveiling is prominent in today’s Epistle reading, from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In a passage that likely alludes to the Transfiguration, Paul writes:
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the faithless, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).
The first part of the passage may strike us as troubling. It seems to drive a wedge between the ‘faithful’ and the ‘faithless’, insiders and outsiders. But we know that while Paul loves to use big and bold language surrounding the implications of the Christian message, the realities ‘on the ground’ were very different. His writings are a testimony to just how little things had changed in the lives of those who had accepted his message. If he draws these hard and fast lines, it’s only to get his readers to reflect on their lives and actions. And so, I don’t think we should interpret passages like this as suggesting hard and fast divisions between insider and outsider, faithful and faithless. For there is quite a bit of outsider and insider, faithless and faithful, veiled and unveiled within each of us, even (and especially) those of us who have accepted Paul’s message and follow Jesus. We all have places within us that are still hidden from the Gospel, dwelling in the shadows instead of the light.
And this is exactly the language Paul uses in the second half of this passage. God calls light out from the darkness and then that same light shines in our hearts.
What a fitting reading this is on this cusp Sunday between the seasons of Epiphany — the season of God’s light shining out into the world’s shadowy places — and Lent — the season of reflection and repentance as we walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross. As I’ve written before here, Lent is not a dark and dreary season in which we wallow in our shame and guilt for our sins. It is a season of light, in which we undertake exactly what Paul is talking about here: we take that Epiphany light of God shining out into the world and turn it inward, working to expose all of our shadowy places to God’s truth, to that divine judgment that we know is mercy and love. This is the true heart of repentance.
In this way, Lent is sort of like window cleaning. We often take our windows for granted. They let the light shine through into our dark homes, allowing us to see and go about our days. But sometimes, light will hit them in such a way that we see (much to our horror) just how dirty — how greasy and dusty — those windows are. What we take for granted as being clear and transparent is revealed to be surprisingly opaque. And that is the work of Lent: to be intentional about shining light onto the windows of our hearts and to get out the soap and water so that God’s light can shine in and through us without impediment.
And so, as we head into Lent this week, let us remember that the light of God we have been celebrating throughout Epiphany doesn’t go anywhere in Lent. Rather, it’s the season when we shine that light within. So let’s move into this season with boldness and confidence. We don’t need to fear the dark and shadowy places in our hearts; for God will be with us shining brightly like the sun.