Many years ago, at a previous parish assignment, I received a box of devotional pamphlets sent free of charge by a Religious Order that was unfamiliar to me. The box of pamphlets contained about one hundred copies, and came with very ambitious advertising. The advertising claimed that, if I put these pamphlets in church on the Sundays of Advent, they would be so popular that I would have to place several subsequent orders to keep up with demand from parishioners.
The pamphlets were not impressive. They looked like they had been cobbled together with a copy machine and a pair of scissors. The devotional prayers printed inside were as disappointing as the pamphlets’ appearance. There was a daily devotion for each day of Advent; each one focused on a miracle purportedly performed by the founder of this Religious Community that I had never heard of before.
I was tempted to put the pamphlets directly into the trash, but another priest on the parish staff suggested that I put them in the church in order to see if anyone would pick them up. After the Christmas holidays were finished, the priest asked me how many pamphlets remained in church. I responded, “Father, it was a Christmas miracle! We never ran short. I put out one hundred pamphlets, and our parishioners left one hundred and fifty behind.”
Miracles, even bogus miracles, have a storied history in Christianity. The Transfiguration, depicted in today’s Gospel reading, was not one of the miracles that Jesus performed; it was an act of God the Father. The Transfiguration, however, was intimately related to Jesus’ miracles.
There were several very different types of religious authorities during Jesus’ lifetime. The Scribes and Pharisees, who so often disagreed with Jesus, were part of the “official” authority structure associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus and John the Baptist were not associated with the “official” authorities; they were associated with the dissidents who wished to see a change of regime and a renewal of Temple worship.
Jesus, as distinct from John, was an itinerant preacher. There were many such itinerant preachers during Jesus’ lifetime, and because they were not associated with any established authority structure, they had to rely on other means to establish their authority. Jesus’ miracles were the evidence that he gave to prove his claim that his teaching came from God. The Transfiguration was a further source of validation for Jesus’ claims. At the Transfiguration a voice from heaven said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)
While the Transfiguration was God’s action on Jesus’ behalf, it served the same function in Jesus’ ministry that his miracles served; it was validation of his authority to speak on God’s behalf. We should pay attention to this divine validation of Jesus’ ministry, but we should also pay attention to a secondary message contained in the miracles and the Transfiguration: they were effective for only a limited amount of time.
Jesus healed a large number of people, and restored them to normal relationships with God and neighbor; his healing miracles, however, did not prevent those people from dying a natural death. Even in the instances that he raised someone from the dead, this was only a temporary reprieve from the unavoidable end that all people face. (Luke 7:11-15) The Transfiguration lasted for a few minutes, then Jesus, Peter, John and James returned to their routine daily activities.
The healing miracles in the Gospels were short-lived for the same reason that the Transfiguration lasted only a few moments. These events demonstrated that divine power was at work in Jesus’ ministry, but they provided only an incomplete understanding of Jesus. He was not merely a miracle-worker; nor was he merely one of God’s favorites. The full truth about Jesus would be revealed only on the Cross, and no other event could offer a sufficient explanation of his life and ministry.
The Gospels offer divine validation of Jesus’ ministry, but they also ask us to look beyond that divine validation. The whole truth about Jesus, and the renewed Covenant he preached, can be seen only on the Cross. This present season of Lenten renewal is an opportune time to make the effort to look beyond mere appearance.
It used to be very popular for broadcast and cable television channels to schedule religious programming to coincide with Lent and Easter. That trend seems to have abated somewhat, probably owing to decreased interest in organized religion. However, the decrease in popular entertainment based on the Gospel stories might be a real blessing. The only adequate understanding of Jesus’ identity comes from contemplation of the mystery of the Cross. The Gospel authors were very intent to steer their readers away from a partial, and potentially misleading, understanding of Jesus. Our Lenten observance is wasted if it does not lead us to a personal encounter with the Crucified Lord.
I recommend, for your observance of Lent this year, that you refuse to be satisfied with a mere glimpse of Jesus’ glory, a brief encounter like the one Peter, John and James had on the mountain. I suggest that you use the spiritual discipline of Lent as a means to find real renewal in your relationship with God. Peter was satisfied with a limited understanding of Jesus. (Luke 9:33) His limited grasp of Jesus’ identity eventually failed him, and he denied being Jesus’ disciple. (Luke 22:56-60)
The fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent intend to move us beyond mere appearances. By denying ourselves a few comforts that we can easily live without, Lent intends to turn our minds toward God, whom cannot live without. When you feel hungry or spiritually empty or displaced from your usual comfort zone this Lent, try to see those experiences as invitations to move beyond the mundane, to move closer to the Cross, to find a deeper relationship with God. The Gospel gives us a clue about how to find spiritual renewal. It says that “after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” (Luke 9:36) Jesus is still to be found today – when we make the daily effort to be alone with him in prayer.