At one of my previous ministry assignments, I had a large parish with a Catholic school on the church campus. Each year at this time, the school administration began to plan for the Eighth Grade Graduation Ceremony. The occasion of Eighth Grade graduation was one of sentimentality run amok for classroom teachers and parents. Most of them became teary-eyed and talked about their ‘babies growing up.’ They did so despite the fact they knew that in a few short years their ‘babies’ would become petulant high school sophomores.
My experience of the Eighth Graders was slightly different from that of the classroom teachers and parents. The thought that occurred to me each year was that, in an Eighth Grader, one can begin to see small glimpses of the type of adult who would emerge in about seven years’ time. Quite obviously, the students who were gregarious, or dedicated to learning, or highly motivated would remain so as adults. Other personality traits, however, also became perceptible, at least in part. The middle school students who demonstrated an awareness of social issues would probably grow more concerned with social issues in adulthood. The students who showed compassion to their peers in middle school would probably widen the scope of their compassion as adults to include all people in the workplace and wider society. The students whose risk-taking behaviors caused them trouble in middle school would probably continue those risk-taking behaviors as adults. Each year’s cohort of Eighth Graders preparing for high school had its own unique group personality, but each group was similar in that it displayed traces of the traits that would define those adolescents when they became adults.
I propose the example above as a way to understand the event in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus took three of his most trusted disciples up a mountain to pray. While he was praying, he was transfigured; the disciples saw a brief glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory. Their vision of Jesus transfigured did not last very long, but it was long enough for the disciples to gain some small understanding of Jesus’ true nature.
In a way analogous to the appearance in adolescence of the traits that eventually make up adult personality, the disciples at the Transfiguration began to perceive some of the content that would eventually comprise their mature faith in the resurrected Lord. The obvious difference between the Transfiguration and my example above is that it was not the case that Jesus was growing into his identity; rather, it was the disciples who slowly appropriated the truth revealed to them in the Transfiguration. The inchoate beginning of faith experienced by the disciples provides us with a helpful perspective on the season of Lent.
During Lent, all Catholics are urged to fast, give alms, and spend extra time praying with the Scriptures. All of these are potentially virtuous acts, but what can one reasonably expect to gain from just a few weeks of practicing virtue? The penitential disciplines of Lent are very much like the brief glimpses of adult personality that one can see in adolescents and the brief glimpse of the true nature of Jesus that the disciples saw in the Transfiguration. The penitential disciplines of Lent afford us with small, measured experiences of what it means to have an authentic faith in the One, True God.
The value of the penance and fasting that we undertake during Lent is that it can make us more aware of our dependence on God and of our need to express gratitude to God for the many blessings we enjoy. The value of almsgiving is that it can make us more aware of the needs of others and more compassionate toward all people. The value of prayer with the Scriptures is that it affords us the opportunity to hear God speak to us about our need for repentance and the possibility of living a graced life.
The penitential disciplines of Lent are intended to be light burdens; their value lies not in the limited duration of Lent but in the small introduction they provide to a deeper faith and a wider love for other people. For those who enter into the practices of Lent with willing hearts and open minds, there exists the real possibility of seeing Jesus’ true nature as God’s beloved Son and hearing the risen Lord speak saving truth. (Lk. 9:35)
Today is the beginning of the second of six weeks of preparation for the Passover of the Lord. Perhaps, you’ve gotten off to a slow start. Perhaps, you’ve grown weary of repeating the same temporary actions over many past Lenten seasons or, perhaps, you can’t yet see any light at the end of the tunnel that is Lent. The light we hope to see is the saving light of Christ’s glory with God the Father. In this earthly life, we can see only brief glimpses of that Light which we hope to see clearly in God’s Kingdom. The rather easy penances of Lent are intended to afford us with one of those brief glimpses of the presence of God. I encourage you to enter fully and wholeheartedly into the penitential practices of Lent. This season will last only a few, short weeks, but it holds the potential of revealing to us the Truth that lasts for eternity.