Last weekend I wrote about keeping our promises, our commitments and covenants: how keeping our word is about being true to our promises, and how commitment is not an outward effort but an inner transformation (and a gift of God’s grace).
Today (as always on the Second Sunday of Lent), we hear the Gospel story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Transfiguration means to transform the figure or appearance; to change the nature, the function or condition of something; to convert. We also hear the Old Testament story of how God put Abraham to a test of faith in asking him to sacrifice his only son. (Because of his obedience God relents, and greatly blesses Abraham. God showed Abraham how great his faith and commitment was to Him.) The experience of Abraham being asked by God to give up his only and beloved son was a life-changing experience for him. He was transfigured by what occurred and worked God’s will in the world.
The verses for the Responsorial Psalm #116 (which usually reflects the Old Testament reading in essence) say: “I believed (in God), even when I was greatly afflicted. Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” We all know how our lives change when we experience the death of a loved one, the almost-death of loved ones, the death of a relationship, the losses (deaths) in our lives of what we hold dear. Even the ‘near-misses’ change us. I imagine that in this time of pandemic many people have lived some very life-altering moments. The difficulty is to process them, to reconcile them with our core beliefs as Catholic, Christian, and loving people.
In witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Disciples Peter, James and John were changed also. They were terrified at first (any change is scary) and then troubled by questions of what “rising from the dead” could mean. Like Jesus, they were transfigured too—by the change in their perspective of the world and how they viewed the Lord. They were changed by their experience just as Abraham was changed by his test of faith. In this season of Lent there is a call for change in the confession of sin, repentance, and reformation (re-formation) of our lives. God's forgiveness and salvation may be instantaneous, but we are left with lifetimes of “working out” our salvation and practicing goodness. We must not give up in our efforts to grow in God’s grace to transform our lives and those around us. When we change our mind about sin, the most natural and sensible thing is to change our behavior. When we repent, we only begin the process of change. Forgiveness frees us from the condemnation sin creates—but involved in this process is also our repentance in order to produce reformed, transfigured, lives. God frees us from our sins, but He also provides a process to free us from the practice of sin. It is neither easy, nor does it necessarily happen fast—but we must keep to the path of salvation in this life journey and not stray away.
Oswald Chambers writes: “God alters the mainspring and plants in us a totally new disposition; then begins our work, we must work out what God works in. The practicing is ours, not God’s. We have to bring the mechanism of body and brain into line by habit and make it a strong ally of the grace of God.” (From “The Moral Foundation of Life: A Series of Talks on the Ethical Principles of the Christian Life.”) The matter of behavior is ours, not God’s. God does not make our character; character is formed by the reaction of our inner disposition to outer things. Our outward behavior must become (Chambers) a “strong ally of the grace of God.” There are at least three ways in which Christians may fail in this regard: 1) We think that God’s grace and mercy is all there is to forgiveness and salvation and we don’t make the actual needed changes. 2) We think that reformation isn’t all that important in the grand scheme. (Small sins versus big sins.) 3) We ignore or deny that we have a long way to go, ‘forgetting’ that transfiguration to become the person God intends us to be is an everyday, every moment process. This is the journey to salvation!
We may accept that the salvation of God is rooted in His grace and mercy and we should celebrate the work of Jesus on our behalf doing for us what we can never do for ourselves. Be glad that we are saved: not because of our own merits or our goodness, but on that of Jesus Christ. Work out that salvation by being transformed—transfigured—into what we could never be without God’s grace and mercy. And when we fail, God will be there to pick us up, dust us off, and get us going again so that we can stay focused on the task of re-formation, reconciliation, transfiguration: the practice of a holy life.
During Lent we try to detach ourselves from many things, to live more simply, to do works of mercy and ministry. St. Paul reminds us that God is for us; God⎯who sacrificed His only son for our salvation. Lent is an opportunity for conversion, reconciliation and gratitude: a chance for personal transfiguration. Pray for that as we journey together!
Keep singing in your hearts!
Just a Note: A song about the Transfiguration…
Promise: agree; assure; avow; consent; compact; contract; covenant; declare; guarantee; oath; pledge; swear; vow. These are some of the synonyms for promise—as we hear today about the covenant between God and humanity after the great flood. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary some of the definitions of a covenant are: “a binding and solemn agreement made by two or more individuals, parties, etc. to do or keep a specified thing; a compact; an agreement among members of a church to hold to points of doctrine, faith, etc.; the promises made by God to man, as recorded in the Bible.”
We all remember well the story of Noah and the Ark and the animals and God’s rainbow as a reminder of the promise made to us. But what about our promise made to God? St. Peter reminds us that “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.” He tells us that our baptism is not to cleanse our bodies but is an appeal to God to cleanse our consciences. Our baptism is a pledge to God of an irreproachable (clean) conscience through Christ’s resurrection. God saved us—but we could do our part by keeping our baptismal promises⎯our covenant with God. This week the psalm (#25) reminds us that God’s ways are love and truth to those who keep His covenant. And what about all the other promises we are called to keep in our lives?
Promises, promises; talk is cheap. The spirit is willing but the flesh can’t keep up. We mean well; we really mean to keep all of those promises in our lives that we make—but we fall back, give up, get tired and give in. We live in a society where a lack of commitment seems to be the norm: we see it in broken homes and marriages and oaths we make, in politics, in work ethics—and even in our own church. If the road gets rocky, bail out. If the job’s tougher than we thought, turn it over to someone else—or just abdicate all together—someone else will do it. If we are late for every appointment, no problem, they will wait. If no one knows what we are doing, why shouldn’t we: 1) help ourselves, 2) reward ourselves, 3) get even. Commitments, vows, oaths and promises in this world don’t seem to be a high priority any way you look at it…
Commitment is the very bedrock of our faith, however. Are we shifting sands in our actions and behavior? Are we all slippery slopes in our decisions of behavior and priorities? And it is not about the outward appearance of our commitments (remember last Ash Wednesday?)—but about our internal dialogue and inward conviction to stick to all, many, any of our promises. When we truly commit ourselves to something, our priorities begin to change. They are the outward sign—the rainbow we see. Keeping our word is not about making a good outward impression, but about being true to our promises—be they to God (who redeemed us and created us), to each other, to our work and play companions—and to ourselves. Commitment is not an outward effort—but an inner transformation, and a gift of grace.
Lent is the opportunity to examine any of those promises we have made in all and every of our circumstances—and to truly discern where we stand in fulfilling them completely and sincerely. (Sincerity—another seemingly “lost” value…) We can be witnesses for the world by keeping our commitments in the face of trial, discouragement, and criticism. God’s power can work in committed and sincere people—demonstrating “rainbow” lives to the people around us. Others should see in us the commitment of generosity, kindness, mercy and love that by our Baptism we have promised to evince in this broken world. We should be a “constant” for those around us—a dependable rainbow pointing others in the direction to God’s grace and a committed life in Christ.
This is hard work: to keep our covenants in life—but this what we are called to do as believers. Lent is the acceptable time for self-examination, evaluation and reconciliation. Being in right relationship with God starts with our personal covenant with God. In keeping that covenant, I think, I really believe, that all the other promises we make will fall into place—or at least give us a framework for questioning our priorities and choices. Lenten food for thought…
Keep singing in your hearts!
Just a Note: I offer a song called “Promises” featuring Joe L. Barnes and Naomi Raine. It’s all about the faithfulness of God to us. The question to ponder is about our faithfulness to God and our promises… This brought tears to my eyes… Enjoy!
David J. Conrad, M.A. Theology. Our Director of Faith Formation.