I must admit that I am in favour of the lectionary’s optional placement of the Transfiguration as the last Sunday after Epiphany. Besides the many associations with baptism, prophetic fulfillment, The eschaton, the crucifixion and of course the resurrection, it offers some ripe fruit, falling off the tree, to savour as we head into the barren season of Lent.
Diadochos of Photike declares that all of us who are human beings “are in the image of God, but to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pg. 90)
Often, people share the many life changing things they are giving up for Lent: “I am going to give up being late,” or “I am going to give up talking behind people’s backs,” or “this year I am taking something on for Lent.” These are all great affirmations and sound like great self improvement programs, but I don’t think they are addressing the purpose of abstinence or fasting, which we are invited to do in Lent.
Another approach to Lent that sometimes comes upon us is ‘spiritual athleticism’: Feats of piety, ascetic rigour, white knuckled force, gripping our prayer bench. We may even be a part of a community that enjoys the shared experience of fasting and mutual support in a variety of renunciations (if it wasn’t for the Church, one might detect a note of holy competition!) Again, I wonder: who do we think is control? Do we think God is fondly gazing upon is, as pleased with our holiness as we are?
Lent is about journeying into the miraculous freedom of Easter. Lent is a time to reflect, but also a time to exercise and pay attention to our key faculties and operations when it comes to this gift of freedom, and that is the will. Fasting and abstinence are not intended to be self improvement plans, like losing 10 pounds for summer swim wear, or to be rewarded for our heroic ascetic achievement. Rather, they are intended to exercise, prepare, and edify the will. Exercising the will has one purpose—to develop its capacity to yield to the divine will, to grace. It is God who does the transforming, our job is to consent.
The way that happens is by choosing to lay aside a good thing for a better thing, to say “no” to something that is not necessarily bad, or something that could even be good—for something better. Fasting and abstinence are opportunities to exercise our freedom over our addictions, our idols, and our attachments. It is a way to remain free from the things we love. Freedom is our capacity to detach from our biological compulsions of affirmation, control, power, security, sex, pride, gluttony, and the list goes on (at least for me). These are not necessarily bad things, but I all too often end up making them my gods, and I become their likeness.
I would suggest that just about every spiritual discipline, Christian or otherwise, has this sole function or purpose: to free us from ourselves.
I love the Transfiguration because it is a glimpse at what a true human being is supposed to be. Jesus reveals the fullness of human dignity: a divine human being, perfectly free in radiant light, the likeness of which, through great love, is our destination. This Lent, Lord, grant us this great love to attach our freedom to you from glory to glory.