We tend to think of Lent only as it applies to paving the way for Easter, and insofar as it does prepare us for Easter, great, but the danger is that we focus to simplistically on the glory of the resurrection and too easily think that everything has been accomplished. Lent does prepare us for Easter, of course, but it also should prepare us for real life, which is so often marked not by glory, but by grief, loss, and suffering which seem not to be vindicated in any way that we can readily discern. Whatever we can say theologically about the meaning of the resurrection as a key to transforming suffering and death, we can’t claim that it has done away with either one, so insofar as salvation is an integration and reconciliation of every aspect of alienation, and not just something that happens when we die, the work of salvation continues, and we have a place in it. Paul brings out the paradox in 2 Timothy: he begins by urging the reader to bear suffering well, but then concludes by pointing out that Christ has destroyed death and brought life. What can that mean? If death is overcome, what are we to say about its continued existence?
In the first reading, Abram gets a taste of the glory to come: he will become the ancestor of a great nation, people will use his memory to invoke blessing. It all seems like a pretty good deal, and it indeed comes to pass, but we know how the story carries on after this initial encounter: decades of waiting, wondering, hoping, eventually experiencing the joy of having a son (Ishmael) with Hagar, and later Isaac with Sarah, only to see those hopes dashed when Hagar and Ishmael are banished and God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, which involves the threat not only of losing a child, which is horrible enough, but seeming abandonment by the God who had so long ago promised Abraham a future. There is a lot of anguish to go through before Abraham’s faith is vindicated, and he doesn’t even live to see the “great nation” that will eventually claim him as their ancestor.
The gospel, the story of the Transfiguration, does just about the same thing: it gives the disciples a taste of the glory to come, while not allowing them to get too comfortable there. This text falls immediately after Jesus has told the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and rise, and Peter isn’t having any of it. After all of this unpleasant and unexpected stuff, this is a welcome change, and what they had been expecting all along: we’ve backed the right horse, and it seems that we’re going to win even more glory than we had expected, since Jesus is important enough to stand in the company of Moses and Elijah. Peter likes this version of the story so much that he wants to put up tents and stay a while, because otherwise Jesus might get back to telling them that suffering is on the way. When the voice of God chimes in, it is the first time since Jesus’ baptism, and God says the same thing as at the baptism: this is my beloved Son. It adds the “listen to him” part to make clear that Jesus is not just playing an unfunny prank on the disciples: whatever the Transfiguration has to say about the end of the story, it is not how the next few acts are going to unfold. Instead, perhaps it is just enough of a hint of glory to keep them in the game long enough to face the reversals that are to come. As with God’s promise early on to Abraham, if they only knew what was yet to come, perhaps they would have opted out of the whole thing. You can’t handle it all at once, God says, so let me give you a peek at the back of the book so you don’t panic. Maybe that’s something to keep in mind with the responsorial psalm for today: “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you”: Go easy on us, Lord, when we can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel of hardship and pain.