Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10
As Catholics, we all know that we oppose something called “secularism.” We want to keep Christ in Christmas. We want the Church to be strong, to have freedom to worship and to shape culture and policy. But thinking of secularism exclusively in terms of its legal and economic aspects has a downside: it encourages us to lay the blame on “them”—on godless lawyers, lobbyists, and CEOs. It gave me pause, then, when I ran across definition of secularism, proposed by a prominent Catholic philosopher, that invited me to look at myself. According to his definition, the heart of secularism is the denial of the “transformation perspective” (A Secular Age, 431).
And by “transformation perspective” he meant simply the belief—common to most religions—that we are transformed through sacrifice, that a “higher life” and new desires are possible for us through religious practices: through the discipline of passions, meditation, the study of holy books, etc. From the secular perspective, on the other hand, desires and behavior are never really be transformed. And since we can’t expect people to live frustrated, the best we can hope to do is damage control. Hence the secular solution to the dangers of sex becomes not chastity but condoms, the secular solution to the problem of overeating becomes not moderation but Splenda, the secular solution to political corruption becomes not integrity but a system of checks and balances. The “transformation perspective,” on the other hand, rates virtue above technique.
To this “transformation perspective” reflected generally in religious traditions, Christianity adds a new element: what makes a higher life possible is not just effort, but the love that God pours into our hearts. This more-than-human love allows us to be happy while poor, to have joy in suffering, to love our enemies, to be faithful to the same spouse—or even to vows of chastity—over a lifetime. Things reckoned humanly impossible, become possible for the one intoxicated by God’s love.
Everything about today’s Gospel, the account of the Transfiguration, urges us to buy into this Christian version of the “transformation perspective.” As the Gospel recounts, Jesus himself “is transfigured” before the eyes of Peter, James and John. He is revealed as the Father’s glory. Significantly, however, the Transfiguration attests not only to Christ’s glory; it also serves as the pledge of our own transformation. For everything surrounding Christ is likewise transformed. His clothes also become “dazzling white” (Mk 9:3). The cloud of divine presence, overshadows not only Christ, but the disciples as well. And the voice of the Father now addresses not only the Son (“This is my beloved Son”), but the Son’s followers, (“Listen to him”).
Both parts of the Father’s statement are highly significant. The second half, “Listen to Him” refers in a special way to the conversation between Jesus and Peter that immediately precedes the Transfiguration. There Jesus had predicted His passion and death, and Peter had attempted to dissuade him from the way of the cross. This provokes Jesus’ famous rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33). Peter, you might say, was a “secularist.” He doubted that sharing in Christ’s sufferings could lead to glory.
The other half, “This is my beloved Son,” points to what is distinctive about Christian transformation. We are not transformed by sheer willpower, by heroically “gutting out” our sufferings. We are transformed by receiving the same delight that the Father has in His Son. Becoming secure in this love gives us patience beyond our human limitations, and makes us, like Christ’s garments, white “such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mk 8:3).
In the end, the mystery of the Transfiguration is the mystery of being invited into the Christ’s suffering and then His glory. This is the Christian “transformation perspective.” But how do we live this perspective in concrete terms? How do we transpose the “mountaintop” scene onto the “plain” of daily living?
I don’t think we have to look much further than our traditional Lenten practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In prayer we have access to the Father’s love. Every time we open the Scriptures or devoutly attend Mass, we contemplate different aspects of Christianity’s central fact: “He who did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” (Rom 8:32). In fasting we have a summary of all those formative religious disciplines, the periodic renunciation of pleasures that tend to master us: eating, sex, owning and controlling. In the Christian transformation perspective, of course, these practices are not just feats of strength, but acts of gratitude to a God who has loved us first. Finally, almsgiving is a way of imitating Christ’s generosity. Just as Christ drew his disciples into the love between Himself and the Father on the Mountain of Transfiguration, so we draw others into that same love by our acts of generosity, service, and charity.
By participating wholeheartedly in the practices of Lent, in other words, we strike at secularism’s deepest root–at its roots in the human heart.