A Lenten Transfiguration

It seems almost contrary to consider the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-9 as part of the journey in Lent. How does God’s breaking through time to reveal the prophets of old connect to the solitude of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness? How does the glow of shining light through the one declared the very light of the world speak to 40 days of suffering and self-inflicted deprivation? How does such glory find space amidst the sackcloth and ashes of Ash Wednesday and the passion of persecuted Savior on Good Friday?

Piecing together the connection between signs of Christ’s glory and Jesus’ earthly reality, I feel like Nicodemus in John 3:1-17, trying to parse what is born from flesh and what is born from spirit. What does it mean to come face to face with “a teacher who has come from God,” with words and signs that cannot be done “apart from the presence of God?” What does it mean to follow this teacher in order to see the freedom land he proclaims, while perhaps staying exactly where you are standing? Do you feel your heart soar even as your body groans when Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above?”

Yet here, as part of the lectionary during Lent, the glory of God’s realm stands partnered with the most human journey of Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem, refusing to turn from the suffering in his path.

And like the hallowed God, whose identity always seems to be bound with the invisible and the marginalized, I discovered this connection in the least likely of places.

For a few years, I served in various volunteer positions in adult and child correctional facilities. I mentored children and youth whose choices landed them in juvenile hall. I was chaplain to adults whose lapse in judgment often coupled with the relentless grip of addiction, or lack of options and access to healthy alternatives landed them behind bars — some for months, others for lifetimes. In those spaces, I stood in wonder of a certain kind of transfiguration. Centuries removed from Jesus’s time, I bore witness to the indescribable glow of prisoners from another form of divine visitation. There was no opening of heaven, nor reaffirming declarations of God’s love spoken through what I imagine would have been the thunderous voice from the great beyond. But what opened were the heavy metal doors that had kept them contained. What was reaffirmed was the truth that the actions that had brought them this fate were in no way a barrier to unconditional love.

I witnessed, with the adults who were incarcerated, a disparate transfiguration. In this moment, I became the embodiment of the disciples overtaken by what I was seeing, and they were Christ — the beloved, the visited, the affirmed, possessing both the human and the divine. The voice of God manifested in the presence of their people — family, friends, children, parents, spouses, partners, and siblings — who held the position as their prophetic ancestors of old. These people were there speaking the words of God to those deemed “off limits,” despite the evidence of their loved ones’ sin and shortcomings.

Somehow, this holy community found a way to affirm the identity of the incarcerated and share an unconditional love that has not waned, no matter the severity of the transgression. Yet, there, in the confines of a concrete building, I found the marvelous glow, the heavenly opening and declaration that left Peter, James, and John in reverential awe. I find the words of John 3:14-16 ringing true — that God’s love lifts us up from perishing and into eternal life. I, standing in their space, discovered a contemporary transfiguration in the midst of a 21st century prison.

So what does this have to say about Lent? Though we are called several times in the Old and New Testaments to visit, set free, and be the bearers of liberating words to captives, I have found very few willing to make the trek to prisons, county jails, and courtrooms. Divine visitations are missed, and few are able to experience the breaking open of prison doors and the reaffirmation of those whose identities have found a resting place among the perpetually condemned.

As we continue in this 40-day journey of repentance, reflection, and reconnection, many of us are turning inward to rediscover and recommit to the Spirit of God that exists in us all. At this time of sacred searching and sacrifice, there is both need and cause to also look outward and around to discover the God who visits, calls out to, and affirms our existence as children of the Most High, in whom God finds pleasure. While it is easiest to place our own piety at the forefront, Lent must compel and propel us into public witness. At the end of 40 days, Jesus did not walk away to live a private life. Instead, he returned to the world better prepared to be an active agent in its transformation.

This is the journey we are on, and this is the call we must answer. 

If our fasting from food does not compel us to consider and improve the circumstances of those who are hungry and fast involuntarily, then what purpose does it serve? If our abstaining from shopping for clothes does not cause us to consider and provide for the naked, and if our desire to improve our interpersonal relationships doesn’t catalyze our engagement with those on the margins, how does this season of sacrifice serve the building of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Ours is a communal and relational faith that requires us to connect with God, self, and others. My hope and prayer is that we will be willing to engage in more holy visitations and be part of more contemporary transfigurations. Amen.

Via ON Scripture.

Rev. Cassandra Henderson is a licensed and ordained Baptist minister, scholar, activist, artist, and community organizer. 

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