In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel we hear the story of the transfiguration. As I like to put it: the curtain of the material universe is lifted, however momentarily, for Peter, James, and John; and they catch a glimpse of the divine Word, of his eternal glory, the reality normally invisible to the eyes of the flesh, that yet undergirds his incarnation.
This is a salutary story to read as we stand here on the cusp of Lent, as it reminds us of the goal of our Lenten pilgrimage, which is the glory of the Lord. As today’s collect puts it, “O God, who before the passion of your onlybegotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory…”
On this score, we should remember a fundamental teaching of our faith: that everything that Jesus is by nature, we are by grace through our communion with him. Let me repeat that: everything – EVERYTHING – that Jesus is by nature, we are by grace through our communion with him. It is comparatively easy to see that Jesus shows us God. He says as much throughout the Gospels: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me…? He who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14.9). But what we are not so prone to realize is that Jesus shows us true humanity too. Jesus reveals God to mankind, but he also reveals mankind to mankind. But not the weary, broken, alienated mankind that belongs exclusively to this world, but the forgiven, healed, glorified, joyful, abundantly-alive mankind, in whom God delights, that was God’s vision and plan for us from all eternity.
THIS is the destination of our pilgrimage, the long procession of our spiritual lives; and with Peter and James and John, here we stand on the threshold of Lent, reminded that it is THIS toward which we are journeying.
But between us and our destination lies, indeed, a journey, a pilgrimage. And like any real pilgrimage, it has its challenges. And that is a great deal of what distinguishes a pilgrimage from a pleasure cruise: on a pilgrimage, you have to toil. Lying across our way, separating us from this glorious destiny of which we glimpse in today’s Gospel, are the many and various encumbrances that weigh us down and inhibit our momentum toward the glory of the Lord. As one of the Cowley Fathers once said:
So Lent brings us to face the enemy and prepare for battle. And HOPE is the very soul of a battle: the men intend to win that position now held by the enemy at any cost. So in your case, suppose there is sloth, or unbelief, or ill will, or some other vice: YOUR Lent battle means your hope to wrest that position from the enemy. That sin, that indifference, or bad temper, shall be conquered by God’s help. There is no evading the issue; that sin is going to conquer me, and separate me from God for ever, or I am going to conquer it. (Father Congreve, On Advance in Lent)
Lent is about becoming empty of the world’s things so that we may become full of the glory of the Lord. And as with everything in life, if we want to succeed, we have to approach Lent (and our spiritual lives generally) conscientiously – and not impulsively or lazily or only when moved by enthusiasm or sentiment or emotion.
As is our custom at Holy Cross, and as I mentioned during the announcements, we will again have a special Lenten program on Friday evenings at the church. Beginning at 7:00 pm, we will gather for the Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This is a very special pair of devotions, and if you have never participated, I really encourage you to come, and even to invite a friend. Both are powerful opportunities to enter into the mysteries of our salvation. Personally, there is little in this world that I love more than Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
After Benediction we will adjourn to the Parish Hall for a light Lenten supper, and to discuss the foundations of the Christian spiritual life. I will be leading the discussions, but my hope and my intention is that they should actually be discussions, and not just a soliloquy from the rector. But that will require YOUR participation.
Likewise, I draw your attention to the tract that is available this morning in the narthex: on Keeping a Holy Lent. It will assist you in devising a robust Lenten rule for yourself. As a preliminary, I should encourage you all to remember that Lent is not a time for self-improvement, as such. Its not a time to be giving up vices and sins that should be given up anyway. It is a time to give up irrelevant or morally-neutral things, and to fill your life with a larger portion of good, spiritual things, the things of God. Lent is about becoming empty of the world’s stuff, and full of heaven’s stuff.
Remember the five dimensions of a complete Lenten rule. It is not as simple as just “giving up chocolate.” You cannot reasonably expect to take a giving-up-chocolate approach to your spiritual life, and to be able thereby to stand before Jesus when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire. “And what about you, my child?” “Well, Lord, I gave up chocolate.”
The five dimensions to a fuller Lenten rule are 1) retirement, 2) prayer, 3) fasting and abstinence, 4) repentance, and 5) almsgiving.
Firstly, retirement means setting aside definite times, daily or weekly, to seek the Lord in quiet solitude. Secondly, prayer means prayer. There are many kinds of prayer, some better than others, but all appropriate. During Lent you should spend more and better time in prayer. Take up a daily devotion to which you are not accustomed, like the Daily Office from the Prayer Book, or the Rosary, or attend a weekday mass each week, or an additional weekday mass. While I’m on the subject, I think all conscientious Christians should be attending weekday mass on a regular, if not frequent, basis, if at all possible – and not just relegate our communion with God to Sundays and Holy Days of obligation.
Thirdly, fasting and abstinence: fasting means eating less food, and abstinence means not eating a certain kind of food – traditionally that has meant not eating meat. Every Friday of the year, outside of Eastertide, is a day of abstinence for all Christians, in honor of our Lord’s suffering and death on that first Good Friday, some two thousand years ago. Every day of Lent, apart from Sundays, is a day of fasting. Traditionally the Lenten fast meant no more than one full meal, and two smaller meals on EVERY DAY OF LENT. The aged, the very young, and those suffering from health issues that preclude fasting should not fast. It is because of this dimension of Lent that our Friday suppers here at the church are meatless and simple.
Fourthly, repentance means examining your conscience and confessing your sins, and resolving to do better. People often wonder why they need to go to sacramental confession, and why they can’t just confess their sins to God. Cannot God forgive my sins outside of sacramental confession? Yes, probably. But in order to be forgiven, you have to be contrite. And I will tell you, as a penitent (and not as a confessor) that it is hard NOT to be truly contrite when you have to name your sins, in all their hideous, embarrassing, banality, in front of a living, breathing person. God can forgive sins in any context he wants to. And maybe he does forgive you when you ask him to by yourself, at home; but the sacraments were given to us BY GOD, to take the guess-work out of our spiritual life. If you want to be forgiven and to KNOW that you are forgiven, go to sacramental confession. Hearing my confessor say to me, “I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” has been an ENORMOUS comfort and assurance to me over the years. I cannot now imagine practicing the Christian faith without it.
Fifthly, almsgiving means giving material support to the work of God. You should give more to God’s purposes during Lent.
Lastly, remember the goal of all of this. It isn’t just a big list of funtown-comedown rules for us to follow slavishly. It is an ordered system given to us by God’s own merciful providence to guide us on our pilgrimage to the glory that is our birthright in Jesus. Do you want to be saved? Do you want to go to heaven? Do you want to be forgiven, glorified, full of joy, full of life in abundance? Then avail yourself of the tools that God himself has provided for the attainment of that end. Buckle down and resolve to keep a holy Lent. Saint Paul said, “the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13.12).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.