Each year, as Epiphanytide draws to a close, we naturally begin to look ahead and see the season of Lent drawing near. In the early centuries of the Church, Lent was a season with many shapes and traditions which varied depending on where in the world one lived. In some places it was a short period of intense fasting and prayer; in others it was a much longer period—up to 70 days long!—with abstentions from certain kinds of foods that became more and more severe as the season progressed; in other regions it was a more moderate season all around. But in every case, the reason for Lenten practice was the same: to prepare catechumens, people who had committed their lives to Christ but not yet been baptized, for their upcoming baptisms at the Great Vigil of Easter.
The Lenten tradition many of us are most familiar with, that of fasting, was an important part of this preparation. Fasting was a common way of preparing for major events and celebrations in the early centuries of the Church. In more recent generations, fasting has taken on an almost exclusively penitential theme: we give things up to punish ourselves for bad behaviour. Penitential fasting was practiced in the early church, but it wasn’t the only reason that one might undertake a fast. Giving up certain kinds of food focused the attention and served as a regular reminder to return to those preparations, prayers, and themes that would best ready a person for what was to come. And, of course, a feast tastes so much better if one is truly hungry for it. In the case of Lent, catechumens and Christians were preparing for the Easter celebration, including baptisms.
“But Andrew,” I hear you say, “Lent doesn’t start until Ash Wednesday! What about this Sunday?” Fear not! There is a connection to be made! Depending on when Easter falls, we do not always have the same number of Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. But no matter how many weeks it is, the Last Sunday after Epiphany always includes the Transfiguration of Christ as its gospel reading. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and there, for a moment, they see Jesus in all his divine glory, flanked by Moses and Elijah. A cloud overshadows the peak—one of the standard biblical signs for the presence of God—and the men hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
More confusion! Now I hear you say “But Andrew, I know the church calendar very well and Transfiguration Day is on the sixth of August, not the middle of February! What are we doing with this gospel today?” And you are quite right! We hear this gospel passage at least twice each year. In August, on Transfiguration Day, the focus is on the importance of Christ’s glory as a revelation of who Christ truly is: fully divine and fully human. The glorification that will come in the Resurrection is made known for a moment on top of the mountain.
But what, then, does all of this glory and divine presence have to do with catechumens and Lent? For people preparing for baptism at Easter, this is the last Gospel passage they hear before they enter the “home stretch”. Lent will be filled with ceremonies and scripture to help prepare them for their baptism but on this Sunday, the last one before Lent, we share with them a story about what lies ahead. Instead of the hard work of preparation, we remind the catechumens—and ourselves at the same time—about the stunning glory that is Christ’s nature. And it is Christ’s nature which we take on in baptism, as St Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3.27)
We use phrases like this in church all of the time. “Clothing ourselves in Christ.” “Being Christ to the world.” “Living our baptismal covenant.” We may have been taught what they meant at some point. Maybe in our own baptismal or confirmation preparation classes. Maybe in a later educational group, if we had the opportunity to be part of one. But for those catechumens, preparing for baptism, a lot of this Christan-ish language is new and unfamiliar. What it means to live as a Christian, with different values and ideals from much of the rest of the world, is a new and unfamiliar practice. And, if we’re honest, perhaps some of us long-time Christians can occasionally use a refresher on those very basic principles. This year, through the season of Lent, the Rev. Donald McKenzie and I will be preaching homilies intended for the catechumen in all of us: The person who has committed their life to Christ and is working out what that means and looks like. It’s a life-long process, this baptized-into-Christ reality that we’ve taken on. The Christ of mountaintop glory that we have clothed ourselves with.
Back on the mountain, Peter, James, and John are stunned by the bright light and the figures who appear and the voice from heaven. They immediately set out to find ways to make this permanent, not realizing that while this moment will pass, the glory they see is permanent. Not only is it permanent in Christ, but it is a permanent life into which they are being invited. They will become a part of the Body of Christ, just as we have done, just as the catechumens are preparing to do, and we all have a share in this glory. A share in the Light of Christ.
This is what we mean we speak of “being Christ to the world” or “reflecting God’s glory”. We have been given a share in this dazzling revelation so that we might share it with others who have not yet seen it, who have forgotten what it looks like, who are being kept from its glory. We are called by our baptism to always reflect Christ to every person we meet, in every place, in every circumstance. We wrestle with our own desires and the need to put them aside to live out God’s will in our lives. We pray that God’s words will proceed from our lips, that God’s will be done by our hands, and that God’s love will overflow from our hearts, that our whole being will be transformed and reshaped to be more and more Christlike each day.
We dare to hope that, just for a moment, others will see the glory of God radiating from us and that they will be drawn to that glorious light.