Sunday, March 12, 2017

Transfiguration: Changed and Transformed by Christ

Transfiguration by Raffaello (1483-1520)

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 11 & 12, 2017 at St. Anthony's Church, Pawtucket, R.I.  See Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 17:1-9)

Change is difficult.  All of us can identify with how difficult, and sometimes even overwhelming, change can be.  Whether it be some sudden alteration that catches us completely by surprise, or some new circumstance that we have totally anticipated, changes in life can be a real challenge. 

In the Catholic vision of things, however, change is not only inevitable, but even necessary for our growth in the spiritual life.  This season of Lent is about repentance, having a change in heart and being open to the graces that God pours out into our lives.  Touched by God, we can . . . and should be . . .  open to embracing His plan for our lives in the midst of countless changes.  We can . . . and should be . . . able to recognize the places where we need to change in the way that we live and the way that we love.  Blessed John Henry Newman, 19th Century theologian and Cardinal of the Church, explains it this way:

“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
—Blessed John Henry Newman, 
The Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch.1, 1.7

Without change we cannot become the men and women God has always called us to be.  “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I mention that today because the readings for this Second Sunday of Lent are about change.  In our First Reading from the Book of Genesis, Abram (whose very name God will change to Abraham) is called by God to leave his homeland and journey to a place that he has never seen before.  God bids him:

Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
—Genesis 12:1

It has been said that moving is one of the most stressful and difficult changes we can experience in life; not to move into a new house after one has just received a job promotion, but to move away from what is familiar and to start again in an unknown place.  Abram is asked by God to leave everything, to move to a foreign land.  Those of you in this parish who have moved here from the Azores, or from Cape Verde, know exactly what that kind of change is like.  Yet Abram was obedient to God in the midst of that difficult change.  He responded in faith and allowed God to transform him and make him the father of our faith (Romans 4:16).

In the Gospel for this weekend there is an even more dramatic change.  Jesus Christ goes to the top of Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John.   St. Matthew’s Gospel describes what happened next:

He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
—Matthew 17:2

His entire body and His very appearance completely changed before them!  They saw His glory, the glory that He possessed with the Father before time began, and the glory that He would share with the Father after His resurrection from the dead.   But why would Christ choose to appear before them in all His glory?

St. Leo the Great, in a sermon dating back to the 5th Century, explains that Christ was transfigured before Peter, James and John for two reasons.  Firstly, He wanted them to see His glory so that they would not be scandalized by the cross and become discouraged in their apostolic mission.  In other words, these men would witness Jesus Christ rejected by men, betrayed, beaten and crucified.  The Messiah that they loved would be killed.  That would be enough to discourage anyone!  Seeing Christ in glory now, they would remember the way the story ends.  Even in the days following the passion of Christ, these disciples would remember—despite all appearances to the contrary—that Jesus’ end is glory, not shame.  

The second reason for the transfiguration, according to St. Leo the Great, is so that these disciples would know that this is what God is calling them to, as well.  They, too, will experience rejection and persecution for their faith in Christ.  They will also endure humiliating trials and even cruel tortures.  Whatever the disappointments and sorrows of this life, in the end the Christian is called to be with Christ in glory.  That does not make the crosses of this life easy, but it does help us to live as people of hope.  These disciples lived as apostles of hope in a world that was thirsting for God.  They doled out hope like candy before the children of this world, and the world as they knew it would never be the same.  The transfiguration of Christ was a major part of that transformative power at the heart of their apostolic ministry.

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.   These disciples allowed the glory of God and the power of Christ to change their lives and orient their faith.  Because they responded to God, like Abraham, God was able to use them to transform the culture they lived in.  They were changed by God’s grace and then sent forth into the world to transform the world around them.  This is at the heart of the Sacred Scriptures for us on this Second Sunday of Lent, and it is the great message of the Christian faith: God has the power to change our lives—if we let Him—and then to send us out to be instruments of transformation in the world we live in.

Down through the centuries the Church has always taken up this transformative and life-giving mission.  It is the Church that founded hospitals to tend to the sick and the suffering, the elderly and the infirm.  It is the Church that founded universities and facilitated the education of entire cultures.  The Church has always strived to follow the mandate of Jesus Christ to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of those with whom Christ identifies Himself: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

That work of the Gospel continues even here, even now, in the many ministries and apostolic works that take place in our own diocese. 

In the City of Providence, Emmanuel House continues to serve hundreds of people each month who have no place to live and nothing to eat.  In weather as cold as we have been experiencing, we thank God that there are people serving and providing for the needs of the homeless at Emmanuel House.  

At the same time, we can consider Bishop Tobin’s “Keep the Heat On” campaign.  Each year thousands of dollars are donated to assist people in cities across our state so that they can keep their homes heated and live in safety and dignity.  Can you imagine what it would be like if, after this Mass today, you were to go home in this weather and discover that there was no heat in your house?  Because of the generosity of so many people, there is heat today for many, many warm and grateful people.  

More than that, the Diocese of Providence provides immigration and refugee services for people like Abraham, and like so many of our own families, who have journeyed from a distant and foreign land and are struggling to make a new beginning here in our own communities.  

Catholic Charities provides senior centers that assist the elderly with so many of the vital tasks and services that we all take for granted so often.  In a culture where the rights and even the lives of our elderly citizens are often at risk, the Church responds even now to make a brighter future filled with hope.

Finally, I would like to mention the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, where I serve as rector.  We have twenty-two young men studying for the priesthood, men who will one day preach the Gospel and celebrate the Sacraments for those who long to see the face of God.  Our very existence as a seminary depends upon the generosity of parishioners like you who give each year to the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal.  Today I would like to express my gratitude for all who have given so generously to provide us with the material and spiritual needs that allow us to form priests for the future of our Church.  

In conclusion, I would like to ask for your generosity in continuing this great work of the Gospel, in its many different facets, throughout the Diocese of Providence.  Perhaps you have a regular amount that you contribute each year, or perhaps you have never before considered the importance of making a contribution to Catholic Charities.  Even the smallest change, and certainly an openness to what God is asking of each of us, could make a major difference in the lives of so many people in the coming year alone.  

As we begin the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal once again this year, may God truly change our hearts and continue to make us instruments of transformation in the world around us.  In our charity towards those in need, in the way that we see each other, and especially in the way that we receive God in our lives, may we be open to the many changes that life brings.  For, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”