On the Second Sunday of Lent, we always read of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. This year, Luke tells us: “Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.” Prayer is one of the three traditional forms of Lenten penances, along with almsgiving (charity) and fasting (sacrifice). One thing that could improve all our prayer lives this Lent is to learn how to more perfectly pray the greatest prayer of the Church: the Mass.
Most people don’t think of Mass as a prayer. Some think it’s something we do simply because we have to. To them, it’s mere ritual. Others think it’s a series of prayers the priest says; they just come to listen and watch, not participate. Still others think Mass should make them feel good, so that when the music isn’t lively, or the preacher isn’t engaging, they go away disappointed – even angry.
And still others think Mass is sort of a task to be done, so they think if they are not physically active in some way, maybe serving or distributing Communion, they don’t feel like they’ve “done” Mass.
They completely misunderstand. Mass is a magnificent prayer that involves each and every one of us, from beginning to end. There are clearly separate prayers; they all come together to form one great prayer. When we understand that, Mass becomes not only intensely personal and practical, but profoundly meaningful and life-changing.
So, why does Jesus take his disciples up the mountain to pray? Can’t they just pray anywhere? And wasn’t Jesus always in prayer with the Father?
First, remember that, while Jesus is God, he’s also a man who can be distracted like all men. And so he takes himself and his very human apostles, away to be alone to pray. We, too, need to go away to a quiet place where no one will distract us – like a church. More importantly, we come to church to pray for the same reason the apostles went up the mountain: to be where Jesus is. Now, of course, Jesus is everywhere, spiritually, but He chooses to make Himself truly present, especially at Mass, in the Eucharist. So we come to Mass to be in Christ’s true presence.
Then we read: “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep.” How many of us have started to daydream or even fall asleep at Mass? But what happens when the apostles are asleep? A great miracle: “[Jesus’] face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah.”
A great miracle also happens when we fall asleep in Mass: Jesus appears on the altar, and with him, not only Moses and Elijah, but the whole company of heaven: all the angels and saints, and Mary! And we don’t notice, because we’ve let ourselves drift away.
Fortunately for the apostles, they woke before the transfiguration ended. So Peter doesn’t say, “Can we go yet?” Rather: “Master, it is good that we are here.” And he doesn’t race away, as many do at the end of Mass, but says: “Let us make three tents, one for you. . .Moses, and. . .Elijah.” In other words, he doesn’t want to leave!
You might say, well if Jesus appeared transfigured at Mass we wouldn’t be bored or want to leave either! But the thing is, he does! Not transfigured in glory, but transfigured in humility into the appearance of bread and wine. Not as glorious in appearance, but just as astounding and wondrous.
And there’s still more. Even though only Peter speaks, James and John must also have been overwhelmed. Which reminds us that it’s not only those who have active speaking roles who participate in the miracles of both Tabor and the Mass.
Think particularly of how all this affected the young St. John. Imagine what he was thinking just a few weeks later as he stood on a different mount – Mount Calvary. There he also saw Jesus with two men on either side of him. But then Christ wasn’t transfigured in glory, but in suffering. And the two at his sides were not Moses and Elijah, but two criminals.
Perhaps at first it seemed to him that sin had conquered the promises of the Law and the prophets, until he heard one thief repent, and Jesus say to him: “today you will be with me in paradise.” And he understood that the love of Jesus Crucified conquers sin.
And perhaps he remembered how at Tabor, “Moses and Elijah. . .spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem,” and recalled that was the very day Jews commemorate the beginning of Moses’ exodus from Egypt – Passover. And as he looked up at Jesus’ blood staining the wood of the Cross, he remembered how at the first Passover the Hebrews were freed by the blood of the Lamb staining the wood of their doorposts! And he remembered how St. John the Baptist had called Jesus the Lamb of God.
At every Mass, we stand with apostles on Tabor and Calvary, as the Body of Christ appears before us as bread and wine. And we look beyond what we seem to see. And with the eyes of faith we see what is truly present: the glory and wonder of the love of Christ.
Who could ever think this an empty ritual, or that it doesn’t include us? Who could ever be disappointed or bored, or even angry?
So, this Lent when you go to Mass, go up the Mountain with Peter, James and John, and Moses and Elijah, and with Mary and all the saints and angels of heaven, to pray with Christ. And stay awake, be caught up in the awe of the transfiguration on the altar, recognizing in what seems to be ordinary bread the true glory of the Body of Christ Crucified for our sins. And understand how truly “good it is that we are here.”
*Image: The Transfiguration of Christ by Gerard David, 1520 [Museum of the Church of Our Lady, Bruges, Belgium]. This is the center panel of a triptych:
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s The Transfiguration of Humanity (Homage to Paul VI)
Robert Royal’s Lent and American Catholic Exceptionalism