Why does the Church bring us to Mount Tabor at the beginning of Lent?
Lent is still just getting started when, on the Second Sunday of Lent (Year B), we accompany James and John up Mount Tabor to see Jesus Christ transfigured in glory.
Why does the Church tell us this story at the beginning of Lent? Because Lent is supposed to transform us, too, in several ways.
First, seeing who Christ really is transforms us.
“It is your face, O Lord, that I seek,” says the entrance antiphon today. “Hide not your face from me.”
Peter, James and John see how great Christ is when they climb up Mount Tabor and see Christ’s glory. Says the Gospel: “He was transfigured before them and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Peter is so overwhelmed, he says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Jesus — eventually — granted his prayer. The word for “tents” here is the same word we use for “tabernacle.” We have, before us, in every Catholic Church, the tabernacle where Christ’s glorious presence never leaves us so we can always seek his face.
Second, Lenten obedience transforms us.
“Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them,” the Gospel continues. “From the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’”
This is a direct call to obedience and the first reading gives us one of the greatest examples of obedience in the Bible: Abraham.
The obedience of Abraham is famous: His very future, his very identity, is tied up with this son, and yet he is willing to sacrifice him at the Lord’s command.
But Isaac’s obedience is also impressive. In the longer version of the story, Isaac seems to know something is up. But he goes along with his father’s plan anyway, even carrying the wood that his father meant to use to offer him.
Abraham and Isaac have become two of the most celebrated men in history — not for their great talents but for their great obedience.
Lent gives us the chance to be obedient like Isaac. We are following the Church’s instructions in climbing up the mountain of Lent, with our small bundle on our back. God will transform our sacrifice for us.
Third, Lenten sacrifice bears fruit.
In his willingness to follow his father’s will, Isaac foreshadows Jesus himself, who carried the wood of his own cross up Mount Calvary to his own place of sacrifice.
But in Abraham’s case, it only seemed like he would slaughter his only son. Isaac isn’t slaughtered.
Not so for Christ. The Stations of the Cross tell the story of this new Isaac’s journey up to the cross, but they end not with his rescue, but with his lifeless body being taken down by others and then buried.
Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice resulted in a whole nation rising up in their name. What did Christ’s sacrifice result in?
St. Paul describes it in the Second Reading. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”
Fourth, Lent teaches us that God’s glory is inextricable from his sacrifice.
Mountaintops are important in the Bible. Today’s readings mention two mountaintops — Mount Moriah and Mount Tabor – and references others. Elijah and Moses had enormously significant mountaintop experiences. Mountaintops are places of special communion with God.
But looming behind all these is the “mountaintop” of Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place where Jesus will die at Lent’s end.
The lesson is that the suffering, revelation and glory all go hand in hand.
The painful experiences of our lives are not wasted times on the way to glory, they are precisely the places where we are closest to Jesus Christ.
Jesus gave the apostles a glimpse of his true glory not just on our Mount Tabors, but on our Calvarys, too.