It almost seems contrary to consider the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-9 as part of the journey in Lent. How does God’s breaking through time to reveal the prophets of old, Moses and Elijah connect to the solitude of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness? How does the glow of shining light through the one declared the very light of the world in the presence of his disciples James, John and Peter speak to 40 days of sacred suffering and self-inflicted deprivation? How does such a glory find space amidst the sackcloth and ashes of Ash Wednesday of the repentant and the passion of persecuted Savior on Good Friday? How is one moment that hails so triumphantly on what seems to be the opposite extreme related to the treacherous and barren lands Jesus faced without daily sustenance? Piecing together the connection between signs of the glory of Christ with our earthly reality to which Jesus tends, I feel like Nicodemus in John 3:1-17 (the other gospel lection today) trying to parse what is born from flesh and what is born from spirit. What does it mean to come face to face with “a teacher who has come from God,” with words and signs that cannot be done “apart from the presence of God?” What does it mean to follow this teacher in order to see the freedom land he proclaims while perhaps staying exactly where you are standing? Do you feel your heart soar even as your body groans, when Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Yet here as part of the lectionary during Lent, the glory of God’s realm, the exultation of the messiah stand partnered with the most human journey of Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem, refusing to turn from the suffering in his path. Like the hallowed God whose identity always seems to be bound with the invisible and the marginalized, I discovered the connection in the least likely places.
For a few years, I served in various volunteer positions in adult and child correctional facilities. I mentored children and youth whose choices landed them in juvenile hall. I was chaplain to adults whose lapse in judgement often coupled with the relentless grip of addiction, or lack of options and access to healthy alternatives landed them behind bars—some for months, others for lifetimes. In those spaces, I stood in wonder of a different kind of transfiguration. One perhaps appearing to be in stark contrast to what the three witnessed in Jesus’s as the heavens opened for a second time, now to reveal the prophets of the past and to proclaim the future and God’s reaffirmed pleasure in the Son. I, centuries removed from Jesus’s time, bore witness to the indescribable glow of the prisoner at another form of divine visitation. There was no opening of heaven, or reaffirming declarations of God’s love spoken through what I imagine would be the thunderous voice from the great beyond or the sacred whisper of the still small voice of the Creator. Rather, what opened were the heavy metal doors that had kept them contained. What was reaffirmed was that the actions that had given them this fate, though they had not been a source of divine or even human pleasure, was in no way a barrier to unconditional love.
In much of the same way, I witnessed, with the adults who were incarcerated, a similarly disparate transfiguration. In this moment, I became the embodiment of the disciples overtaken by what I was seeing and they were Christ, the beloved, the visited, the affirmed—possessing both the human and the divine. The voice of God manifested in the presence of their people—family, friends, children, parents, spouses, partners, and siblings—who held the position as their prophetic ancestors of old. Appearing as Moses and Elijah and the others who were part of the unnamed cloud of witnesses. These people were there speaking the words of God to those deemed “off limits,” despite the evidence of their loved ones’ sin and shortcomings. Somehow, this holy community found a way to affirm the identity of the incarcerated and share an unconditional love that has not waned no matter the severity of the transgression. Yet, there, in the confines of a concrete building, I found the marvelous glow, the heavenly opening and declaration that left Peter, James and John in reverential awe. I find the words of John 3:14-16 ringing true that God’s love lifts us up from perishing and into eternal life. I, standing in their space discovered the contemporary transfiguration right there in the midst of a 21st century prison.
So what does this have to say about Lent? Though we are called several times in the Old and New Testaments to visit, set free and be the bearers of good, liberating words to the captives, I have found very few willing to make the trek to prisons, county jails, and courtrooms. Divine visitations are missed and few are able to experience the breaking open of prison doors and the reaffirmation of those whose identities have found a resting place among the perpetually condemned.
As we embark on this 40-day journey of repentance, reflection and reconnection, many of us are turning inward to rediscover and recommit to the Spirit of God that exists in us all. At this time of sacred searching and sacrifice, there is both need and cause to also look outward and around to discover the God who visits, calls out to, and affirms our existence as children of the Most High in whom God finds pleasure. While it is easiest to place our own piety at the forefront, Lent must compel and propel us into public witness. At the end of 40 days, Jesus did not walk away to live a private life, but rather returned to the world better prepared to be an active agent in its transformation. This is the journey we are on, and this is the call we must answer.
If our fasting from food does not compel us to consider and improve the circumstances of those who are hungry and fast involuntarily, then what purpose does it serve? If our abstaining from shopping for clothes does not cause us to consider and provide for the naked, and if our desire to improve our interpersonal relationships doesn’t catalyze our engagement with those on the margins, how does this season of sacrifice serve the building of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Ours is a communal and relational faith that requires us to connect with God, self and others. My hope and prayer is that we will be willing to engage in more holy visitations and be part of more contemporary transfigurations. Amen.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What unlikely spaces have you born witness to a holy visitation/contemporary transfiguration?
2. To whom is God calling out, this is my Son/Daughter in whom I am well pleased?
3. Given your own fast during Lent, in what ways can your fast lead to social transformation and justice for others?
For Further Reading:
• The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
• Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
• God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone
About the author: Rev. Cassandra Henderson is a licensed and ordained Baptist minister, scholar, activist and artist, and community organizer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Spelman College in Drama/Theatre, a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Leadership in Church and Community and a certificate in Black Church Studies. She is the Pastor for Children’s & Youth Ministries at The Breakthrough Fellowship, the former Assistant Pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist church spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Henderson has a particular passion for serving the society’s most marginalized including the economically and socially oppressed, children, immigrants, and the incarcerated. She has served as a mentor to incarcerated youth in northern California and most recently as a volunteer chaplain at Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women.
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture