Living Water

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday in Lent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 95Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.

We’ve been having trouble with our sprinkler system. The pipes from which the sprinklers are affixed are filled with air. All throughout our physical plant, on this floor, the floor above, and in the undercroft, there are pipes that are usually filled with air. The air is under some considerable pressure. The sprinklers work when various sensing triggers (smoke, heat, or even just a drop in air pressure) are detected. When the air pressure goes down, the pipes rapidly fill with massive amounts of water, ready at the next trigger to spray and continue to spray for some time to put out the fire. The only thing holding back all that water is the air. So maintaining the air pressure in the pipes is essential. The part that was failing, and that we’ve replaced, is the compressor – the gizmo that maintains the air pressure.

All is fine and we’re good to go. But you can imagine what happens when such a compressor fails. Water where you don’t expect it, the phone call in the night: This is Seacoast Security. The sprinkler system has engaged at St. Peter’s.” To which the only thing you can say is, “Dear Lord, I’ll be right over.” The fire department coming with lights ablaze. It has also led, given our lections for this week, to multiple jokes about “living water” to water that flows and never runs dry – a source from which we would drink and never be thirsty again. And Lindsay Brook hasn’t even begun to rise yet!

Today’s scriptures are about thirst, and the promise in Jesus of finding a living, never-ending source of spiritual quenching.

In the first reading we hear how the people of Israel feel like they’re about to die of thirst. It’s a literal thirst, to be sure. But it also seems to be a partly spiritual thirst. After wandering in the desert, they begin to wonder:

  • Has the Lord forgotten us?
  • Is Moses up to the task of leading us?
  • They’re stuck in a cycle of bickering and fussing with each other, of feeling like they’re being tested.
  • Will they ever be relieved of
    • this thirst,
    • this doubt,
    • this frustration?

God hears their prayer and Moses makes a miracle. As the psalmist sings, “He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. He smote the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.” (Psalm 78)

But water doesn’t always come so easily. In the Gospel, water is almost bargained over. We have this wonderful (if long) story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It takes place around water, with water, about water. It’s a great conversation between the woman and Jesus. There’s a give and take, a back and forth about it.

The Samaritan woman is skeptical. She’s cautious. She wonders if Jesus is just another charmer whose promises are empty. But she still listens, because she’s thirsty for some good news, some glimmer of new life.

Responding to her questions, Jesus explains about the water that he can give. He can give water that quenches thirst,

  • water that washes,
  • that completes us,
  • and buoys us up into the loving arms of God.

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***

This story is important because it shows us Jesus going outside the social norms of his day and moving beyond the racial and gender norms of his culture to befriend this Samaritan woman. It reminds us that Christian faith, at its best, invites and encourages us to move outward.

The story is also important because it shows us Jesus as the Lord of Creation—of all creation– and that includes water.

  • The water is physical and literal,
  • but it is also spiritual.
  • It symbolizes faith itself—our ability to trust in Jesus, that his life is about our life, our hope, our ability to reach outside ourselves, too.
  • The water is also hope—hope for God’s protection and guidance,
    • hope for God’s good purposes in our lives and in our world,
    • and hope for our eternal life in God.
  • And finally, the water represents charity—
    • water that is shared,
    • trust that is shared,
    • a reaching toward one another that is shared.The Samaritan woman is offered living water by Jesus and it’s interesting to me to notice what she does and what she does NOT do.
  • She does not commit herself to a life of meditation upon the water.
  • She does not build a shrine there at the well, a shrine to spend all her days at.
  • She does not start a new form of worship around the water.

Instead, she becomes a witness and one who tells what she’s seen (an evangelist). She goes around telling people about Jesus. In other words, she doesn’t hoard the water or save it up for another dry spell. She goes out offering Living Water to others.

The season of Lent invites us to notice our thirst. For what do we hunger and thirst?

  • Do you thirst for health or healing?
  • For relationship, for someone to love or someone to love you back?
  • Do you long for meaningful work, or for a new start with someone, or for some burst of new energy or creativity in your life?

We don’t know exactly what was going on in the life of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, but she came to the well with her thirst and she had the courage to ask Jesus, the stranger, for water. Can you do the same?

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Born Again

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday in Lent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17.

The rock critic and journalist Neal Karlen tells this story.* He grew up a devout and passionate Jew, but along the path of young adulthood, he lost his faith – completely – and lost himself, too. At age 40 he hit a kind of spiritual bottom. He didn’t like who he had become, and found himself midway on life’s journey in a dark wood, to borrow from Dante, the right road lost.

During that difficult time he met on an airplane a rabbi from the Lubavitcher sect – someone on the extreme fringes of faith. As they talked, Karlen sensed with the instincts of a desperate man that this was someone who could help him. Like Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, Karlen decided in his darkest hour to ask if the rabbi would help him. The rabbi agreed.

The first thing the rabbi suggested was that Karlen lighten up and stop taking himself so seriously. “People often come to me in despair,” the rabbi explained. “They tell me ‘My life has no meaning, my family counts for nothing, I’m a terrible human being’ and some such.” And I say, “Why stop there? Why not stick around and at least come up with a full list? You’re also boring, unpleasant, a terrible friend, your jokes aren’t funny….”

“That get’s them laughing, too,” he said “which usually gives people enough critical distance to see that the world & its woes do not revolve around them. Even in their present state, when they feel so broken and insignificant, God needs their good deeds, done in their particular way, with all their faults and shortcomings.”

That was the end of their first meeting. The rabbi sent Karlen home with two instructions:

  • read the Torah allotted for the week
  • and next week bring your tefillin, the armband phylacteries used in prayer

The rabbi knew that salvation lies not in proper belief

  • or how we feel
  • or what we think we know about God
  • but rather in life practices.
  • In what Rowan Williams has called “the shape of our lives and the habits of our hearts.”

Karlen and the rabbi met weekly, studied the Torah together, and talked. Karlen occasionally joined the rabbi’s family for meals, allowing the warmth of their affection to wash over him. Slowly, through the daily practice of his tradition and his friendship with an eccentric rabbi, Karlen’s life, and eventually his faith, came back to him. Or, better, it emerged for him in a new way.

Out of the ashes of a life that had died, he had emerged anew. He was born again.

  • It didn’t happen all at once.
  • There were no flashes of brilliance.
  • And no shortcuts.

One day the rabbi encouraged him to do the very thing he had been dreading most: obey the 4th commandment. “Go home,” the rabbi told him. “Find a way to honor your father.” And Karlen did.

After they had been meeting for about a year, the rabbi spoke to Karlen about the ancient, mystical paths of Judaism. We begin all aspects of life, the rabbi said, with animated emotions such as love, fear, anger, compassion.

  • These are the emotions that move us, filling our lives with drama.
  • Every good story elicits them.
  • Every human relationship starts off with them.
  • As does our relationship with God.
  • They are the emotions of energy and passion

But if we are to mature in life and in love, we must go deeper, to other emotions not nearly as obviously exciting as the first.

  • These next emotions, perseverance, discipline, and humility, are what determines how well we will love when the zing of passion is gone.
  • With these we practice shifting our focus
    • away from ourselves (how we feel and what we want)
    • to concern for others and what is best for them.

Finally, he said, there are the deepest emotions of all that unite us to God.

  • The first of these is gratitude, which enables us to acknowledge, in the midst of everything (good, bad, ugly), that our lives are a gift from God.
  • Finally, there is self-sacrifice, the willingness to die so that others might live
    • the way parents die a little each day to whatever dreams they might once have had to give life to the children now in their care
    • it’s the way so many people who have touched our lives, have done for us, without regard for themselves, in an other-directed way

I tell you about Neal Karlen and his wonderful rabbi because I think the rabbi taught well.

  • When Jesus spoke of our need to be born anew and born of the Spirit, he was talking about the painstaking spiritual transformation that Karlen experienced, gradually over time
  • I believe this transformational process is at the core of our faith – that the spiritual life is a kind of birth, a birth that follows death, dying to one way of being and rising to another.

To be born anew, born of the Spirit, is to be touched by the power of the living God and moved by God to a new, transformed life.

  • for some that experience is dramatic
  • for most of us, it is like Neal Karlen’s, a gradual, incremental process that takes time

But for all of us, for spiritual transformation to take root, we need to bring a certain intentionality to our lives. Those habits of the heart or deeper emotions as Karlen’s rabbi put it help us

  • live when the juiced up feelings are gone
  • to love when we don’t feel loving
  • to cultivate gratitude and self-giving, even when we don’t feel like it

Now, make no mistake. The transformation itself isn’t something WE do. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. But your intentionality is part of the habits of the heart that help you be open to the spiritual dying and rising that characterizes the Spirit’s work.

Centuries ago Martin Luther called this: “a daily dying to self so that Christ might enter in.” It isn’t easy. But remember what the good rabbi said:

  • first, lighten up.
  • 2nd, the practice of faith is more important than our feelings about faith.
  • 3rd, the spiritual life is not meant to be lived alone. Find yourself a teacher, a spiritual director, a guide, or a group of people with whom you can explore the questions of your heart.

Remember the Good News of that other rabbi, Jesus:

  • God does not condemn but longs to show us a way, companioning with us in all that happens
  • In this way, God is all about transformation
    • freeing us to love
    • to give
    • and to serve
      • in our own imperfect and glorious ways

Here’s the Best News: that work has already begun in you.

Neal Karlen, Shanda: the Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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Temptations of the Spiritual Journey

A sermon preached on the First Sunday in Lent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

The name of the icon is “Ladder to Heaven,” and it dates from the 12th or 13th century. The original icon can be found at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert. The icon was inspired by the spiritual writings of a monk, St. John of Sinai, who lived 5-6 centuries earlier and who authored a book called the Ladder of Paradise, a discourse which treats the virtues and vices that characterize the monastic life.

The icon shows a ladder stretching from the lower left of the picture to the upper right. At the top of the ladder we see Christ in heaven.

  • Climbing the ladder, moving from earth to heaven where Christ waits to welcome them, are a number of monks or pilgrims.
  • Angels in heaven and saints on earth are watching and cheering them on as they climb towards glory.
  • But we also see a number of demons, dark little figures that look like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz to me. They’re using bows and arrows and ropes to try to cause the monks to fall off,
  • and some of them arefalling or about to fall, presumably tumbling into hell.
  • One figure has fallen into the mouth of Satan, and is being devoured.

The image is metaphorical, of course – a depiction of spiritual life as a journey in which we move upwards, attaining virtue and growing in Christlikeness, until we are united with Christ in glory.

But, as this depiction clearly shows, the spiritual journey is also fraught with risks:

  • Evil forces assail us,
    • seeking to lure us away from our heavenly calling
    • and causing us to fall.
  • We all know what it is to be drawn to God and to goodness,
  • and we all know what it is to be tempted to turn away from God and embrace evil.
  • This icon reveals spiritual truth in picture form.

We have two other pictures in our scripture lessons today. Genesis gives us a sense of the crafty, wily power of temptation. And our Gospel recounts Jesus himself tempted and doing battle with the tricky dealings the devil uses to try & trap us.

Now, I suppose if the temptation to turn from God actually looked like Wizard of Oz monkeys, we might be able to be on our guard. But the thing is, temptation to sin most often is disguised.

It’s helpful, I think, to recall that one of the names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin, meaning “light.” It is the great trick of the devil that, when we are most afraid of the dark, we look for light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. That’s what we like, so that’s what temptation is going to look like, too.

Another characteristic of temptation is that it is within reach. I might want to fly to the moon on gossamer wings, but I am less tempted by that notion because it is so unlikely. So, the things that most tempt me to sin are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can attain. They are things that I conceivably might have.

What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had.

First, the evil one entices him to turn stones into loaves of bread,

  • perhaps to satisfy his own hunger,
  • or perhaps to satisfy the hunger of others and thereby win their favor and admiration.
  • Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the 20th century, describes this as the temptation to be relevant.

The second temptation takes the form of a challenge.

  • The evil one takes Jesus to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple.
  • He challenges him to throw himself down so that the angels of God will rescue him
  • and prove to everyone the uniqueness of his relationship with God.
  • This, Nouwen says, is the temptation to be spectacular.

Finally, the evil one takes him to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.

  • “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me.”
  • This third temptation Nouwen refers to as the temptation to be

Well, being relevant, being spectacular, and powerful. These are lovely ego-feeding things. They appeal to the desire to be important, distinctive, special. And Jesus rejects them.

He rejects the temptation that he feed his own ego by reaffirming his dependence on God alone.

  • He will not be enticed by the lure of instant popularity or worldly influence;
  • he refuses to give in to the temptations of wealth and power.
  • Instead, he chooses the way of humility
  • and voluntarily subjects himself to the will of God.

Notice, too, that each of the temptations the devil offers to Jesus has to do with immediate things.

  • You’re hungry? Then, let’s eat.
  • You’re competent and smart—you shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, you should get what you deserve.

Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God.

This is the path to which he points us, the path which he himself takes. It is a path of humility and self-emptying love.

Can you do that, too? The spiritual life is a journey in which we gradually become that which God has declared us to be – beloved children, loved and cherished by the Holy One. The journey leads upward, but there are evil forces at work against us, temptations that pull us down or lead us astray and may well cause ruin. How can we resist them?

  • by fleeing to God
  • by trusting wholly in God’s strength rather than in our own
  • by clinging to our true identity in God
  • Quite apart from everything else, it is calming to be around people who practice remembering who is really in charge. Such people
    • have a sense of groundedness and calm that makes holy space in the midst of upset
    • people of such faith heal and foster holy understanding
    • their calm performs, enacts what it is to live in the confidence that God’s Kingdom is at hand
    • and re-establishes space for relationship with the divine

Come on, my friends, climb onto the ladder. The world needs you. Amen.


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Lenten Disciplines

A homily for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, offered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME.  Lections: Joel 2:1-2,12-17Psalm 103:8-142 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

So, why would you deliberately put yourself in temptation’s way? Why would you choose to give something up knowing full well that giving it up was going to bother you? Over the years I have heard from people who have given something up for Lent and I have heard how the mighty have fallen. (Beware of chocolate.)

The Lenten disciplines are very old, and they come to us like a treasure from our ancestors

  • a way of bringing the spirit and soul to its rightful vigor
  • just as a good workout in the gym strengthens the muscles and clears the mind and
  • gives you a pretty good sense of how fit you are, or unfit you are.
  • A Lenten discipline gives us a glimpse in a spiritual mirror.

Most of us – unfortunately – have a distorted sense of our own willpower and a distorted sense of our sinful nature.

I know we avoid the word “sin” because it sounds so heinous, but the truth is

We make mistakes, or, we believe we’re doing the right thing but our circumstances make things not so clear, so if not an intentional mistake, then at least, an excusable thing, or, if not an excusable thing, then an understandable thing

  • that little bit of dishonesty on the tax return
  • that slightly indulged relationship with that person at work
  • that moment of ire with the children in the kitchen that feels so good for 30 seconds until we see that we’ve really nicked him with our words….. but we didn’t mean it, and – well, weren’t we right?
  • the way we stand in our own righteousness

The disciplines of Lent don’t really address these directly but they put up a peripheral mirror on the side, like that cascade of mirrors on the escalator between floors of department stores. By the time you get to the 2nd floor, you know you need something: a new dress, new make-up, a new jacket. It’s born of that sidelong glance. It’s that glance that delivers the message.

So it is, strangely enough, that the taking on of a Lenten discipline gives us a sidelong glance (putting aside the glass of wine, or the chocolate, or that extra douse of salt). This puts us, oddly enough, ever so much closer to our true nature.

You know, in the history of the church’s teaching on morality when we talk about the discipline of the body, we’ve focused so much on sex, as if that sex were the only thing that got us into trouble, leaving behind greed, gluttony, the anxiety to have, the anxiety to control, our lack of confidence that God will take care of us, our worrying ability to try and grasp everything into our own hands.

And, isn’t it funny that even those of us who are trying to be good – and let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t just such a person – so often we work so hard at polishing the wrong side of the glass.

We say, “this year, I’m going to work on X” Meanwhile, our wife, our husband, our friend is thinking, “gee, I wish she’d work on Y”. What about THAT?

When spiritual disciplines are carried out over 40 days with some faithfulness with some understanding that we’re likely to fail a little bit in order to draw our attention from the things we THINK are wrong with us more into the arena of what we’re actually doing: that is hurtful to ourselves, that is hurtful to the people we love, that is damaging or undermining to the communities in which we live.

Somehow, that little bit of extra strength we develop from these disciplines gives us the courage to look at what we’re really doing.

So, our prayer in Lent… I know it all sounds like, “I’m a mess. I’m sorry” but the prayer internally which precedes it – and it’s the internal prayer that is always so much more important – that prayer says: I need help, I will accept help, I’m sorry

When we repent. When we TURN. It’s our way of saying, “Yes, I will accept help.” It’s not saying, “Yes, I can.” It’s saying, “Yes, I’m ready for some assistance. I know I can’t do this by myself.

And then…. let go. Let God act. Let the conversation begin. Having done that…. having taken up that little irritant of giving up the chocolate or the salt or the wine or the gossip or the worry (the mental habits are a good one to target) these things given up will become a little something to stub your toe on every day so that you remember the work that you’re really about this Lent: turning to God and letting God work

“I said on Ash Wednesday I was going to take my relationship with God very seriously and very personally. And because today I’m dying for a Snickers Bar, I remember.”

We can be forgetful. That’s the problem. But a Lenten discipline is not as St. Matthew fears a matter of showing off our piety to others, but a way to remind ourselves. They work quietly in us, in whatever small way you choose

  • like a token
  • there it is
  • that’s what I said I would do
  • And if I fail in it, I will admit that that has happened, understanding that God will forgive me.

God comes into this situation like the loving disciplinarian.  Not this teacher with a rulerbut maybe more like my piano teacher, who, occasionally, I’d catch wincing at my mistakes, so someone who was WITH me in the process. God is with us in this process         as a loving, forgiving, healing teacher and friend.

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Glory on the Mountain

A sermon preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 992 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9.

In my mid-20s, while still in my secular phase of life, I took a fellowship at the University of Colorado in Boulder and, thus, had the opportunity to go hiking in the Rockies. It was our fourth day of backpacking. As a shore girl and a newcomer to the Rockies I had been overwhelmed by the stark, craggy beauty of those mountains. But nothing prepared me for the morning when we climbed up to a steep ridge high above our camp, to a place where we could see all the way up the valley to the crystal lake where the ridges came together, and then gaze back the other way at fold after fold of mountains. It had been a hard climb, but there on that high rock everything seemed to open up and flow together. Peak and meadow, tree and sky, all seemed to be singing some chorus of praise.

I hesitate to say too much about what was a passing, glancing moment, but standing there with my two companions I seemed to sense that everything I saw was somehow part of one life, that I belonged to it, and it belonged to me. It almost seemed as if I were sensing a harmony pulsing through the whole universe. I’d had this feeling before but always it involved the sea – with that heartbeat of the universe made visible in the movement of waves and tides, or how the light dances on water in the same way the stars and the eyes of our beloved can twinkle.

In those moments, I no longer felt that I was an isolated “I” taking all this in, but was part of a “we,” an “us,” that included my companions and the mountains and stream below and the whole world beyond. I wanted to stay and not turn loose of that moment. The only word I can come up with for what I sensed was “glory.”

Later on, as we made our way down from the ridge, life seemed ordinary again, enough to make me wonder whether what I had sensed was real at all. But still, I sensed I was on to something. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir caught the dilemma in a poem called “The Transfiguration”:

Was it a delusion?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
Sole glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere?

I had traveled up that mountain as a tourist — out for an interesting few days with friends. But there on that mountain, I became a pilgrim. I had glimpsed a glory that had left me feeling on the edge of something immense.

I don’t make any special claim for that mountaintop moment. I tell you about it not because I think it is rare but because I’m convinced it’s not. I don’t know where or when it has happened for you, but my hunch is that it has. Sometimes, it is as if the veil between time and eternity draws back.

  • It’s what overwhelms us in the middle of a Bach fugue
  • or when we gaze at a Turner landscape
  • or even walking down the street

when we sense just for a moment that this is all a great dance, all these people so different, so filled with their aches and their hopes, but somehow are bound to one another in a way that is deeply real.

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***

Before we move into the season Lent as we will this week on Ash Wednesday, the church invites us to climb a mountain in the company of Jesus and his close friends to witness & participate in a strange event in which Moses and Elijah appear in a conversation with Jesus, as he is transfigured – altered in appearance – and a voice from heaven, the voice of God, declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

These words from heaven are the same words we heard at the beginning of the Epiphany season when we stood with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan River as Jesus was baptized. But here, on the Mount of Transfiguration, the voice continues — addressing the 3 chosen disciples saying, “listen to him”.

The command, listen to him, also transforms the 3 dumbstruck disciples from passive observers into participants. Listening to Jesus involves more than speech because in the Gospels words are not just spoken.

  • Words become events.
  • They happen.
  • And those who are present are obliged to respond “yes or no” with their lives.

So, “listen to him” means something more like:

  • take to heart,
  • draw into the depths of your being all that you have observed
  • all you know as you heard him teach, saw him heal, shared his life and experienced his love.

The disciples’ response out of awe on that mountaintop was to try & freeze the moment – to whip out their phones and turn on FB live stream. And it is exactly at this moment that the voice of heaven and intervenes and lays waste their desire. “Listen to him” which drives them all to their knees, and must mean something like

  • “Don’t try to hold onto this moment.
  • Rather, let it contain you and take you where it will.”

The Eastern Christian tradition, which has shared ancient roots with our own Celtic traditions of Christianity, attaches great importance to the transfiguration of Jesus and sees it as a doorway into a reality that we seldom discern because of our distorted vision and the dullness of our blinded sight. In this view all creation is seen as luminous, revelatory, transparent to the light of what our Exodus reading calls “the glory”, the bright, dazzling presence of God which we see in the face of Jesus Christ.

According to this tradition what changed on the Mount of Transfiguration was not so much the person of Jesus but the perception of the disciples. They saw clearly and, with undistorted vision, who Jesus truly was. And so it is with us, when we are available to the motions of the spirit deep within us. – whether we are atop a mountain or by the water. We, too, can see with undistorted vision. But, like Peter, James, and John, we are well advised to “listen to him”.

And so, “listen to him” becomes an invitation to us – to journey with Jesus down the mountain and along the road, up to Jerusalem and to the cross and through the cross into that force field we call Resurrection.

The transfiguration orients us to the Lenten journey. We might say that Jesus’ transfiguration in advance of his arrest and crucifixion is a hint, a foretaste of the new reality of resurrection which will meet Jesus and his followers beyond the cross. As such the transfiguration serves to give us courage to make the journey with a sense that the darkest hour may not indeed be the end.

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