This time of year, I half expect to find a train conductor in the parish hall or hiding in the sacristy, already collecting tickets from early boarding travelers. “All aboard!” she’ll call out. I look suspiciously for train conductors because I imagine the last Sunday before the first Sunday of Lent, really the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the day we’re standing on now, as a day to pack our bags, or at least review our pack lists, before dispatching on a trip, the wilderness wanderings called Lent. We’re getting ready for a journey. Let me ask you, what are you taking with you? What should I put in my bags? Metaphorically speaking, of course, but even metaphors take preparation. The goal, I would think, is to travel lightly and carry only those things essential to what the journey is about. Carry those things that will help you remember where you’re going and why. Leave the rest at home; it is so easy to distract ourselves away from journeys and intentions that, once upon a time, we were very glad to choose.
Of course, some trips don’t require intention, but some do. And among the some that do, a few rise to the level of requiring prayerful focus. Think the history of Christian pilgrimage. Lent falls along these lines. What should we carry? What kind of luggage will support our intention? What items or mindsets might we leave behind?
Some of us will want to pack a Lenten discipline. Those are popular this time of year. They’re good but tricky things to pack well and can sometimes become unwieldy. Sometimes they become the distractions we’re trying to avoid, so we’ll want to think them through. (I always think of Stephen Colbert asking his friend, Father James Martin, what he was giving up for Lent. Fr. Martin replied, “I don’t know he hasn’t told me.” Colbert looked puzzled at Fr. Martin. “I have a friend, a rabbi, pick them out for me.” He explained. This strikes me as brilliant. No point in having a discipline intended to foster trust in God become an occasion for self-made independence, artificial identity, and pride.) On the other hand, a Lenten discipline that strips away the things we are tempted to trust more than God and invites us to trust God in the space of vulnerability? That sort of discipline is worth putting in the bag.
We might also want to comb the closet for special learnings picked up from previous journeys. Most of us have traveled this particular road before, and - while no two trips are ever exactly the same - wise travelers will want to learn from, build on, or deepen their previous relationship with this particular, barren road.
Next on the list, well, we don’t pack each other, but I am glad that the journey is one made in and as the community of faith. Remembering this helps me be a little less uptight about especially the things I will leave behind. Traveling light, after all, is a vulnerable thing, but Christians commit to travel together and to make each one’s trials our own. That is to say, I got you. And you got me. I am glad we walk this road together.
Finally, every time we get ready for the particular journey called Lent, that sometimes frightening voyage into the wilderness, the lectionary that assigns the readings for each Sunday walks up to us (metaphorically speaking), stopping on the way to pick up the gospel reading in which Jesus’s friends see the glory of God on a mountain; it puts a gentle hand to our shoulder and quietly whispers, “This one. Don’t forget to take this one.” We put it in the bag to carry with us. Always in our bags is this story, the picture, of Jesus with his friends, transfigured on the mountain.
It’s a picture meant to show us Jesus, in at least two ways. To carry the picture of the transfigured Jesus into Lent is to carry strength and encouragement for when the journey gets hard, the reminder that this is who Jesus really is, the radiant Christ and Son of God. We need not be afraid! But to carry the picture of the transfigured Jesus into Lent is also to help us recognize that even - maybe especially - in the life of faith, things do sometimes get scary! The disciples thought they knew what they’d signed up for when they followed Jesus, but now he’s glowing, the earth is shaking, a cloud’s descending, they’re fallen on their faces, and they’re terrified. The picture of the transfigured Jesus reminds us that to follow Jesus is not to control Jesus. To follow him without controlling him is to learn to trust in him.
This reminder will help us when, some weeks from now, we stand at the foot of the cross, and profess that this, too, is God. This, too, is God’s glory. It’s the same Jesus. The cross bears the shape of divine love. Even on Easter morning, the radiant One will bear the wounds of crucifixion. So, with the help of this picture, the transfigured Jesus, to guide us, the life of peace and the way of the cross are revealed to be one life. And so, for us, the life of faith must also be the way of the cross.
We only do Lent at all because he has asked us to follow.
A French writer once wrote, “In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” When Lent points us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, when Lent points us to baptism, it calls us to the life of a saint, to the life that trusts in God. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a picture of what it means to be a saint because it is a picture of staying present when, like Peter, we don’t know what’s coming next and so we truly are following, even open to getting things wrong and correction. But most of all, it’s a picture of trust and God’s glory; a picture of what Lent is for. The Transfiguration reminds us why we make the trip.
When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Jesus is to look on God. So they are beginning to learn God’s love, that does not fear the cross, and the truth they will find there, that nothing can separate them - or us - from the love of God, revealed to us in Christ Jesus.
When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they also see a picture of themselves as they will one day be, fully surrendered to God’s love as the most true thing about them. Staying present to God when things get scary. Glowing with the glory of God. Adam as Adam was created to be. When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Christ is to see a healed humanity, and the one by whose power - not their own - this is possible.
Lent is about trust and God’s glory. Lent is for growing our trust in God’s love as the most important thing about us. Putting down the other things we were tempted to trust instead, especially those fears or misplaced trusts that come at the expense of our visible love for our sisters and brothers. In fact, if we do not know what we trust more than God, one way to start is to look for injustices - racial, ecological, local, and global - we are reluctant to address. One way to start is to pay attention to what in this life we’re afraid we might lose.
Lent is about trust and God’s glory. This is why Lent is about preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Question. What could we put in our bags that might help us stay present or reconnect to the gift of our baptism? To traveling the way of the cross and discovering it to be the way of life and peace? What practices, or Lenten disciplines, would put baptism in our bones?
Of course, there’s not just one answer. One person might make a practice of reading the promises of baptism every day over lunch. Another person might try to memorize the Exsultet, that great hymn that begins the Easter Vigil, as a way of allowing the joy of that great feast to get inside them. Memorization is great for traveling light. Still another might offer herself to serve in the community in a way for which she is not sure she is qualified, because the combination of surrender and trust, of life poured out for each other is the stuff of God’s glory, trusting, and Lent. And of course, because by our baptism we are made one body, because we who are many are one, because we all share one bread, one cup, we do well to consider those disciplines that belong to the body, the special weekly gatherings during Lent that teach us more about what it is to belong to each other, because we belong to God.
You can begin to see the possibilities. Possibilities not simply to be made better, but to be made real. To be made a saint, even. Putting on Christ. Shining with the glory of God. This is what Lent, in the end, is for: trust and God’s glory, preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
All aboard? I’ll see you in the desert.