A man went to his doctor with concerns about his health and appearance. “What's your problem?”, the physician asked. “I feel terrible,” the patient responded. “When I look in the mirror, I see a balding head, sagging jowls, a pot belly, crooked teeth, bloodshot eyes…I'm a mess! I desperately good need news to boost my self-image.” The physician responded, “well, the good news is you have perfect eyesight.”
Some of you have probably heard the following advice from a wise old man: I was a revolutionary when I was young, and my prayer was: “Lord, give me the energy to change the world.” As I approached middle age and realized that my life was half gone, I changed my prayer to: “Lord, give me the grace to change all I meet.” Now that I am old and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My prayer now is: “Lord, give me the grace to change myself.”
That is indeed a good Lenten prayer. As we “spring forward,” as the cold of winter changes in many parts of the country to the warmth of spring, the Lenten season calls for a similar change within ourselves: letting the coldness of a self-centered life be transformed into a more God-centered, other-centered life of love, forgiveness, compassion and peacemaking.
Last Sunday we were in the wilderness in the presence of Jesus and the tempter. Evil abounded. This week we're on top of a mountain in the presence of God: Jesus and his transfiguration. Good abounds more. Lent is a time to affirm our belief in the presence of God in our world, in the good news that Jesus Christ not only overcame evil but also gave us this Lenten time to believe more in the power of the good news than in the sadness of the bad news.
The Word of God takes us back almost four thousand years to the land we know today as Iraq. Abraham hears the call of God. And because he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary faith, because he trusted completely in God, he set out for an unknown land. Many of us can relate to this. Remember going off to college? Or a new job? Or to another place? You may have been anxious. I’m sure Abraham was. Yet because Abraham trusted in God's unconditional love, God made a covenant with him and promised him prosperity.
This God also calls us to be people of faith, to trust completely as we, like Abraham, journey through happy and disappointing and uncertain days to our heavenly dwelling place.
Paul in his letter to Timothy speaks about God’s tremendous love for us. God is indeed the tremendous lover, a title of a book. Yes, God is always ready to lift us up. This God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth so that we could become like God. And one day, we shall see God as God really is, face to face. An awesome vision!
That is why Paul urges us to live a holy life now—a life in the presence of God and a life in service to one another.
Many of you know of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: a model of persistence in faith and prayer despite doubts and darkness. She said in so many words that holiness is not a luxury for the few; it is meant for all. One story in her life I will never forget. A so-called “untouchable” was alone and dying on the sidewalk. Mother Teresa went over, put her hands together as in prayer and bowed to him with a Hindu greeting: Namaste. She saw the image and glory of God underneath this unkempt and emaciated man. And, as the story goes, he looked at her and uttered his dying words: I lived with animals and now I die with the angels.
Yes, to see the image of God in people despite a “distressing disguise” is to live a holy life.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the disciples experienced the transfiguration of Jesus; they saw the unique and awesome presence of God in Jesus. As the scriptures describe this, the face of Jesus became as dazzling as the sun, his clothes as “white as light,” an allusion to the white tunic on early Christians as they arose from the baptismal waters. The disciples suddenly glimpsed a vision of the “glorious” Jesus beyond the flesh and blood Jesus they knew. They also saw their own future in the transfigured Jesus.
Jesus had to live by faith, completely trusting in his Father's unconditional love for him. That faith made Jesus a transformative person, ushering in the kingdom of God. That faith was tested to the breaking point on the cross. To quote a great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner: “Jesus surrendered himself in his death unconditionally to the absolute mystery that he calls his Father, into whose hands he committed his existence when in the night of his death and God-forsakenness he was deprived of everything that is otherwise regarded as the content of a human existence: life, honor, acceptance and so forth.”
Jesus died as he had lived: with faith in his heavenly Father, with hope of life forever. Yes, he died murmuring, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” And in the mystery of death God transfigured Jesus into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.
And just as Jesus became a transformative person in ushering in the kingdom of God, so too Jesus calls us, his co-workers, to become transformative people as well. We, as co-workers with God, have to do our best to transform unfairness and prejudice into fairness and tolerance; to transform hate into peace, indifference into compassion, sorrow into joy and despair into hope. Yes, we have to work to transform self-centeredness into Other centeredness so that we, like the risen Christ, can be transfigured into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.
I close with a story about how a transformative coach changed a mediocre college football team into a winning team, Notre Dame icon Lou Holtz. He recognized that attitude determines how well one performs any task. Here are a few of his transformative thoughts:
Focus on your character. Be trustworthy. Behave honorably. When you make a mistake, make amends.
Show people you care. Prove it consistently by praising people's efforts. Show your enthusiasm. Both a great attitude and a bad attitude are contagious.
Surround yourself with people who encourage, not discourage. Set the right example. Your hard work can generate the feeling that everyone is in it together.
Know what you want; set goals at every stage in life. Work hard to achieve them. And when negative thoughts arise, start thinking, “I can.” It works a lot better than “I can't."
Yes, Holtz was a transformative coach in changing a mediocre team into a winning team.
Let this be our prayer for Lent:
Forgiving those we don’t want to forgive;
caring for those in need, even though it’s inconvenient;
persevering when we are exhausted;
carrying our crosses when we want to run away from them; and
loving when the last thing we want to do is love.
Just practicing this prayer will make us transformative persons in the lives of people.