How Ash Wednesday and the Transfiguration point us toward heaven. A reflection on mortality and immortality.
Whenever I need an excuse for a good cry, I add onions to the menu.
While I prepare dinner, I take time to reflect on life’s toughest problems. As I peel back the onion’s layers with my knife, I peel back the layers holding the sorrows in my heart. My eyes sting from the pungent mince under my knife, and my sorrow surfaces with the tears.
My pain releases, and it doesn’t take long for the healing waters to wash over me and restore my heart.
By the time dinner is complete, the bitterness of both the onion and my sorrows will turn to savory sweetness.
This week, we enter into Lent – the bitter onion that often brings me to tears. I don’t want to hide from the pain. Instead, I need to take my sorrows and let them flow. To release them with every peel of the onion, knowing in hope that the bitterness will turn to joy on Easter.
The Lenten Onion
Today we examine the mysterious relationship between Ash Wednesday and the Transfiguration.
So close on the liturgical calendar.
So starkly contrasted.
The first one a foreboding entrance into a long period of darkness. The other a moment of light and glory. Together, they give us a beautiful, many-layered understanding of Redemption.
On Ash Wednesday, we receive the black cross of ashes on our forehead with the customary, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’re reminded of our mortality. Of the bleakness of our situation.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration, we see Jesus presented in glory and majesty. Bathed in light. He points us toward Heaven, toward eternity, in an impressive display that makes the apostles exclaim, “Let us build tents,” and stay here forever!
Let’s begin peeling back the layers of Lent.
My Fallen Humanity: seize the day
As I reflect on the priest smudging ashes on my forehead, my first inclination is to “seize the day.”
I only have a limited time available, I have to live it up and enjoy every pleasure while I can.
On Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) we indulge in this reaction. There’s only so much time to shovel in the sweets we’ll be sacrificing for the next forty days! Or, from where this tradition originates: we need to use up our stores of fats and meats before these things are denied us.
We cling to the things of this world.
Our fallen humanity sees only the comforts of the flesh and nothing else.
Like the apostles at the Transfiguration, we want to build tents, stay here, and enjoy it while we can. We don’t want to let this moment slip through our fingers. This life is a good thing, and we want to make it last forever.
Our focus is on the body.
The first layer.
The Invitation: put aside the world
The admonition, “Remember you are dust…” inspires us to do more than live it up before the opportunity is gone.
On Ash Wednesday, we launch into our Lenten Sacrifices. We deny our body certain pleasures, not because the body is evil, but because it won’t last forever.
We’re not only bodily creatures.
So we have to look past the body, and care for what will last forever: our immortal soul. There is more to us than this temporal life with beginning and end.
We can’t stay here on this earth forever, so we give it up now, one sacrifice at a time.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the goodness of the body, in its fullest potential.
Have you ever heard of the attributes of the glorified body? It can walk through walls… Go anywhere at the speed of thought… It will be super bright, and will never be affected by any kind of pain!
Our body isn’t something to be despised.
It’s part of us.
And though broken and mortal, it won’t always be. It will be restored in glory and splendor! Not in this world, but in Heaven.
So we need to make it there first. We need to care for our immortal soul.
Adam: our beginning and our end
Ash Wednesday points us to our beginning and our end: Adam, the first man.
The one whom God formed out of dust from the earth. The one who lived in paradise and walked with God. The one who disobeyed God and brought sin, suffering, and death into the world.
He is our beginning, and through his actions, he is our end.
Because of him, we will die someday, our body will return to dust.
Because of him, we are mortal beings.
The Transfiguration reminds us that even though our body has a temporal beginning and a temporal end, mortality is not its ultimate destination.
God created man as a bodily being, and will restore our body to us at the end of time.
In heaven, the body and soul will live united in glory and joy, to experience the pleasure of the Beatific Vision in a new heaven and a new earth. But in hell, the body and soul will together experience unimaginable suffering and torment at the separation from God’s goodness, due to the rejection of His love.
Eternity is our true end.
Jesus: our hope and redemption
In Adam we find our mortal beginning and end.
But Jesus is the New Adam.
In Him we find a new beginning, and a new end. Where Adam brought sin upon his descendants, Jesus removes the stain of sin from our souls. Where Adam brought death, Jesus bestows forgiveness and the promise of the Resurrection.
He gives us new life in Baptism: the life of a soul filled with sanctifying grace.
And though our bodies are still destined to die, we’re promised a new life for them too.
But we can’t stay here.
We won’t find that life in this world.
That’s why Jesus didn’t allow His Apostles to build tents on the mountain and try to stay there forever.
We’re not meant for this world.
We’re just passing through.
We’re made for love, for heaven, for God.
And throughout Lent, we practice denying our bodies some of the things it clings to, to make more room for Jesus. Jesus, who is our true beginning and our true end.
With hope, we keep our eyes on our heavenly goal.
The final layer.
Let the healing waters flow
We’re surrounded by mortality. We are dust and to dust we shall return.
But we’re destined for immortality. We can’t build tents here on this earth.
Embrace the Lenten Season. Take time to reflect on mortality and immortality in your life. Dig into the layers of meaning in this beautiful season of pain and hope.
Reflect on the sorrow Jesus feels at your sins and failings. Let the tears flow. It stings, it hurts, and it’s okay to embrace the pain.
But also let the waters of repentance heal you. We carry our crosses, but we hope in the Resurrection. We reject the things of this world for the promises of the next.
Let go of whatever you’re holding on to and reach out for Jesus.
He will turn your bitterness into joy.
The Church adds onions to our Liturgical menu.
Let go of what you’re holding on to and reach out for Jesus. He will turn your bitterness into joy. Share on Twitter
Journal your responses to these questions:
- What things of this world are you clinging to with your fallen humanity?
- How can you put aside some things of this world to care for your immortal soul?
- Your body will die, but will be raised up again on the last day. What can you do to show respect for your body?
- How can you participate in the new life Jesus gives you by His grace and forgiveness? How can you keep your eyes on the heavenly goal?
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