The feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because ‘Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor.’ It is an arresting image. When we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9. 2–10), roses are usually nowhere to be seen. There are just bare branches, with a few little reddish buds showing where the new growth will come. The analogy with Lent is embarrassingly obvious. Here we are, trying to open ourselves to the grace of conversion but apparently plunging deeper and deeper into a sense of failure and sin. The promise of future growth may be there, but one has to look hard to find it; and in any case, we’re always being told that we need to take our gaze off ourselves and focus on Jesus instead. The spiritual selfie isn’t helfie.
While I agree with that, I think we may need to nuance things a little. The old practice of a daily examination of conscience, going over the events of the day and asking ourselves not so much what we did or didn’t do as where we placed our desire, what we wanted so much that it became the wellspring of our thoughts, words and deeds, is a good check on slipping into indifference. But today’s gospel asks more than that. It asks us to look hard and see only Jesus. That means seeing Jesus in ourselves as well as others, of having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose sin because to do so would be to profane his image in us. I have always loved the collect for today, with its invitation to feast interiorly on the Word — such a stark contrast with the fasting Lent lays upon us. The liturgy of the day piles paradox upon paradox, but the greatest of all is the fact that God became man and we, creatures of clay, now are filled with hope of the divine glory. The true selfie is all around us, ‘lovely in limbs not his’.