When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor, Dr. James Sanders, told us that the Jewish faith exists today because of the three C’s: Customs, Clothing, and Calendar. It is fair to say that since the beginning of time, people have identified with their nation and/or faith beliefs, but when a nation is conquered, that identity is often lost. Customs and marriages tend to result in a blended nation.

When the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile, the Jewish people held together because they continued to observe their customs, which included wearing clothing that set them apart. Their customs and beliefs also forbade marrying non-Jews. Their Jewish Calendar was filled with feast days that were celebrated and taught the children their story as a people who had been chosen by God. Their Sabbath was a day set aside for God, and observing it was a sacred part of their covenant.

The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus movement – as our presiding bishop likes to call us – also holds fast to our tradition, which sets us apart from many other Christian traditions. We have a church calendar that is different from the secular calendar. It divides the year into seasons which help us reflect on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our traditions are also different from many Christian traditions.

I share all of this as a reminder for some and an invitation for others to participate in the observation of a Holy Lent. Lent begins Wednesday, and on Ash Wednesday, we will have two services where I will smear ashes on your foreheads while saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And just to emphasize the fact that we are out of sync with the secular calendar, I’ll be doing this on Valentine’s Day to my wife.

Something else that sets us apart from some other “branches of Christianity” is our focus on the resurrected Christ, rather than his death on the cross to “pay” for our sins. We tend to focus more on being “saved by grace” and on the example Jesus sets for us, rather than his crucifixion. So, we are more likely to wear a cross than a crucifix. Please note that I speak in general terms because the Episcopal Church does not tell us what to believe, and there is a significant range of beliefs among our members. What we do ask of each other is simply that we agree to come to Christ’s table and strive to be one of Christ’s disciples.

The life of Jesus includes his time in the wilderness, his Lent. It was a time for reflection and prayer. He was tempted and he resisted. He emerged from his 40 days in the wilderness with a firm resolve to preach good news to the poor. In Luke, we are told he returns to his home synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After reading it, he tells the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The ministry of Jesus was filled with sharing the good news of God’s love, not just with words, but with healing and raising people from the dead. Jesus dined with sinners and put people’s needs over the “law,” over tradition and custom. His actions ultimately led to his death on the cross because of our sins. The salvation that Jesus offers is not a free pass for whatever sins we have committed; the salvation Jesus offers is experienced when our hearts are transformed by his love, and we become his followers. Our hearts can be transformed by Christ, just not perfected.

Last week, I heard a response to what I imagine we all have heard, “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.” The response was, “That’s true, and we have room for one more.” Being a Christian is challenging and requires us to do as Jesus did – spend time with the one who created us and offers us strength and comfort to accomplish God’s will.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry and takes Peter, James, and John up upon a high mountain. While there, he prays, and his disciples witness what we are celebrating today, the transfiguration. Not only do these three disciples witness Jesus being transformed and his clothes becoming dazzling white, but Elijah and Moses also appear and talk with Jesus. In Luke’s account of this, we are told, “They appeared in glory and were speaking about his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” And, just as happened at the baptism of Jesus, a voice from above is heard to say, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” From this point forward, Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem.

The story of the transfiguration is read each year on the Last Sunday of Epiphany. It is on this week that our church calendar moves us from this season of light into a season of darkness, Lent. I say Lent is a season of darkness not because we dress in black and mourn our “manifold sins and wickedness” as is said in the optional Rite I prayer of humble access. I refer to it as a dark time because it is when we are called upon to reflect on why Jesus came to live among us and die on the cross. Jesus came that we might be transfigured from people who lean more toward being self-centered than being other-centered. Lent is a time to reflect on what keeps us from becoming the person God created us to be. And, I dare say that you, like me, have a lot of reasons that aren’t pretty.

In our baptismal covenant, we say that, with God’s help, whenever we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. Many of us have mountaintop experiences where we feel God’s presence, but we all but forget these experiences when we return to life as usual. There are simply too many distractions in this life for most of us to remain focused on God and God’s will.

Lent is only 40 days long – and if we give up or take on a new spiritual discipline to help us reflect on why we are here, why we were created, we will find it difficult to continue such practices for 40 days. Over the next few days, I encourage you to identify a practice to help you focus on listening. What is God calling you to do or be in this broken world? Lenten practices do not need to be complicated. They can be as simple as reflecting on where you found joy that day – or reading Compline each night before bed. Whatever you do, you will likely neglect to do it one day. Just remember to repent and return to the Lord.

Let us pray. Loving and gracious God, you have revealed yourself to us through your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to open our hearts to the transformational love he offers. Use us, then, we pray, to help bring about your kingdom in this community as it is in heaven. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. – Fr. McDonald