This coming Sunday is the last before Lent begins, and thanks to Dr. Alexander Shaia, I was recently reminded of the origins of this season of the church year. The seeds for the current shape of Lent are found at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries, when Christians were finding themselves increasingly in conflict with one another over theological matters. And, they were unsettled by this conflict. Christian leaders determined that what was necessary in that conflicted atmosphere was an annual opportunity for the churches to remember where their unity truly lay: not in doctrinal precision, but in a common commitment to following the path of Christ into transformation. Walking this path depended not so much on doctrine but on a common spiritual practice. And so, it was decided that the church needed an annual retreat, one that all local communities would embrace at the same time. Thus, what we now know as Lent was born.
Originally, the season between the start of Lent and Pentecost was only 12 days or so. Over time, it got lengthened to the current 100 days. And just as this season of retreat prior to Easter was about to begin, a particular Gospel story was told: the story of the Transfiguration, which is indeed the story that will be heard in most lectionary-based churches this coming Sunday.
You may be familiar with the contours of this story: Jesus takes the disciples Peter, James and John up on the mountain, and while they are there, they experience a vision, in which they see Jesus transfigured by a dazzling light that shines through him, and Moses and Elijah appear alongside of him. Toward the end, they hear a voice confirming that Jesus is of God, and should be listened to. When many people today hear this story, I suspect that the first question that arises in their minds is whether or not the story is true, in the sense that it is an accurate retelling of an historical event. But this would not have occurred to the the Christians of the late third and early fourth centuries. They told that story, and heard it, not out of any historical interest, but because it illumined something about their own lives. In their view, the story was not so much about what happened with Jesus and his friends. Rather, it was a story that showed them something important about themselves.
Alexander Shaia suggests that the story was told as a call to retreat, and it was designed to encourage people to remember who they truly were. The story celebrates, he says, the “mutual gaze” of divinity and humanity. The divinity is represented by Jesus, Moses and Elijah with humanity represented by Peter, James and John. In most icons (traditional paintings) of this story, the three divine figures are seen facing the three human figures. It is here that divinity and humanity gaze at one another, realizing that they are really two sides of the same coin. Humanity is meant to become by grace what divinity is by nature, and it is the nature of the divine to seek the transformation of the human. So, the story of the transfiguration is told, just as Lent is about to begin, to remind people of the call of love, a divine love that seeks to love us into being our very best possible selves. Lent is, by its nature, a time of self-reflection, a time to ask ourselves how we are doing on our Christian path. Just as this period is about to begin, the transfiguration is meant to remind us that, far from being unworthy sinners, we are meant to shine with the radiance of the divine light, just as Jesus does in the story. We are to become more and more like the Christ upon whom the disciples gaze on the mountain top.
If this strikes you as odd, as something you’ve never heard before, it may be because this interpretation is rooted in a very different understanding of the meaning of salvation and the Christian journey than is traditionally a part of Western Christianity — though, it has been part of Easter Christianity all along. For Western Christians (Roman Catholics and all flavors of Protestantism), salvation (and thus the Christian journey) tend to be seen through the lens of atonement. That is, that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins by sacrificing himself on the cross to appease the anger of God over humanity’s sinfulness. When salvation and Christian life are viewed through this lens, then Lent becomes a time to dwell on how sinful we actually are so that, when Easter arrives, we can be thankful that God was willing to sacrifice his son to save us. This perspective, as pervasive as it has been in the West, is fraught with trouble. The Western Christian tradition has never been able to agree on a “theory of atonement”, that is, on how atonement works, because every theory involves huge problems. What does it mean when God is seen as being unable to forgive us without human sacrifice — of God’s own son, no less? What does this say about who God is? Some have proposed that God didn’t want to sacrifice Jesus, but that it was necessary to pay satan to release human beings from his power. Well, ifthat were the case, what does it mean that God has to pay satan at all? Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful?
But this atonement perspective was alien to the ancient church. For them, salvation and the Christian journey were viewed not through the lens of atonement but through the lens of theosis, a Greek word which means to become God. In Western Christian ears, it sounds blasphemous. But it is not meant to be. St. Athanasius, for example, said that “God became human so that humans could become God.” He wasn’t the only ancient to talk this way, and neither he nor they were ever condemned as heretics, because what they were saying was consistent with the most ancient Christian understanding of what salvation was really about. Through Christ, human beings could become by grace what Christ is by nature. That is, we could become divine, we could grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. As the Eastern Orthodox author Fredrica Matthews-Greene puts it, when viewed through the lens of theosis, salvation is seen as being restored to the image and likeness of God. “It means God dwelling within us and filling us with God’s presence, a presence that gradually takes us over, so that although we remain ourselves, we are being made over into our true selves.”
Atonement is fundamentally based on a duality — the duality of good versus evil, of righteous versus sinful. Theosis, however, is more unitive, seeing all of humanity and, indeed, the whole of creation as being called by a loving God to this fundamental and thorough transformation that Matthews-Greene so eloquently describes. And God is all about unity and union. And this is not a new age idea: it is a very ancient Christian understanding, more ancient than the atonement perspective we are so accustomed to.
As we prepare to enter Lent this year, perhaps we can reclaim a more ancient point of view. Rather than focusing on Lent as a time to be mindful of our own sinfulness and our need for God to save us, perhaps we can focus on what sin really is: obstacles to the process of transformation to which theosis points us. What is it in our lives that keeps us from becoming more Christ-like? And how might those obstacles be removed? I invite you to carry the story of the transfiguration with you this Lent, and use it to remind you of who we are called to be. Then, at Easter, perhaps you will be able to see the places in your own life where stones have been moved away with God’s help, allowing new life — authentic, divine life — to grow.