W. S. Gilbert begins one of the songs in HMS Pinafore with the line, “Things are seldom what they seem.”
Gilbert was writing almost 150 years ago, in a class-conscious England and the singer is hinting that the captain of the Pinafore belongs by birth to a lower class than that of a high-ranking naval officer. But even if social class is not as important to us in America today as it was to the British of Queen Victoria’s day, we can certainly understand that appearances can fail to tell the whole truth about someone.
Jesus’ disciples knew him. They knew him as a great teacher, miracle worker, and man of prayer. The events of today’s gospel reading — Luke 9:28b-36 — occurred, Luke tells us, about a week after Peter professed faith in Jesus as Messiah. Now, as he prays — as he is in conversation with the Father — Peter, James, and John see a truth about him that they hadn’t known: his glorious splendor. It should help them deal with his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and with his crucifixion and death.
The Transfiguration showed the apostles that Jesus was not what he seemed. He was much more than the great man they already knew. And how about us? Nobody knows us fully, so we may be more or less than we seem to others. Are we less than we seem? Are we more than we seem? Hopefully, like Jesus, we’re more than we seem. On Ash Wednesday we heard Jesus’ warning not to do good things just to gain admiration, but to pray, fast, and give alms without calling attention to ourselves. If we do good deeds in order to win praise, we are among the people Jesus calls hypocrites, and we are less than we see. But if we don’t care about being admired for what we do, other people may know that we are good people because our outward conduct will give good example, which it should, but they will not all know the full extent of it, which is fine. Often at wakes and funerals, I hear things about a person which show real goodness, but which were done without great publicity. They did the good they did, but didn’t care if everybody knew it or not. That’s part of what I mean by being more than we seem.
Living in God’s promise to us is another part of being more than we seem.
The first reading —Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 — tells of God’s covenant promise to Abram/Abraham. Last week we heard of how the descendants of Abraham went down to Egypt few in number, became a great nation, were liberated by God from the oppression of the Egyptians, and finally took possession of the Promised land, centuries after God made the covenant with Abraham. Meanwhile they were more than they seemed, in the sense that they were the heirs to the promised land. But they were growing into it.
St. Paul tells us in the second reading — Philippians 3:17-4:1 — that Jesus will transform our bodies into copies of his glorified body. We haven’t arrived there yet, but we are growing into it, if we let sanctifying grace work invisibly in our spirits. Living in that promise is part of being more than we seem. Just as Abram had to trust that God would keep his promise, we have to trust God’s promise to us. Abram had his vision. We have the Transfiguration and the Resurrection which it foreshadowed.
During Lent we get ready to celebrate Easter. More accurately, we strive to become more than we seem, by turning away from the evil which always tries to creep into our lives, to grow in love of God and neighbor by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The more successful we are, which means the more we accept and cooperate with the graces God offers us this Lent — the more we listen to the whispered suggestions of the Holy Spirit — the more Easter will be a season of joy.
So as we continue to slog through these forty days, we can always recalibrate, reset our spiritual GPS if necessary. I know as I look back on the first week and a half of Lent, I get the feeling there should be more to it: I should be doing more. We can all ask ourselves: What’s working? What isn’t? Should we be trying harder? Were we completely unrealistic in some of our plans? Should we add something? If it’s going well, of course that’s fine. Basically, we all should arrive at Easter and be more than we seem, closer to the Transfiguration that is promised us, filled with joy.