Quinquagesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquagesima. That’s the ancient Latin name given to this Sunday, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What does it mean? It ought to mean something really exotic, didn’t it? You know, something like “the Feast of St Quinqua, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.
I’m afraid not. It just means ‘fiftieth’. Today marks the fact that in 50 days from now, we will celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb at Easter.
But hang on. Some of you are doing the math, and thinking to yourselves ‘that can’t be right! If Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and its 40 days long, how can today be 50 days from Easter?
That’s because many of us forget that the 40 days of Lent do not include the seven Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of celebration – each one a mini-Easter, during which the triumph of Christ over the grave is remembered and praised. They are also days of relief from the strictures of Lent. So for those of us who face the prospect of 40 days of abstinence with dread, the church kindly provides us with one day in seven when we are permitted to eat chocolate, or drink that glass of beer! Then add the three days from today until Ashe Wednesday - and there is your 50 days until Easter.
More importantly than any ecclesiastical numbering system, today’s focus is really on the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading of this morning reminded us of how Jesus met on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – The Lawgiver and the ultimate Prophet (before Jesus himself). They strengthened him and encouraged him for the journey ahead…the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
This evening’s readings pick up the same theme. From Exodus, we hear the story of Moses’ first encounter with the Divine, at the burning bush. His face doesn’t glow, as it did later when he met God on Mount Sinai, but there is awe and wonder in this first encounter.
In the New Testament reading, which was a Gospel reading, we observe Jesus at prayer. He is puzzling and worrying over the mission to which God has called him, and seeking God’s affirmation that he is on the right path. All he seeks is to glorify God, and, in typical Hebrew fashion, to glorify the Name of God. And God replies from heaven that, ‘Yes, I have glorified it – and I will do it again’!
Quite what God means, when he says he has already glorified his name, is somewhat opaque. It could include any number of times in the past when God has been true to his word and his promises, rescued his people, or sent them aid from heaven (in the form of prophets, leaders and Jesus himself). These are all actions with glorify God’s Name, by making the very name of God something which can be trusted, and relied upon. But Jesus has a clear understand of what glorifying God’s Name in the future means…
The Transfiguration is a turning point. It’s a pivot-moment between Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching, and his ministry of salvation which is about to unfold in Jerusalem. It is such a pivotal point that in Mark’s gospel, the Transfiguration story appears right in the centre of his narrative. It’s as though we are asked to note everything that Jesus has said and taught up to that point, but we are invited to really focus on what is about to happen.
The Israelites had been struck down by a plague, because of their disobedience (again! They never seemed to learn, did they?). To re-build their trust, God commanded Moses to fashion a serpent, out of bronze, and to lift it up on a stick for everyone to see. Anyone who gazed upon the serpent, lifted up, would be healed – and their trust in God renewed. (That, by the way, is why the medical profession still uses the image of a serpent on a stick as a sign of healing – look out for it, around pharmacies and the like).
Jesus describes his own ‘lifting
up’ as being like the lifting of the serpent on a stick. In John chapter 3, he says this:
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This, is the focus that all the Gospel writers want us to see. In Jesus’s story, everything moves towards the Cross. When Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, his sacrifice, his love for humanity, his willingness to give his all for us – this has the effect of drawing us to him. And, by believing in him, which means by following him, by living as he calls us to live, by trusting in his teachings, and his way, we too can find the path to eternal life.
Eternal life, the life of heaven, is reflected in the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. And eternal life is promised to all of us who gaze, lovingly, willingly, faithfully, upon the face of Christ lifted up.
So, as we move towards Easter, a quinquagesima from now, through the 40 days (and seven Sundays!) of Lent, let us prepare our hearts to meditate once more on the deep, profound mystery and the glory of the Cross.