Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Second Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 7, 2004
Gen 15:5-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Lk 9:28-36
1) Every year on the second Sunday of Lent the Church gives us two great gifts in the readings. The first is the figure of Abraham. The second is the Gospel of the Transfiguration. Both are given to us each year, because both are supposed to influence greatly the way we live Lent. Let’s see why.
2) The Church presents us the figure of Abraham, our father in faith, for two reasons. The first is because he shows us very clearly what real faith is, the type of faith to which God calls each of us. When he was 75 years old — well past retirement age for people today — the Lord called him while he was in Ur of the Chaldeans (modern-day Iraq) and told him to leave the land of his kinfolk and go to a land He would show him. God asked him to pack his bags, get his extended family and animals and leave behind everything, his language, his land, his friends. Abraham trusted in God and departed his comfortable, familiar surroundings, not knowing where his destination would be. That was only the beginning of the times God challenged Abraham to trust in Him. God gave him a promise, one that would have sounded crazy to Abraham and his wife, Sara, who were childless at the time. “I will make of you a great nation.” How could Abraham become a great nation if he and his wife had been unable to have children during likely fifty-plus years of marriage? Yet Abraham believed again. When they arrived in Canaan, Abraham found that the land God was going to give him and his eventual descendents was not going to come to him with a golden key. He learned that he and his family were going to have to fight for the land, against several tribes consecutively. Abraham against consented. After they were settled, Abraham and Sara tried for 10 years to have a child, to no avail. But he continued to believe. Eventually when Abraham was 86 and Sarah was 91, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, who was destined, Abraham thought, to be the one through whom God would make Abraham the father of many nations. But then 13 years later, when Abraham was 99, God decided to test Abraham’s faith to the utmost. He asked Abraham to go to Mt. Moriah, a hill in Jerusalem, and there sacrifice his son, the son for whom he had waited for so long and in whom he had put so much hope. Abraham did what the Lord wanted, even though it would have seemed so contradictory to God’s previous plans. He did so hoping that God himself would provide the lamb for the Holocaust. Isaac his son carried the wood. Abraham built the altar and then was prepared to sacrifice his own son to the Lord — something that the canaanite pagans were accustomed to do — before the angel of the Lord held his hand and told Abraham not to harm the boy in the least.
3) The Church gives us this story at the beginning of Lent first because we’re called to have the same faith as Abraham. While God might or might not ask us to leave behind everything and go to fight to win a far away land, He does call us to leave our own comfort zones each Lent, trusting in Him completely. He calls us to trust in His Word, above all things, even if that word means going against the knowledge of biology and common sense and believing that a couple in their 80s and 90s will conceive their first child. God calls us to be willing to sacrifice everything — even people or things we love most — for God, if he asks us. “You cannot be my disciple,” Jesus said, “unless you prefer me to your family… to your possessions… to your very life” (Lk 14:26 ff).
4) The second reason the Church gives us the story of Abraham is because what he did with Isaac foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of His only-begotten Son 1800 years later, which is what we are preparing to celebrate at the end of Lent. The Father had own Son carry the wood for the sacrifice, just as Abraham had Isaac carry the wood. Abraham’s words, “God himself would provide the Lamb,” were fulfilled when God provided the Lamb of God. The sacrifice took place on the altar of Calvary, very close to Mt. Moriah. A question many are provoked to ask is: Why did God allow this? This answer is found hidden in the Gospel passage of the Transfiguration.
5) In the dramatic scene we have in the Gospel, Jesus led the same three apostles he would have with him in the Garden of Gethsemane up Mt. Tabor and was transfigured before them. A short time before this, Peter had confessed Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and Jesus had told them for the first time the way he would bring about his kingdom, not by worldly triumph, but by worldly defeat. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). That didn’t register. In the transfiguration, God the Father tried to help them to understand. He allowed Jesus to take on some of his heavenly glory, which was veiled throughout his earthly life. He allowed Moses and Elijah to appear. They conversed with Jesus not about the glory that was to come, not about Heaven, but about Jesus’ suffering, Cross and death, the “exodus” that Jesus was to accomplish in Jerusalem. This exodus meant the passage Jesus would make from the slavery of death to the Promised Land of eternal life, just as Moses had lead the Israelites in the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Then God the Father spoke. The first thing he said indicated his Son’s true identity. He wasn’t John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets, as many of the people believed. He wasn’t even merely the long-awaited Messiah. God the Father thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son!” Then he gave a command to the three apostles with Jesus on the mountain: “Listen to Him!,” listen to what Jesus said about his suffering and death and believe in Him. (The apostles would ultimately not believe, however, until after they saw Jesus gloriously transfigured in his resurrected body).
6) The Church presents us this passage at the beginning of Lent so that we might receive the lessons God the Father wanted to communicate to Christ’s first disciples on the mountain. First, we learn who Christ is: God’s beloved Son. Second, we hear the Father’s only imperative in the New Testament, to listen to Jesus and believe in him and believe in everything he said and taught. Third, we discover centrality of His “exodus,” his suffering and death; like the Israelites followed Moses through the Red Sea that first exodus, we are called to follow Jesus, the Way, all the way this exodus so as to come to the eternal Promised Land. This is the burning desire of God the Father. He who thundered about Jesus, “This is my beloved Son!” loved someone in some respects even more that Son. He loved YOU more. He allowed his own Son to be brutally sacrificed on the wood of the Cross — fulfilling the prophecy of Abraham and Isaac — so that we would not have to die eternally out of sin, but could pass, in Jesus, to a new address, leaving this world and everything behind like Abraham left Ur.
7) In order to enter into that promised land, however, we must enter fully into Christ’s exodus: his passion, suffering and death. “You cannot be my disciple,” Jesus said, “unless you pick up your Cross each day and follow me.” That is hard.” To follow Jesus on this exodus means to follow him on the Way of the Cross. The Cross is given to us not just so that we could have something to “offer up” to God, but so that we, like Christ, might die on it, and allow him to rise from the dead in us.
8 ) Faced with the reality of Christ’s Cross and our Cross, many people reject it. In today’s second reading, St. Paul said that many of his contemporaries “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” He could have been saying the same about our own day. Many are enemies of Christ’s cross. They don’t see any meaning to suffering, their concern is to maximize their pleasure, the minds are caught up only in this world. Jesus’s, disciples, on the other hand, are called to be “friends of the Cross of Christ, who know our citizenship is in heaven. We’re called to fast, to make sure our god is never our belly. We’re called to pray, to keep our minds on heavenly things. We’re called to give our ourselves in sacrificial love, following Christ’s bloody footsteps all the way.
9) In recent days, the enemies of the Cross of Christ have begun to come out of the woodwork, especially in vocal opposition to Mel Gibson’s excellent film, “The Passion of Christ.” Their reaction to the visual depiction of the Passion is much like the reaction of many in the ancient world to the verbal depiction of the Passion. In the early Church, St. Paul and the other apostles preached almost exclusively about the Passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. “We preach Christ crucified,” St. Paul said to the Corinthians (1Cor 1:23). They proclaimed the depth of Christ’s love shown in the God-man’s suffering out of love for sinful man: “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). That brought about three reactions, St. Paul said. Christ crucified was a “scandal to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It was a scandal to Jews, who couldn’t fathom God allowing his Messiah to suffer that much, even though the Isaiah had prophesied very clearly that he would. It was stupidity, folly, to the gentile pagans, who couldn’t fathom why anyone would try to worship and follow someone publicly humiliated and executed on the Cross. But to those who are called by God, both Jews and Gentiles, the Crucified Christ is God’s power and wisdom, in which we enter into the power of love and the wisdom of the Cross.
10) We are witnessing with our own senses, today, the same three reactions with regard to the visual depiction of the Passion. To some Jews, especially like those in the Anti-Defamation League out of New York City, The Passion of Christ has been a scandal. They have criticized it as if it were anti-Semitic and would lead to a second Holocaust, although there has not been one publicized act of anti-semitism since the Passion’s release. To say that the Passion is anti-Semitic is to imply, of course, that the Gospel is anti-Semitic, which it’s obviously not. Rather than spawn sin, the movie has helped convict Christians of the fact that their sins led to Christ’s death and to strive against sin, including the sin of hating anyone, most notably the blood relatives of Jesus our Savior and of Mary his mother.
11) Even more than a scandal to some Jews, the Passion has been a folly to the many gentile pagans of our day, who, like the New York Times, think that the movie is just a depiction of “sado-masochism.” They don’t understand that every laceration on Christ’s back, chest and legs, every slap on his bruised face, every nail through a limb, every drop of blood is, in body-language, a declaration by Jesus, “I love you this much.” To them it is mere stupidity, a grotesque presentation of violence, because they don’t undertand what that suffering MEANS. Even some Christians haven’t gotten it either. They’ve said things like “The Gospel is all about love, and I didn’t find any love in the Passion.” Well, the depth of Jesus’ love is shown in his willingness to suffer out of love to save us from our sins, laying down his life so that we might live forever. The Passion is all about the real meaning of love, a meaning which I don’t think they grasp. One reason why they might not want to focus on the reality of Christ’s sufferings is because they suspect that Christ will turn to them and wave his bloody hand, telling them “Come, follow me!” in this type of self-sacrificial love, picking up their Crosses each day out of love for God and for others
12) To “those who are called”, however, this movie has been the “power and the wisdom of God.” It has nourished us many daily communicants in our faith and brought many back prodigal sons to the practice of the faith. A few people who have returned to the practice of the faith here at our parish have told me that it brought home to them the fact that Jesus is not some fairy-tale figure, but that, as one said to me, “it’s all true!” Jesus really did love us that much. We’re called to be friends of Christ, to be friends of his Cross, by picking up our Crosses this Lent and venerating them with our sacrificial love, much as we venerate the Lord’s Cross on Good Friday.
13) As we prepare to enter into Christ’s exodus — his passion, death, and resurrection — in this Mass, we ask God the Father for the grace that we might have faith in Him like Abraham, that we might listen to this Beloved Son whom the Father, out of love for us, allowed to suffer so much, that we might be true friends of his Cross and of Him on the Cross. As we get ready to receive the same flesh and blood that hung on and dripped from the Cross for us and our salvation, we ask beg him for the wisdom to know that “it’s all true” and the power to make this very same love of the Crucified Christ our own.