Listening with Faith like Abraham and the Apostles, Second Sunday of Lent, March 16, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Casa Maria Retreat House of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, Irondale, AL
Retreat on Pope Francis, The Reform of the Church and Us
March 16, 2014
Gen 12:1-4, Ps 33, 2 Tim 1:8-10, Mt 17:1-9

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided the homily:  

Lenten Lessons

The Second Sunday of Lent is called the Sunday of Abraham and the Transfiguration because every year in the first reading we focus on part of the story of the calling of Abraham and in the Gospel one of the evangelist’s accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration at the top of the very high mountain. The lessons we learn in these scenes are important not only for us to live Lent well but for us to make the transition that God wants us to help us make well as we leave a retreat.

Real Faith

Abraham shows us very clearly what real faith is, the type of faith to which God calls each of us and wants to renew in us each Lent and each retreat. When Abraham was 75 years old — well past retirement age for people today — the Lord called him while he was in Ur of the Chaldeans 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 what was likely fifty or sixty 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 descendants 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 again consented. After they were settled, Abraham and Sara tried for 24 years to have a child, to no avail. But he continued to believe. Eventually when Abraham was 100, 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, 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. He did so, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, fully believing that even if he should kill his son, God would raise his son from the dead (Heb 11:19). But as his hand was coming down with the knife, the angel of the Lord held his hand.

The Church gives us the story of Abraham each year at the beginning of Lent first because we’re called to have faith similar to Abraham’s. 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 disbelieving what we know of biology and common sense and believing that a couple in their 90s will conceive their first child. God also calls us to be willing to sacrifice everything — even people or things we love most — for him, 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). Lent and every retreat are meant to help us to trust in Jesus like that, to depart from the secure places we have constructed to be led by God on the journey of faith.

Two Mountains

In the Transfiguration we see several aspects of that journey. The Church gives us the Gospel of the Transfiguration every year on this second Sunday for the same reason why God the Father conceded to Peter, James and John the experience of the Transfiguration on the mountain in the first place: to give them a foretaste of Jesus Christ’s glory to sustain them when they will see Jesus transfigured in blood, pain and suffering on Good Friday. There is an intrinsic connection between Mt. Tabor and Mt. Calvary, between the glory of the Transfiguration and the glorification of Christ on the throne of the Cross.

We see it in what the subject matter of the conversation between Jesus and the two great heroes of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah are both precursors of Lent. Elijah had lived a Lent of 40 days crossing the desert to the mountain of God, Horeb, being hunted by King Ahab. Moses had spent 40 days in prayer at the tomb of Mt. Sinai and then 40 years with the Jews in the desert. They came specifically to speak with Jesus not about the glory that was to come, not about Heaven, but about the culmination of the Lenten Season: Jesus’ suffering, Cross and death. We see this in the word St. Luke uses in his account of the Transfiguration: they spoke about 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 of Israel. Moses and Elijah had come to speak about that new Passover that Jesus was going to accomplish during the rite of the Old Passover begin on the 14th of the month of Nisan, on Holy Thursday. Jesus, however, was speaking about this exodus while he was gloriously transfigured, not cowering in fear. God the Father wanted Peter, James and John — and all of us here — to see this scene, so that it would sustain our faith when the suffering comes.

Listening

The second intrinsic connection is what God the Father says to the three apostles. God the Father is rather reticent in the New Testament. He speaks only three times. The first time is at Jesus’ baptism, when he said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” The last time is during the Last Supper when he stated that he had glorified his Son and would glorify him again. This time at the top of Mt. Tabor, however, when he spoke from the cloud, he went further. The first thing he said reiterated his Son’s true identity. Just before this scene in St. Matthew’s Gospel were the questions Jesus had asked the apostles in Caesarea Philippi: who do people say that the Son of Man is? And who do you say that I am? Jesus wasn’t John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets, as many of the people believed. He wasn’t even just the long-awaited Messiah. God the Father thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son!” How could Peter, James and John ever forget that?

Then this Father of so few words gave a command to the three apostles that on the surface makes little sense: “Listen to Him!”  What had the apostles been doing for the past two plus years but listening to Jesus? The heard his beautiful sermons, like the ones he gave on the Mountain or in the Plain, the parables he taught from Peter’s boat and before fig trees, the discourses he would give in the temple, and so many other things he taught them along the way. It would seem at first glance to be a superfluous imperative. But it wasn’t, because God the Father knew that they had only been selectively listening, and they had been tone deaf to what Jesus had been saying to them about his upcoming crucifixion and death.

When Jesus first announced, after Peter had confessed him to be the Messiah, that he would be handed over to the scribes and Pharisees, scourged and crucified and on the third day raised, Peter said that that would never happen to him. They didn’t want to hear it. Jesus would tell them on three separate occasions that this would occur, but they still didn’t believe him and were shocked and scattered when it finally occurred. Even after the foretold crucifixion, which would have been a confirmation, they still really didn’t grasp what he said about being raised on the third day and were stunned when he walked through the closed doors of the upper room. St. Thomas didn’t even believe when the others told him. He would only believe when he saw Jesus’ gloriously transfigured resurrected body with its unbloody wounds. So these words of the celestial Father were very appropriate. They needed to know of Jesus’ divinity and to believe in his words. They needed to keep the connection between Jesus’ glory and his suffering. They needed to have faith that Jesus’ exodus, as painful as it would be, would lead them all to the promised land. The needed truly to listen to Jesus.

The three apostles on the Mountain needed to have the type of faith of Abraham, to listen to God’s words and trust in what Jesus had said, to trust in his promises, even though it was going to be a very difficult journey ahead as they needed to go beyond the faith of Abraham when God’s angel didn’t stop the Roman soldiers from hammering Christ to the Cross and piercing his side with a lance. We, too, need that same faith in God as we traverse the desert of human life. The Church gives us this reading of Abraham to inspire us to faith by reminding us that God is always faithful to his promises, even when they seem not just improbable but humanly impossible.

Pope Francis talked about the importance of God the Father’s command to listen to Jesus this morning in his Angelus meditation in the Vatican. He said, “Sudden there resounds from above the voice of the Father who proclaims Jesus to be his beloved Son and says, ‘Listen to him!’ These words are important! The Father who said this to these apostles says it also to us: ‘Listen to Jesus, because he is my beloved Son.’ This week let us retain these words in our mind and heart. ‘Listen to Jesus!’ It’s not the Pope who says this, but God the Father, and he says it to all of us, to me, to you, to everyone. It’s like a help for us to go forward in our Lenten journey. ‘Listen to Jesus!’ Don’t forget it. This invitation of the Father is very important. We disciples of Jesus are called to be persons who listen to his voice and take his words seriously. To listen to Jesus, we need to be near him, to follow him, like the crowds in the Gospel did what they followed him along the roads of Palestine. Jesus doesn’t have a fixed cathedra or pulpit. He was an itinerant teacher who proposed along the way the teachings that the Father had given him, as others overcame obstacles that were not always foreseen or easy. To follow Jesus in order to listen to him. But we can also listen to Jesus in his written word, in the Gospel. I want to ask you a question. Do you read every day a passage from the Gospel? Yes or no? It seems half and half, some do, some don’t. But it’s important! Do you read the Gospel? It’s a good idea to have a small Gospel book and carry it with us in a pocket or in a pocketbook and to read a small passage from it in different moments of the day. At various times during the day I take the Gospel from my pocket and read something, a small passage. Jesus is there speaking to us in the Gospel! Reflect on this! To carry just one of the Gospels, not even all four with us, isn’t difficult. To keep the Gospel with us always because it’s the Word of Jesus and allows us to be able to listen to him.”

We see in this scene of the Transfiguration two very important regular moments of our journey in faith following in the footsteps of Abraham and the three apostles. Pope Francis said one movement is the journey up the mountain and the other is coming down from it.

The movements of Lent and Life

The first movement is climbing the mountain. “In the Bible, the mountain represents the place of nearness with God and the intimate encounter with him,” Pope Francis said this morning. “It’s a place of prayer, where one enters the presence of the Lord.” All of us are called to climb this “mountain” of prayer. “We need to go apart from the crowd, to climb the mountain into a place of silence, to find ourselves and perceive better the Lord’s voice. We do this in prayer.”

But we can’t stay there at the top of the mountain. The second movement, the Holy Father says, is to come down and that is not just a bare necessity but something that our time with God moves us to do. “The encounter with God in prayer urges us to come down once again from the mountain and return to the bottom, in the plain, where we encounter so many brothers and sisters weighed down by fatigue, sicknesses, injustices, ignorance, and material and spiritual poverty. To these brothers and sisters in difficulty, we’re called to bring the fruits of the experience that we have had with God, sharing the graces received.” And the grace he calls us to share in a particular way is the Word of God, what we’ve heard from Jesus. “When we hear the Word of Jesus and keep it in the heard, the Word grows. Do you know how it grows? By giving it away to others! The Word of Christ in us grows when we proclaim it, when we share it with others! This is the Christian life. It’s a mission for the whole Church, for all the baptized, for all of us: to listen to Jesus and offer him to others.”

Leaving Tabor

This scene of the Transfiguration as a whole is a beautifully rich one for us as well at the end of the retreat. The experience of a retreat has often by referred to by the saints as a “Tabor” experience. We, like St. Peter, after the exertion of climbing up the hill and getting to the summit where we get glimpses of God’s glory, where God speaks to us, want the experience to continue. Peter wanted to build three booths to keep the experience going, to make it quasi-permanent. That wasn’t God’s will for him, and it’s not for us, either. It’s necessary to leave the mountaintop with Christ, to go back into the world, and then climb with Christ another mountain, the mountain of Calvary. But just like the three apostles, we’re not going back into the world the way we arrived. We’re meant to go transformed, yes, even transfigured by the graces and the blessings God has given us here. We have seen Jesus three times on this retreat transfigured not in dazzling white garments but under the appearances of bread and wine. We have heard the Father’s voice in private prayer, in the readings of His Word, even, possibly, with a New England accent in the conferences and homilies. We know that various Crosses await, but we also know the power and the wisdom of those Crosses and how they’re gifts of the Lord to try to bring us, with the Crucified Christ, to eternal glory.

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 give his life for us. 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 grace to keep our mind on heavenly things so that, through the Cross, we might come one day to experience the full glory of our heavenly citizenship and have the chance to see Jesus transfigured forever in glory and listen to him saying to us, “Come, all you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world.”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
GN 12:1-4A

The LORD said to Abram:
“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”Abram went as the LORD directed him.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22

R/ (22) Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.

Reading 2
2 TIM 1:8B-10

Beloved:
Bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.He saved us and called us to a holy life,
not according to our works
but according to his own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began,
but now made manifest
through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,
who destroyed death and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel.

Gospel
MT 17:1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”