Pope Benedict on Lenten Transfiguration, 2nd Sunday of Lent (C), February 24, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Second Sunday of Lent, Year C
February 24, 2013
Gen 15:5-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Lk 9:28-36

Pope Benedict described in his letter to inaugurate the Year of Faith that faith is a “journey that lasts a lifetime” and that we need to “rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” Throughout Lent we are called to focus with particular intensity on this journey of faith. Last Sunday, we saw how the same Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to be tested wants to lead us on an interior journey into the same desert. Today, on the Second Sunday of Lent each year, the Church presents to us in the first reading, Abraham, and in the Gospel, the Transfiguration, because the biography of Abraham and the geography of this scene show us so much about the journey we’re called to make in Lent and Life.

Abraham at 75 was called by the Lord to leave his native place, to pack up all his belongings and go to a place that the Lord would show him. The Lord wasn’t even indicating to him what the destination would be. But he believed, packed and left. Most of those in Ur of the Chaldees must have thought he was out of his mind. When God told him that even though he and his wife Sara had been trying to conceive a child for probably 50 years without success, he would become the father of many nations, with descendents as numerous as the grains of sand on the beaches of the world and the stars in the heavens, Abraham journeyed out of his own experience of biological possibility and by faith followed the Lord, and among his descendents would be God in the flesh. And when God seemed to be asking him to sacrifice his beloved “Son of the Promise,” Isaac when Isaac was 13, Abraham was also willing to trust in the Lord and make that journey, believing, as we read in the letter to the Hebrews, that even if Isaac was dead, God could bring him back from the dead. His faith led him to trust in the Lord so much that there was nothing he wouldn’t do. That’s why he’s called our father in faith, because he shows us what faith really is, the type of faith God wants to give us, the type of faith we will have if we respond to God with the loving, trusting obedience of faith we see in Abraham.

In the Gospel, we see how Jesus led Peter, James and John on a grueling hike up an exceedingly high mountain — an exertion of at least several hours — in order to pray with them. The mountain is a special place of prayer throughout the Bible. We see Moses climb Mt. Sinai. We see Elijah climb Mt. Horeb. The Temple was built on the top of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. At the top of a mountain we can breathe fresh air. We can gain a different perspective, seeing so much more than we can when we’re immersed in so many things on the ground. And it was there, in the midst of prayer at the top of the mountain, that the three apostles were able to see Jesus’ glory, to see him as he really is, to see that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets — as Jesus himself would indicate to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus — and to hear God the Father speaking, too, indicating to them who Jesus is and how we’re called to respond.

Every Lent, Jesus wants to lead us up the same mountain on a journey of faith. He spoke to Moses and Elijah about his “exodus”, about the journey he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem, his Passover through death into life, the Passover he had indicated to his apostles, that he would be betrayed, tortured, and crucified, and on the third day rise from the dead, and that they too would have to deny themselves, pick up their cross each day and follow him — but, understandably, they were slow to believe. We, too, are slow to believe this truth. Now, 2000 years after the fact, it’s easier for us to accept, at least with regard to Jesus, but so many of us still resist the second part, that we need to follow Jesus up Calvary, that we need to be crucified in order to live, that we need to lose our life to save it, to fall to the ground like a grain of wheat in order to bear any fruit. St. Paul says in today’s second reading that many conduct themselves as “enemies of the Cross of Christ” by focusing on their bellies and physical pleasures; we’re called, on the other hand, to be friends of the Cross of Christ. That’s why the Church, after reminding us of these truths at the beginning of Lent, has us accompany Jesus to Mt. Tabor just like Peter, James and John, so that we may see Jesus’ glory, focus anew on the exodus we’re called to walk with him, and receive God the Father’s help and instruction truly to listen to and follow his beloved Son.

For this journey in faith that we’re all called to make, we have had a tremendous guide over the course of the last eight years, the successor and heir of the Peter whom Jesus asked to accompany him in that original exertion up Mt. Tabor. We can never thank God enough for the gift of this papacy, even if these eight years seem so short. Just as I did last week, what I’d like to do today, as we prepare for his resignation of the papacy this Thursday, is to profit explicitly from his teachings.

This morning in the Vatican he said this to all of us.

  • The evangelist Luke places particular emphasis on the fact that Jesus was transfigured as he prayed: his is a profound experience of relationship with the Father during a sort of spiritual retreat that Jesus lives on a high mountain in the company of Peter, James and John , the three disciples always present in moments of divine manifestation of the Master (Luke 5:10, 8.51, 9.28)
  • The Lord, who shortly before had foretold his death and resurrection (9:22), offers his disciples a foretaste of his glory. And even in the Transfiguration, as in baptism, we hear the voice of the Heavenly Father, “This is my Son, the Chosen One listen to him” (9:35). The presence of Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets of the Old Covenant, is highly significant: the whole history of the Alliance is focused on Him, the Christ, who accomplishes a new “exodus” (9:31), not to the promised land as in the time of Moses, but to Heaven. Peter’s words: “Master, it is good that we are here” (9.33) represents the impossible attempt to stop this mystical experience.  …
  • We can draw a very important lesson from meditating on this passage of the Gospel. First, the primacy of prayer, without which all the work of the apostolate and of charity is reduced to activism. In Lent we learn to give proper time to prayer, both personal and communal, which gives breathe to our spiritual life.

Since Pope Benedict’s resignation, I’ve been saying that this is the key to understanding what he’s doing. I wrote in a column for The Anchor, which I printed in last weekend’s bulletin,

  • By his decision Pope Benedict gave us perhaps his most powerful lesson about the importance of prayer. He finished his statement mentioning that he would “devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer,” carried out in a monastery on Vatican grounds.
  • Throughout his papacy, in his catecheses on prayer over the last two years, as well as in many talks to priests, seminarians, religious and faithful, he has repeatedly stated that the most important thing we do as Christians for God and others is to pray. By resigning the papacy in order to continue to serve the Church through prayer is to declare that he believes the work of prayer is even more important than the ministry of the papacy. And if prayer is even more important than the work of the successor of St. Peter, then it’s hard to argue that any other ministry in the Church — or any other human work — is more important than prayer either. There’s probably been no greater illustration of the lesson Jesus taught Martha and Mary in Bethany than this.
  • It was said that perhaps John Paul II’s greatest teaching of all was his proclamation of the Gospel of redemptive suffering over the last years of his life. I anticipate that the primacy of prayer — which means the primacy of God’s action in us — may become the lasting lesson of the final years God grants Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict this morning removed all doubt that this was the reason for his resignation.

  • Dear brothers and sisters, I feel that this Word of God is particularly directed at me, at this point in my life. The Lord is calling me to “climb the mountain”, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.

Prayer, he has taught us, is “faith in action,” and to make the journey of faith, we need to make an intense exertion in prayer, climbing the mountain. I repeat, if the ministry of prayer is even more important than the ministry of the successor of St. Peter, then it’s also the most important thing we need to be doing. Prayer will nourish our faith because it will intensify our relationship with God, so that when the Lord asks us to do something hard, like he repeatedly asked Abraham and like he’s asked Joseph Ratzinger throughout his life and into the papacy, we will respond.

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 our Father in faith and Benedict our Holy Father, 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 but is now full of the radiant resurrected glory of the light of which the Transfiguration was a foretaste, we ask God to strengthen us for the journey of faith in life so that, listening to the Son so attentively that we base our lives on every word, we may come to that place where Jesus has built a booth for us, and where he is conversing with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, Bernadette, Mary, and wants to converse with us forever.