Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Second Sunday of Lent, Year B
March 1, 2015
Gen 22:1-2.9-13.15-18, Ps 116, Rom 8:31-34, Mk 9:2-10
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
There’s a rhythm at the beginning of every Lent. On the First Sunday, we always ponder Jesus’ forty days in the desert and how he resisted the temptations of the devil, so that we can learn from his triumph how to reject the devil’s machinations during our 40 days with Jesus in the desert and beyond. On the Second Sunday, our thoughts are always framed by two dramas, that of Abraham and of the Transfiguration, because Abraham and the Transfiguration teach us various indispensable elements that are meant to influence the way we live each Lent. Today I’d like to cull from these dramas five different essential elements that will help us to live Lent and Life.
The Effort Lent Requires
The first is the exertion, the effort, that a holy Lent entails. In today’s Gospel, Jesus leads Peter, James and John on a hike up an “exceedingly high mountain.” Christian tradition normally associates the mountain where Jesus was Transfigured as Mount Tabor, which towers over Galilee and the Plains of Megiddo, and takes over ten minutes to climb in vans up narrow zig-zagging paths. It would take vigorous climbers at least a couple of hours to ascend on foot. But Scriptural scholars believe the more likely place where this glorification happened was Mount Hermon, now in southern Syria and close to Caesarea Philippi where the preceding scene in St. Matthew’s Gospel took place. Mount Hermon is 9,232 feet tall, approximately five times the height of Mt. Tabor (1886 feet). That would have been a whole day’s work to ascend. They needed to leave civilization behind, they needed to leave their comfort zones behind, and climb with Jesus, sweating, probably gasping for air, to pray with Jesus and see him revealed.
We see an even greater exertion involved in what God asked Abraham. Abram was 75 years old — well past retirement age for people today — when the Lord called to him while he was in Ur of the Chaldeans (modern-day Iraq) and told him to leave the land of his kinfolk and go not to a known, posh retirement community, but to an unknown land God would show him. God was asking him to pack up his bags completely and leave everything behind, his language, his land, everything. Abram could have easily replied, “I’m an old dog, Lord, and I’m too tired to learn new tricks,” but he didn’t. He did what the Lord commanded. Little did he know that the land of Canaan to which the Lord was leading him would not have a welcome mat, but that Abraham would have to fight for the land. But Abram and his entire family and flocks left and made the journey, not knowing how long the journey would last or where it would end up.
The lesson for us this Lent is that the Lord is likewise asking of us to make an exertion. Lent is fundamentally dynamic. We’re called to be on the move. Jesus never says to us, “Stay where you are,” but always “Come!,” and “Go!” and “Follow me!” And the pilgrimage he seeks to have us make with him isn’t in a comfy golf cart. He’s asking us to climb, to sweat, to work, and to leave our comfort zones behind. If God were asking you, for example, to leave Fall River behind and go, for example, to work for the Church at the United Nations, would you do it? If he were asking you to go and inhabit inner city Detroit, would you do it? If he were asking you to go to live in Antarctica would you do it? What’s your Ur of the Chaldeans? What is the Lord asking you to leave behind in order to enter onto a journey of real faith?
The Faith Lent Requires
The second lesson we learn is about what real faith is. We see this in Abraham’s trust in God when God promised him something that would seem under the biological know how of 3800 years ago and still today impossible. Abraham was 75 and his wife was 65. She had tried in vain to conceive children. But God told Abram that he would finally become not just a father through Sarah, but the father of many nations. He took Abram outside and asked him to look into the sky and count the stars if he could. “So shall your descendants be,” God said. But what careful students of the text grasp is that a few verses later it said, “When the sun was about to set” (Gen 15:12). In other words, God had Abram look into the sky when the sky was blue, not dark. Abram couldn’t see the stars but he knew that they were there, and he believed that God would give him just as many children, even though he couldn’t yet see them, or hold them, or love them. And God had Abraham wait 25 years for the fulfillment of this promise, when he was 100 and Sarah 90.
The Church gives us the figure of Abraham at the beginning of every Lent precisely to help us to focus on our own faith, our faith in God’s promises. Do we really stake our whole life on the Lord’s word? For example, when he promises that if we leave everything to follow him, we will have 100 fold in this life and eternal life, do we believe in him? When Jesus tells us over and over again in the Gospel not to be afraid, that even though people can harm the body, they can’t harm the soul, do we hold onto our insecurities and preoccupations or do we find our courage in God? When he tells us “This is my Body,” “This is the chalice of my blood,” and “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” do we act on these truths and recognize that in Mass we meet God?
We finish most of our prayers with the word “Amen!” When I ask young people what this word means, I normally tell them it means “Yes!” with a thousand exclamation points or that it means “So be it!” But in Hebrew the word “amen” means to “support” or “uphold.” When we say “amen!,” we’re declaring that we’re staking our whole life on what we’ve just said “Amen!” to. That’s what Abraham did when he believed God more than he believed common sense and biological observation. That’s the type of faith that God wants to help grow in us every Lent.
The Sacrifice Lent Requires
The third lesson is about sacrifice. In Lent, we’re called to make sacrifices of our time in prayer, of our nourishment and pleasures in fasting, and of our things and ourselves in almsgiving. But many times our sacrifices can be relatively small and unthreatening. The Church gives us the scene of Abraham’s sacrificing Isaac in today’s first reading to help us to see that in faith God sometimes tests us, like he put Abraham to the test, by asking us to sacrifice what we humanly love most in order to help us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
How shocking God’s words must have been to Abraham when he said, “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust.” This went against every paternal instinct in Abraham’s 113 year old body. Any father worthy of the name would die to save the life of a son or daughter, not become the child’s executioner. It was a three day journey. Abraham loaded the wood of the sacrifice on Isaac’s shoulders and when Isaac asked “Where is the lamb for the Holocaust?,” Abraham prophetically replied, “God himself will provide the lamb.” Abraham built the altar, tied down Isaac and took out his knife to slaughter — to slaughter! — his son. It’s at that moment, the angel of the Lord stopped him, saying, “Abraham! Abraham! … Do not lay your hand on the boy. Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
Why would God have designed such a test? Why would Abraham have carried it out? The Letter to the Hebrews gives us the answer. “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol” (Heb 11:17-19). Abraham knew that Isaac was the son of the promise and, because he believed in God, he knew that even should Isaac die, God, who is faithful to his promises, would raise him from the dead. That would be extraordinary faith even today, 2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection, but Abraham had that faith in God’s fidelity to his promise, in God’s love, 1800 years before Christ’s resurrection. That’s the type of faith we’re called to have in God.
Abraham received Isaac back as a symbol, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us. A symbol of what? A symbol of Christ’s own resurrection. God did provide the Lamb for the sacrifice: his own Son, the Lamb of God, who like Isaac needed to carry the wood for the sacrifice. But unlike the sacrifice on Mount Moriah, at the sacrifice of Calvary no angel cried out, “Stop!” and “Don’t lay a hand or a nail on him!” The sacrifice was completed. But Mary, our mother in faith, was there, knowing that even should Jesus die, God the Father would raise him from the dead. And that’s the type of faith we’re supposed to have with regard to our own death. That God seeks to raise us from the dead as well.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul tells us, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” St. Paul goes on to say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That’s the faith that God wants to see grow in us this Lent. But in order to experience that growth in faith, we need first to be put to the test, to examine what is our Isaac, who is the person or what is the thing that we love most that God might be asking us to sacrifice, to give up, in order to make him the pearl of great price worth selling everything else in our life.
I remember my first year in seminary when I realized just how attached I was to my computer and what it stored. Everything I had done since the age of 14 was on it. After reading this story, I asked myself if God were to ask me to give up my computer, would I do it? Would I toss it out the window if God were asking? Would I toss out all my past, all the work, all of it, if God demanded it? Ultimately, God helped me after three days to have the courage to say yes to that. That’s the type of faith Jesus demands of every disciple. That’s the type of faith he wants to help us through the various tests and trials of Lent to obtain. But it comes from identifying our Isaacs and making sure our Isaacs are able to be offered to God rather than become our gods.
The Vision of Glory God Imparts
The fourth Lenten lesson we encounter on this Second Sunday of Lent is the help God gives us to make sacrifices of what we hold dearest, including our own life. We see that in the scene of the Transfiguration. Saints Peter, James and John saw something extraordinary at the end of their spiritual and physical climb. Jesus was transfigured. He and his clothes were radiant. He was speaking with Moses and Elijah, the greatest figures in Jewish history, about the “exodus” he was to accomplish in Jerusalem, when he would lead us, like Moses led the Israelites from slavery through water and the desert to the promised land, only this time the slavery is sin not Pharaoh, the water is baptismal not the Red Sea, the desert is not in the Middle East but in Lent, and the Promised Land is not flowing with milk and honey but the Living Water that wells up to enternal life. The experience of the various theophanies at the top of the mountain was so powerful they didn’t know what to say, but they wanted to keep the experience going for as long as possible, building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
Why did this scene of the Transfiguration happen? The reason was ultimately to strengthen them to remain strong in faith even when they would descend the Mount of Transfiguration to ascend Mount Calvary. When they would see Jesus transfigured in blood, they would be able to remember Jesus in glory. The Church helps us to capture the reason for Jesus’ transfiguration in the Preface of today’s Mass, in which the priest prays, “For after [Jesus] had told the disciples of his coming Death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.” It was to sustain their faith in trial. We know that it didn’t fully work. They fell asleep in the Garden. They fled in Gethsemane. Only John was present at the foot of the Cross. But while it for the most part failed them, it’s meant to sustain us.
This vision of Jesus’ glory is what has sustained the faith of the martyrs in making the sacrifice of themselves for God, because they knew that once they breathed their last, they would see Jesus transfigured.
This vision of Jesus’ glory, and how he wants us to share in it, is meant to give us the hope to persevere in faith no matter what trials come our way. It’s also what’s meant to help us live Lent boldly and make the sacrifices necessary in Lent to come into greater union with the Lord. If anything is keeping us from the Lord, the vision of the Lord’s glory will help us to cut off those hands or feet and pluck out the eyes. Vale la pena. The sacrifice is worth it! Whatever we have to give up makes sense compared to the glory of Jesus we await, the glory he wants to share with us.
The Listening that Lent Requires
The fifth and final lesson is perhaps the most important one of all. After all of the other aspects of Jesus’ transfiguration, God the Father finally speaks. He speaks only three times in the entire New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism, when he pronounces Jesus his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased; at the Last Supper when, in response to Jesus’ prayer to glorify his name replies that he has glorified it and will glorify it again; and here. But what he says is really quite strange when you think about it. After pronouncing Jesus once more as his Beloved Son — and answering the question Jesus asked in the previous scene when he surveyed who people and who the apostles were saying him to be — God the Father thundered, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
It’s a peculiar imperative to God from God the Father. After all, what had Peter, James and John been doing for the previous two years but listening to Jesus? They listened to him call them from their boats to be fishers of men. They heard him say all his parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sower and the Seed, the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and so many others. They listened to the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain and the great Eucharistic discourse in the Capernaum synagogue. They listened to him teach them how to pray. They listened to him instruct them as they walked along the dusty streets of Palestine. They listened to him lambaste the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees and console widows, sinners, and so many others. They had spent the last two years constantly listening to Jesus.
But God the Father noticed something that they themselves hadn’t grasped. They had been selectively listening to Jesus and they had been particularly tone deaf to what Jesus had been saying in the scene immediately preceding this one, when Jesus said that he was going to be betrayed, suffered greatly in Jerusalem, be tortured, crucified, killed and on the third day be raised. They didn’t want to hear it. St. Peter, right after his name had been changed to rock, had it changed again as Jesus called him “Satan,” and told him to get behind him in order to follow him rather than try to lead him, because they were thinking not as God does but as human beings do. Jesus ended up telling them what would occur three separate times, but they didn’t want to hear the message and when Good Friday came, most of them were not within earshot to hear Jesus’ seven last words. What they were even less willing to hear was what Jesus said after that, namely, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” To be Jesus’ disciple, to be able to follow him, they needed to say no to their earthly ambitions and be crucified with him. God the Father, who could see their hearts, knew that they were seeking to ignore what Jesus was saying about his transfiguration in suffering and theirs as well. And so that’s why he said, “Listen to him!”
The same Father says the same thing to us today. On Ash Wednesday Jesus said, “Repent and Believe!” Have we? Jesus called us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving? Are we doing all three? Are we excelling in the self-denial, self-death through the Crosses God gives us and in the following of Jesus and the heeding of all of his words? God the Father who calls us to listen to his Son will listen to our prayers for all of the help we need to have the trusting, obedient ears needed. That’s one of the most important parts of Lent.
How all of these Lenten Lessons culminate in the Mass
Today we’ve left our homes, our Urs, not to travel to ancient Palestine but to come to this Church. We’ve climbed not the Mount of Transfiguration but Eastern Avenue to ascend this sanctuary. It’s here at Mass that Lent and everything else in our faith finds its source and summit.
The Lord wants us to make the exertion to come here and hopefully to exert ourselves to leave our comfort zones to come each day during Lent if we can.
It’s here that the Lord wants us to increase our faith in his promises, specifically that if we worthily eat his flesh and drink his blood we’ll have his life in us and live forever.
It’s here that we present our sacrifices to the Lord praying that these sacrifices, united to Christ’s, may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
It’s here that we see Jesus transfigured not in glory but in humility and build not a booth for him but a tabernacle and a Church so that we can come into his presence and allow him to transfigure us.
And it’s here that we listen to his word, the words of eternal life, and seek to become living commentaries of it.
If God didn’t even spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, he really will give us everything else besides. Today he gives us as a reward for our exertions, as a foretaste of forever, what he holds dearest but was willing to sacrifice for our salvation.
Today as we hear St. John the Baptist’s words saying later in Mass, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!,” that Lamb God himself provided, let us also hear the Father saying to us, “This is my beloved Son. Do whatever he tells you! Take seriously his words throughout Lent, ‘Repent and Believe!’ and follow him, accompany him, on the pilgrimage on which he wants to lead you, up not Mt. Moriah, not Mt. Tabor, not Mt. Hermon, but the Celestial Jerusalem to my house where I’ve built a booth not only for him, for Moses and for Elijah, but for you!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he replied.
Then God said:
“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you.”
When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.
Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command.”
Responsorial Psalm Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
I believed, even when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted.”
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people,
In the courts of the house of the LORD,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
reading 2 Rom 8:31b-34
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
Verse Before the Gospel cf. Mt 17:5
From the shining cloud the Father’s voice is heard:
This is my beloved Son, listen to him.
Gospel Mk 9:2-10
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.