Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Second Sunday of Lent, Year A
February 20, 2005
Gen 12:1-4; 2Tim1:8-10; Mt 17:1-9
1) Today the Lord takes Peter, James and John up Mt. Tabor and all of us in the Church go with them. There we learn crucial lessons for our living Lent well.
2) The Lord Jesus took them that up high mountain, not to sight see, not for exercise, but to pray. Jesus was constantly going apart to pray and on many occasions took some disciples with him. On this occasion, we see what happened when Jesus prayed: He became transfigured in the presence of His Father. He began to converse with Moses and Elijah, who were, respectively, God’s instrument for giving his law to the Jews the greatest of all prophets, who would precede the Messiah’s arrival. Moses and Elijah were no strangers to praying on mountains: Moses’ face had become radiant after praying to God for forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai (Ex 34:28 ) and Elijah had become transfixed by the whisper of God’s voice through a gentle breeze on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:12). St. Luke tells us the subject of their prayerful conversation — “the EXODUS which Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). Just as Moses led the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt through Red Sea and the desert to the promised land, so Jesus would inaugurate another exodus, another Passover, leading his people from the bondage of sin through the waters of baptism and the desert of death to the eternal promised land.
3) Peter interrupted their conversation to say, “Lord, it is good that we are here!,” and then offered something I’ve always found startling: to build three booths, one for each of them. This was not just a means to give them shade against the rays of the sun on the top of a mountain; the fisherman from Bethsaida was offering to build for the carpenter of Nazareth and his famous friends three quasi-domiciles, so that they could keep the experience not just for a few hours but for much longer than that.
4) Before Jesus could give an answer, a bright cloud overshadowed them and God the Father spoke from the cloud. God the Father spoke only three times in all of the New Testament and therefore everything he says is important not just because we “live on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3; Mt 4:4) but because those words are so rare that their meaning is magnified. The first thing he says establishes Jesus’ identity: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” The Father proclaims Jesus’ divine filiation, the same truth that Jesus would later proclaim and receive accusations of blasphemy from the chief priests and the scribes (Jn 10:30-33). Then this eternal Father of so few words gives a startling imperative to Peter, James and John — “LISTEN TO HIM.” This command is astonishing because these three disciples had already been with Jesus for over two years, hearing what he said in synagogues, preached on mountainsides, taught from boats, and doubtless said to them in private conversation along their daily journeys. But the Father knew they were selectively listening to his Son. They were particularly tone-deaf to Jesus’ most challenging words, as he said to them right before the scene of the transfiguration, that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” and that “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:21-24). God the Father was telling them not to ignore these crucial truths that Jesus was teaching them about what must happen to him and what must happen to them if they wish to be his followers.
5) We’ll pause here to describe the first main Lenten lesson we’re supposed to capture from this episode of the Lord’s transfiguration: it’s the lesson of prayer.
a. Like with Peter, James and John, Jesus wants to take us apart with him to pray, but the question is whether we’re willing to make the sacrifices that prayer entails. Prayer first involves hard work, the exertion of climbing a mountain. St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite and one of the greatest teachers of prayer in Church history, called prayer, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” But we could likewise call prayer, “The Ascent of Mt. Tabor.” That hard work begins by leaving the plain of our ordinary duties, worries, concerns, loves and having our bodies and souls ascend to the Lord. The hard work continues in the actual practice of prayer. Like an athlete in the gym who often needs to “suck it up” and finish the time dedicated to exercise, whether he or she feels like it that day, so in the spiritual exercise of prayer we need to follow through to the end, regardless of our feelings or moods, concentrating as best we can, allowing the Holy Spirit to exercise the muscles of our soul.
b. After that exertion — which may take months or years — we, like the apostles, reach the top of the mountain and prayer becomes a great joy. We have the experience of Peter and exclaim, “Lord it is good that we are here!” We want the experience to continue.
c. In prayer, Jesus is transfigured before us, so that he is no longer on the periphery of our lives, no longer merely an historical figure, but someone who is alive in front of us.
d. In prayer, we are called to reflect on all that God has revealed to us in the writings and persons (like Moses and Elijah) we find in Sacred Scripture, applying them first to Christ and then to us in Christ.
e. When we ascend the mountain of prayer, God the Father tells us, like he told the three, to LISTEN to his Son. Many Catholics think that prayer is the experience of saying “Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking.” They go to pray and just recite one vocal prayer after another. Vocal prayer is important and it’s helpful, but it’s not the most important part or summit of prayer. Prayer, rather, is essentially when we say, like the prophet Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is LISTENING” (1 Sam 3:9) and pay attention to what the Lord wants to say to us. We allow Jesus to talk to us about the meaning of his exodus, and about how we’re called to follow him along the way of the Cross as he leads us from our Egypt to the promised land. We allow him to talk to us about the sins he wants us to eliminate, about the good deeds he wants us to carry out in his name; this may fill us, like it filled the three, with fear, but we listen to him as he likewise tells us “do not be afraid.” Finally, we allow Jesus in prayer to whisper to us within how much he loves us and wants to help us experience the joy of loving others as he has loved us.
6) Lent is the time when we grasp Jesus’ hand and allow him to lead us up the mountain, where not only he is transfigured before us, but we are transfigured — we are changed! — before him and before others. Lent is the time we’re called to increase the quality and the quantity of our time with him, when we build a booth for him and for us together, and invite Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John, Francis Xavier and so many others in.
7) But there’s a second allied lesson we learn from this episode. The disciples liked it at the top of the mountain and wanted the experience to last as long as possible. But then Jesus came over to them, touched them, and said, “Get up!” After telling them there was nothing to fear, he led them down Mt. Tabor, back to interaction with the crowds, so that with them all he could ascend another mountain, Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die.
8 ) Every Lent Jesus comes to us, to the comfortable booths we’ve constructed, and tells us, as he said to Peter, James, and John both on Tabor and in Gethsemane, “Get up, let’s go!” He wants to lead us from our comfort zones elsewhere. This Lenten progression God wants of us is shown very clearly in the first reading. Abram was 75 years old, well-established in Ur of the Chaldeans, living in his paternal home, was well-respected and had a huge flock of sheep. But the Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your family and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram could have easily concocted a long list of excuses, but he didn’t. He packed up his home, his family, his animals — HIS ENTIRE LIFE — and left. He had no idea where God was going to take him, but he trusted in the Lord and he followed. He had no clue that God was going to have this septagenarian and his family members BATTLE a succession of younger men and their armies in order to acquire the new land. He had no inkling that God would take him out from what he thought he knew about biology, by having him trust — ten years later, when he was 85 and his wife Sara was 91 — that they would conceive a child, but he believed then, too. Fourteen years after that, God took Abraham on an even steeper climb of trust, up to Mt. Moriah with his son Isaac, supposedly to sacrifice Isaac back to God. But Abraham, out of a trusting faith in God, willingly assented again. On every occasion, Abraham’s faith, his “hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18 ), was rewarded by God more than Abraham ever could have anticipated.
9) This Lent the Lord comes to us wherever our Ur is and says, “Get up and go to the land I will show you.” He asks us to trust him on the journey and to follow him with the same type of trusting faith that we see in the man we call our “father in faith.” Like Abraham, we may be old, we may have all types of dependents, we may have a multitude of excuses, but God calls us to a journey. He doesn’t tell us what types of battles we’ll encounter, nor does he indicate to us the destination to which he’s leading, but if we really trust in him, we don’t need to know. We may want to say to him, “Lord, it’s good that we are HERE!,” and prefer not to leave, but Jesus tells us to get up, not to be afraid and to follow him. The central truth is that if Abraham had not trusted in God and left Ur, he would never have seen the promised land nor become the father of many nations. If Moses, at 80, and the Jews in Egypt had not trusted God enough, they would have died slaves in Egypt and never experienced God’s great manifestations of saving power and love. And if the apostles had not left Mt. Tabor and gone with Jesus up to Calvary, they would never have witnessed the depth of his love nor been capable of being His witnesses to the ends of the earth.
10) Every Lent we’re called to leave our Ur and with faith follow the Lord to the place he shows us. Every Lent is meant, too, to be a Tabor experience, in which we climb with Christ to the experience of mutual transfiguration in prayer and then descend with him to walk the way of the Cross to another mountain. On that other mountain, Jesus’ clothes will not be dazzlingly white, but instead ripped off of him. Jesus’ body will not be gloriously transfigured but will bear 180 deep lacerations. Rather than radiant, his face will be dripping with blood falling down from a crown of thorns. He will be conversing not with Moses and Elijah, but with two thieves. It’s to that mountain, and the glory on the other side of it, to which he leads us every Lent and every Mass. Jesus comes to each us personally right now and says, “Get up! Let’s go!.” May we have the courage to arise and the faith to follow him all the way.