Second Sunday of Lent, Year A - Sunday, March 16, 2014
Abraham, our Father in Faith
Abraham was a man with a mission and we could rightly consider him to be the quintessential missionary. He is revered by the followers of three world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He is the founder of the nation of Israel. He is mentioned by name 308 times in the Old and New Testaments. He is a man whose life changed the course of world history. In today’s first reading from Genesis 12:1-4a, God’s word to Abram begins with a command, “Go from your country and your kindred and our father’s house.” God commands Abram to cut his ties to his larger nation, his ties to his larger kinship group, and finally even his ties to his immediate family or father’s household . God calls Abram to a loyalty and commitment that transcends even his family ties, the most important of all relationships in the ancient world. But this command comes with a powerful promise. God promises Abram a “land that I will show you.” Secondly, God promises to make of Abram’s offspring a great nation with the implication of a long line of descendants. Thirdly, God promises to “bless” Abram. Blessing involves fertility, life, success, well-being, and a good name.
We learn from today’s first reading and indeed for the whole story of Abraham that God’s chosen people never exist in isolation. They are called to a wider mission than just self-preservation. They are never allowed to claim an exclusive hold on God’s concern. God remains committed to all creation and all humanity. Abraham embodies such blessing and help to other nations within his own lifetime through his assistance to his nephew Lot and his bold intercession on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah [Genesis 18:22-33] and his covenant with King Abimelech [Genesis 21:22-34].
Nor can we forget the backdrop of today’s story. Part of this blessing is that God promises Abram to “make your name great.” Interestingly, the tower builders in Genesis 11:1-9 had built their tower with the purpose of making a name for themselves . Their self-centered and heaven-storming strategy led only to confusion and scattering. But God now promises to give Abram a great name as a gift with the purpose that “you will be a blessing” . Abraham’s friends will be blessed, and his enemies will be cursed.
As we listen to the marvelous archetypal story of Abraham, our father in faith, we must ask ourselves if we are men and women of mission. Abraham listened attentively to God’s voice, God’s commands and God’s promptings. Do we know how to listen to God and his Son, Jesus Christ? Faith means taking God seriously, at his Word and then leaving Ur for the Promised Land. The greatest adventure we will ever know begins the moment we say yes to God’s call in our life. God asks of us nothing more than he asked of Abraham: that we listen to Him, believe His Word and act upon it. Even though our faith may be weak, we have the certainty that God is strong. Even though we might now see the path ahead, the all-seeing God has charted our course and will lead us out of Ur into the Promised Land. In order for the process to begin, we must listen, trust and obey the Word of God.
Seeing the Glory of Christ
In his Lenten Message for this year, Pope Benedict XVI summarizes beautifully today’s Gospel story of the Transfiguration [Matthew 17:1-9]:
The Gospel of the Transfiguration of the Lord puts before our eyes the glory of Christ, which anticipates the resurrection and announces the divinization of man. The Christian community becomes aware that Jesus leads it, like the Apostles Peter, James and John “up a high mountain by themselves” [Mt 17:1], to receive once again in Christ, as sons and daughters in the Son, the gift of the Grace of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him”. It is the invitation to take a distance from the noisiness of everyday life in order to immerse oneself in God’s presence. He desires to hand down to us, each day, a Word that penetrates the depths of our spirit, where we discern good from evil [cf. Heb 4:12], reinforcing our will to follow the Lord.
One can only speculate on what lies behind the story of the Transfiguration, one of the gospel’s most mysterious and awesome visions [Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36]. Peter, James and John had an overwhelming experience on the mountain. Before their eyes, the Jesus they had known and walked with became transfigured. His countenance was radiant; his garments streaming with white light. At his side, enveloped in glory, stood Moses, the mighty liberator, who had led Israel out of slavery, and Elijah, the greatest of Israel’s prophets. They were conversing with Jesus about his death and resurrection that would take place in Jerusalem. The disciples were totally confused, awestruck. Peter fumbled for the right words. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us erect three tabernacles, for you and for Elijah and Moses.” But suddenly out of a translucent cloud came a voice like thunder, the voice of God: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
Matthew’s details of the Transfiguration story
Let us look closely at several of Matthew’s emphases in this majestic Gospel story. Matthew’s account of the transfiguration [17:1-9] confirms that Jesus is the Son of God  and points to fulfillment of the prediction that he will come in his Father’s glory at the end of the age [16:27]. It has been explained by some as a resurrection appearance retrojected (read back) into the time of Jesus’ ministry, but that is not probable since the account lacks many of the usual elements of the resurrection-appearance narratives. Matthew’s account of Jesus atop Mount Tabor draws upon motifs from the Old Testament and non-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature that express the presence of the heavenly and the divine, e.g., brilliant light, white garments, and the overshadowing cloud.
The high mountain has been identified with Tabor or Hermon, but probably no specific mountain was intended by the evangelist or by his Marcan source [Matthew 9:2]. Its meaning is theological rather than geographical, possibly recalling the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai [Exodus 24:12-18] and to Elijah at the same place [1 Kings 19:8-18; Horeb = Sinai].
The face of Jesus
Matthew describes the face of Jesus that shone like the sun, reminiscent of Daniel 10:6. Jesus’ clothes “white as light” recalls Daniel 7:9 where the clothing of God appears “snow bright.” [The bright white garments of other heavenly beings, are also mentioned in Rev 4:4; 7:9; 19:14]. In verse 4 we hear of the three tents – the booths in which the Israelites lived during the feast of Tabernacles [cf John 7:2]. The tents were meant to recall their ancestors’ dwelling in booths during the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land [Lev 23:39-42]. When Matthew speaks of the cloud that cast a shadow over apostles on the mountain , it recalls the cloud that covered the meeting tent in the Old Testament, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people [Exodus 40:34-35]. The cloud also came to rest upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication [I Kings 8:10].
The voice from heaven
The voice of God heard atop the mountain repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus [3:17], with the addition of the command “listen to him.” The latter is a reference to Deut 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection [16:21] and of his coming [16:27, 28]. Most significant about the statement of the heavenly voice is that here as in the Old Testament generally, “Word” is given priority over “vision.” Mystical experience of heavenly realities in the form of visual images certainly has its place, but a very healthy emphasis is placed upon God’s will as communicated through God’s Word. Matthew alone uses the word “vision”  to describe the transfiguration. Seeing Jesus transfigured high atop Mount Tabor has meaning and value only if it leads the apostles and disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.
Witnessing glory and agony
Peter, James and John are with Jesus in this moment of glory on Tabor. The resurface with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as their master struggles with his fate. Those who witness his heavenly glory must also witness his earthly agony. If the followers of Jesus wish to share his future glory, they must be prepared to participate in his suffering.
The awesome Gospel story of the Transfiguration challenges us to ask how we listen to the Word of God in our lives. The voice of God heard atop the mountain repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus [3:17], with the addition of the command listen to him. The latter is a reference to Deut 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection [16:21] and of his coming [16:27, 28]. How do we act upon the Word we have heard? How have some of our own mountain top experiences shed light on the shadows and darkness of life? What would our lives be without some of these peak experiences? How often do we turn to those few but significant experiences for strength, courage and perspective?
The awesome event and memory of the Transfiguration would serve as a reservoir of grace, consolation and peace for the apostles and disciples of Jesus when in Jerusalem on another hilltop, they would witness that shining face bloodied and spat upon, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags by soldiers who cast dice for them. Jesus’ face did not shine radiantly on the cross. Perhaps we ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Mount Tabor, where no one could see? Why didn’t God save it for the cross?
We must experience both mountains– Golgotha and Tabor– in order to see the glory of God. Let us look upon the Transfiguration as the celebration of the presence of Christ that takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face, his consolation and his peace.
Living Lent this week
2. In light of today’s readings, let us look to Verbum Domini, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s postsynodal exhortation on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” and reflect on how we can let the Bible inspire our pastoral activities (#73).
Along these lines the Synod called for a particular pastoral commitment to emphasizing the centrality of the word of God in the Church’s life, and recommended a greater “biblical apostolate”, not alongside other forms of pastoral work, but as a means of letting the Bible inspire all pastoral work”. This does not mean adding a meeting here or there in parishes or dioceses, but rather of examining the ordinary activities of Christian communities, in parishes, associations and movements, to see if they are truly concerned with fostering a personal encounter with Christ, who gives himself to us in his word. Since “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”, making the Bible the inspiration of every ordinary and extraordinary pastoral outreach will lead to a greater awareness of the person of Christ, who reveals the Father and is the fullness of divine revelation.
For this reason I encourage pastors and the faithful to recognize the importance of this emphasis on the Bible: it will also be the best way to deal with certain pastoral problems which were discussed at the Synod and have to do, for example, with the proliferation of sects which spread a distorted and manipulative reading of sacred Scripture. Where the faithful are not helped to know the Bible in accordance with the Church’s faith and based on her living Tradition, this pastoral vacuum becomes fertile ground for realities like the sects to take root. Provision must also be made for the suitable preparation of priests and lay persons who can instruct the People of God in the genuine approach to Scripture.
Furthermore, as was brought out during the Synod sessions, it is good that pastoral activity also favour the growth of small communities, “formed by families or based in parishes or linked to the different ecclesial movements and new communities,” which can help to promote formation, prayer and knowledge of the Bible in accordance with the Church’s faith.
3. Pray for the “Mondo X” Community of laypersons who now staff the retreat house atop Mount Tabor in central Israel. This wonderful Italian healing community, founded by Franciscan Father Eligio in 1967, has provided a welcoming home for men on the road to recovery from many sadnesses and tragedies in their lives. Having visited the community several times in the very place where Jesus was transfigured, I have witnessed how the transforming presence of Christ has brought people back to life, healed and restored them, and given much hope to those who are lonely, broken suffering and without faith.
4. Pray especially for the peace in the world, especially for the people of Ukraine in this moment of strife. May the Lord’s transfiguring power protect those in peril, bring consolation to those who suffer, peace to those who weep and mourn, and right judgment and compassion to those who govern.
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.