2nd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Joseph Levine; February 28, 2021
Readings: Gen 22:1-2,9-13,15-18; Ps 116:10,15-19; Rm 8:31-34; Mk 9:12-10
“Why bother?” What, finally, is the point of all the works of fasting and self-denial that we undertake during Lent? This isn’t a self-help program; rather it is about salvation.
When the people of Israel left Egypt and entered into the desert they were going somewhere. God had promised to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Even in today’s 1st reading, when we listen to how Abraham obeyed God and was willing to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice, we need to understand that this was not pure and simple renunciation on the part of Abraham. He had already received from God the promise that through Isaac he would become the father of many nations. That is why he obeyed God without hesitation, confident that God would even raise his son from the dead in order to fulfill his promise. (cf. He 11:17-19)
The forty days of Lent reflect the forty years that Israel wandered in the desert; we too are on a journey towards a promised land, the resurrection of the dead.
Now there is a part of the story of Abraham and Isaac that was omitted in today’s reading. The two are spoken of as ‘walking together’ towards the mountain. As they walked together Isaac asked about the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham replied, God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. (Gen 22:8) The two then continued walking together. As Moses recounts the story, he is very particular about the two ‘walking together’; their ‘walking together’ indicates a unity of purpose. Isaac has understood his father’s answer and accepts; this is not just a matter of Abraham offering up Isaac, but Isaac freely offers himself as well. They thereby gave us a living image and prophecy of the united purpose of God, the Father, who did not spare his Son but handed him over for us all and the man Jesus, God, the Son, who loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)
Before Jesus led the chosen Apostles up the mount of Transfiguration, he had announced to them that he would go to Jerusalem, be crucified, die, and be raised on the 3rd day. He also had called his Apostles to follow him on the way of the Cross. (cf. Mt 16:21,24) So too, especially during the season of Lent, he calls us to follow him, embracing the way of the Cross.
Nevertheless, in the Transfiguration he gives to the Apostles and to us a vision of the goal. The vision of the goal tells us why we should bother, why this is important, why we should trust Jesus; the vision of the goal assures us that in truth this is all worthwhile.
When he walked the earth, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, looked just like any other human being. He showed forth his divine nature by the power of his miracles and by the wisdom and authority of his teaching, but there was nothing supernatural about his physical appearance. The people who met him during this time were continually faced with a baffling puzzle: “How can a mere man do and say the sorts of things this man does and says?” They witnessed him speaking and acting as though he were God, but looking at him, they just saw a mere man. Those who looked at the human appearance rejected him, but those who attended to the wisdom of the words and the power of the deeds believed in him.
His final proof that he was indeed the Son of God, equal to the Father, would be his resurrection from the dead. That, however, was witnessed only by those who had already believed in him and become his disciples; everyone else, down to our own day, would have to believe the preaching of the Apostles.
Still, before his death and resurrection he gave Peter, James, and John a preview of the goal. Taking them up the mountain he appeared to them in the glory of his divine nature and received the testimony of the Father, This is my beloved Son, listen to him. Trust him because he is the Son of God.
There is, however, more to the event. The three Apostles beholding Jesus’ glory themselves have a foretaste of the goal of human life: I would say that beholding the light of the Transfiguration they came as close as a person could, while living in this life, walking the path of faith and not the path of sight, to seeing God. The light of the Transfiguration is not the vision of God’s own face, but it is a vision of the light from God’s face, passing through the veil of Jesus’ human face. That is why St. Peter declares, Rabbi, it is good that we are here. That is why he wants to stay.
There is more: not only does the Transfiguration reveal who Jesus is in himself, it reveals what the man Jesus will be like forever, after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. The Transfiguration also reveals what we are meant to become in Christ.
The Psalmist sings: In your light, we shall see light. (Ps 36:9) And St. John writes: It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn 3:2) When the gift of sanctifying grace that we now share is brought to perfection, we shall share in the divine light, the light of glory, and see God as he is. Then in the resurrection those who share in the light of glory will have their lowly bodies raised from the dust and transformed, configured to the pattern of the glorious body of Jesus Christ, the body that was revealed beforehand to Peter, James, and John in the Transfiguration. (cf. Ph 3:21)
St. John writes: Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 Jn 3:3) That is what the season of Lent is about; that is why we undertake the discipline of Lent; that is why it is worth taking the trouble.
There is, however, one more thing to add, one thing that brings the reality of the Transfiguration closer to us, enables us perhaps to ‘touch’ it, even though we cannot see it.
St. Mark notes that Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
I would suggest that the ‘clothes’ of Jesus, through which we can see him even now, are the sacred species of bread and wine that contain the reality of his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist; indeed, I would suggest that that the symbolism of the ‘clothes’ extends even to the sacred vessels, the sacred vestments, all the other objects used in the liturgy, and the sacred rites themselves. For that reason, everything that belongs to the sacred liturgy should be of the highest quality; for that reason we must conduct ourselves here with the greatest reverence..
Abraham brought Isaac to the mountain of vision in order to offer him in sacrifice; Jesus took the chosen Apostles up a mountain and there was transfigured before them. There are not many steps leading up to this altar but there are three of them; these three steps reveal the altar as situated on top of a symbolic mountain. On top of this mountain is offered the sacrifice symbolized in the offering of Isaac; on top of this mountain is found the same Jesus who was transfigured in the sight of the Apostles.
The more we approach with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts cleansed from an evil conscience the more we will be able to recognize the divine light shining through the ‘clothes’ of Jesus, recognize and perhaps even be blessed by glimpsing even a single ray of that light. (cf. He 10:22)