2nd Sunday of Lent (Fr. Francis)
In the first reading from the Book of Genesis we have the inspiring story of the call of Abraham. At the age of seventy-five, when most aged people have retired or are written off, Abraham sets out on a journey of faith, moving from the familiar, secure and well-ordered routine in his native place to an unknown destination, literally to ‘God knows where’! All he can rely on is the promise of God. In obedience to God’s call he sets off. Abraham is blessed and in turn becomes a blessing to his people. It is never too late to change, to respond to God’s call.
Picture an old lamp covered with layers of dust and dirt. How wretched and useless it looks. Then someone comes along, cleans off the layers of dirt, and polishes it until it begins to sparkle, and then lights it. Suddenly the lamp is transformed. It positively glows, radiating light and beauty to every corner of the room. Whereas prior to this it was disfigured with dust and dirt, now it is transfigured with beauty by the light. Yet, it is the same lamp. When an object (or a person) is loved and cared for, it is redeemed, and rendered brighter and worthier. At times all of us can feel down and depressed, a prey to feelings of failure and worthlessness. But then suddenly something nice happens to us – a friend calls, or we get a letter with some good news in it – and suddenly everything is changed. The truth of course is that nothing has changed. It is just that a spark of joy or hope or love has been kindled in our hearts, and we suddenly see ourselves in a new and better light.
Today’s gospel reminds us, first of all, that transformations take place in the context of prayer. Jesus led his disciples up a high mountain, where they could be alone. The mountain, in the Israelite tradition, symbolized the meeting place with God. Moses had witnessed Yahweh on the mountain and each time he encountered Him his face glowed with the presence of God. Jesus was transfigured in their presence and ‘his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.’
Secondly, Jesus appears transfigured in the context of his relationship with his Father, symbolized by the presence of the cloud and the heavenly voice. The cloud symbolized Yahweh, who in the form of a cloud accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert to the Promise Land.
Thirdly, this transfiguration is not only a blessing and an affirmation for Jesus, proclaimed by the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the beloved; He enjoys my favor. Listen to him”, but it is also a blessing for the three disciples, who are witnesses of the transfiguration. They have a privileged viewpoint on salvation history as they witness Jesus in conversation with the father-figures of the Law and the prophets, Moses and Elijah. This vision will reassure them when they hear other voices later opposing Jesus, rejecting his mission, and seeking to destroy him. The transfiguration would be only for a moment. But Peter wanted to capture it and prolong it and make it permanent by building tents or tabernacles to contain this experience. We too want the good experiences, the peak moments of life to last forever. We are afraid to let go and move on, we want to be in the past rather than move on to where the Lord wants us to go. But the reality is that we have to come down from the mountain.” Our transfiguration can happen in the strangest of ways when we let Jesus into our lives.
The 17th century English poet, John Donne, tells of a man searching for God. He is convinced that God lives on the top of a mountain at the end of the earth. After a journey of many days, the man arrives at the foot of the mountain and begins to climb it. At the same time God says to the angels: “What can I do to show my people how much I love them?” He decides to descend the mountain and live among the people as one of them. As the man is going up one side of the mountain, God is descending the other side. They don’t see each other because they are on opposite sides of the mountain. On reaching the summit, the man discovers an empty mountaintop. Heartbroken, the man concludes that God does not exist. Despite speculation to the contrary, God does not live on mountaintops, deserts, or at the end of the earth, or even in some heaven, – God dwells among human beings and in the person of Jesus. – Staying on the safety of the mountain is what Peter would prefer. During the transfiguration Peter and his companions got a glimpse of the future glory of Jesus’ resurrection. They want nothing more. However after they come down the mountain they are told by Jesus that the glory they witnessed would be real only after he had gone through suffering and death. We too will share in his glory, only by sharing in his suffering and death.
In our Gospel today, Jesus’ life and experience have their own vivid story for us to hear his message. The Transfiguration account is so vivid that it can activate our imaginations and draw us into the Gospel message. Saint Ignatius Loyola in his spirituality encourages us to put ourselves into Scriptural accounts. The telling of the experience of the Transfiguration event lends itself to such Ignatian spirituality. We can put ourselves into the story Jesus gives us and see ourselves moving about on that mountain top. We can easily envision Moses and Elijah shining bright with Jesus. We can surely imagine ourselves with Saint Peter wanting to build the tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
However, Lent does not call us to stay on that mountain top. It calls us to continue to change our everyday lives. Saint Augustine of Hippo has a different look at this Gospel. In preaching on this message, Saint Augustine does not look to go into the story. Rather, he challenges Saint Peter to come out of the story and come down from the mountain top and transfigure our lives, transfigure our stories. As Saint Augustine says, Come down, Peter: You were eager to rest on the mountain; come down. (Sermon 78, 6) Augustine challenges Saint Peter with the words of the fourth chapter of the Second Letter to Timothy. We heard from the first chapter of that Letter in our second reading:
Preach the word, press on in season, out of season, censure, exhort, rebuke in all long-suffering and teaching (2 Tim 4:2).
Saint Augustine deepens the challenge to Saint Peter for transfiguration with these words:
Toil away, sweat it out, suffer some tortures, so that by means of the bright white clothing of the Lord, through the brightness and the beauty of right and good activity you may come to possess in love what is to be understood by the Lord’s bright garments.
In these words, Saint Augustine wants activity that makes the Lord’s bright garments present with us off the mountain top.
Like our second reading Augustine wants to see the impact, transfiguration of the Gospel “manifest” in our lives, in our stories. In the original Greek, the word for manifest in our second reading also gives us the word “epiphany.” Saint Augustine is wanting to see the bright garments of the mountain top having a manifest (epiphany), transfiguring impact in the difficulties of the valleys of our lives, that is, in our stories.
All of this is in an Augustinian sense not a call to the mountain top, but a call to deepen our vocation of “a holy life” that is spoken about in our second reading. It is even a call to “go forth” like Abram, in Genesis in our first reading, to live the call God has given to each of us personally. Abram in following God’s call to him became transfigured into Abraham, our father in faith. For us, it is a call to use this Lent as a time to make deeper progress in becoming truer to our Christian calls from God. Like Saint Augustine we need to see the brightness of the Lord in Scripture as active and transfiguring us in the difficulties of our lives, in our stories.
Each Lent we are called to engage in some form of Lenten practices. Traditionally it has meant giving things up. More recently there has been encouragement to do additional good works as Lenten practices. Many times, these practices can too easily become routines that we go through without seeing any transformation, transfiguration of who we are. They can become things we do until Lent is over and Easter has arrived, and then we return to who we were and what we did before Lent. If we are only getting our Lenten practices done, they are useless.
Our readings today should challenge us to examine the Lenten practices we are doing, or if we have not begun them, to start them up. We should be asking if they are changing us, like Abram, to be better in following our call from God. We should be asking ourselves if they are practices that will have lasting, transfiguring effect. We should be asking ourselves if they are practices that will help us live with the difficulties in the valleys of our lives as well on the mountain top.
Rather than staying in the stories we find in Scripture or from an eloquent homilist, we should be asking if our Lenten practices are changing, transfiguring the stories of the holy lives we have been called to live. Fundamentally, we should be asking, “Are my Lenten practices making me more evidently someone created in the image and likeness of God, especially during the difficult times in my life?” Amen.
Fr. A. Francis HGN