Reflections for the II Sunday of Lent
Gen 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18; Rom 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10
Homily starter anecdote: “Lord, give me the grace for transformation.” The word transfiguration means a change in form or appearance. Biologists call it metamorphosis (derived from the Greek word metamorphoomai used in Matthew’s Gospel), to describe the change that occurs when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. As children we might have curiously watched the process of the caterpillar turning into a chrysalis and then bursting into a beautiful Monarch butterfly. Fr. Anthony De Mello tells the story of such a metamorphosis in the prayer life of an old man. “I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realized that half of my life was gone without changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me; just my family and friends and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am old and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My one prayer now is: ’Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start, I should not have wasted my life.” (http://stjohngrandbay.org/ )
Introduction: The common theme of today’s readings is metamorphosis or transformation. The readings invite us to cooperate with the grace of God with the assistance of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, by renewing them during Lent and to radiate the grace of the transfigured Lord around us by our Spirit-filled lives.
Scripture lessons: The first reading explains how his trusting faith in his God’s mercy and power and his blind obedience to his God’s order to sacrifice his only son of his old age, transformed the life of Abraham, making him the supreme model of Faith in God’s promises and obedience to His Holy Will. That is why Paul recalls, in the second reading, that God the Father did not spare the life of His Own Son Jesus when he volunteered to die for our salvation, while He saved the life of Abraham’s son Isaac. Why? Because God loves us with an everlasting love. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 116) speaks of God’s distress at the death of anyone. “Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of His faithful.” In the Transfiguration story in today’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed in His Heavenly glory, superior to Moses and Elijah. The primary purpose of Jesus’ Transfiguration was to allow him to consult his Heavenly Father and ascertain His plan for His Son’s suffering, death and Resurrection. God’s secondary aim was to make Jesus’ chosen disciples aware of Jesus’ Divine glory, so that they might discard their worldly ambitions and dreams of a conquering political Messiah and might be strengthened in their time of trial. On the mountain, Jesus is identified by the Heavenly Voice as the Son of God. Thus, the transfiguration narrative is a Christophany, that is, a manifestation or revelation of Who Jesus really is. Describing Jesus’ Transfiguration, the Gospel gives us a glimpse of the Heavenly glory awaiting those who do God’s will by putting their trusting Faith in Him. Jesus’ transfiguration also strengthens us in the face of our afflictions.
Introduction: The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent highlight Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son (revealed at his baptism and Transfiguration) and confront us with the mystery of his death on the cross. Hence, the main purpose of today’s readings is to give us an invitation as well as a challenge to put our Faith in the loving promises of a merciful God Who sent His Son to die for us and to transform our lives by renewing them during Lent. Our transformed lives will enable us to radiate the glory and grace of the transfigured Lord around us by our Spirit-filled lives.
Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading shows us how God saved the life of Abraham’s son Isaac as a reward for Abraham’s trusting Faith. Because of this Faith, the Lord renewed his promise to Abraham for the blessings of land and progeny. While Abraham’s son Isaac was spared, God’s beloved Son, Jesus, died a cruel death on the cross. The linking of this story with the Gospel reading emphasizes God's infinite love, as seen in the redemptive sacrifice of His own Son for the salvation of the world. If the mystery of the sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, is hard to understand, the mystery of the death of God’s beloved Son, Jesus, is far more challenging. That is why Paul reminds us, in the second reading, that God the Father did not spare His Own Son‘s life. What an irony and paradox! God spared Abraham’s son, but not His own! Why? Because God loves us with an everlasting love. Paul interprets God’s willingness to sacrifice His Own Son as proof of His great love for humankind and as God’s pledge that He will always protect and provide for us. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 116) speaks of God’s distress at the death of anyone. “Too costly in the eyes of the LORD is the death of His faithful.” In the transfiguration story in today’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as a glorious figure, superior to Moses and Elijah. He is identified by the Heavenly Voice as the Son of God. Thus, the transfiguration narrative is a Christophany, that is, a manifestation or revelation of Who Jesus really is. Describing Jesus’ transfiguration, the Gospel shows us a glimpse of the Heavenly glory awaiting those who do God’s will by putting their trusting Faith in Him.
First reading explained: Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son has been understood as an Old Testament type or prefiguring of God’s willingness to offer Jesus as a sacrifice for human sin. The command to Abraham to sacrifice his only child was also a real test of Abraham’s great Faith and total trust in God. God had promised that Abraham would become the father of many nations. How could this be possible if Isaac were to be sacrificed? Although Yahweh’s command was most painful, Abraham trusted that God was both faithful enough and powerful enough to keep His promise. The Lord responded by renewing His promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great race. His progeny throughout the whole world would receive the blessing of God – Divine adoption through the Incarnation. Not only would Abraham’s descendants be blessed, but all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him. In the Divine sparing of Isaac, Israel was to learn that theirs was a God who was not appeased by human sacrifice but by the sacrifice of a contrite spirit and a humbled heart (Psalm 51:19). The story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac carries great significance. There is a clear parallel with Jesus in this story. Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son is a prototype of God the Father and His Son, Jesus. But the difference is that while Isaac was spared at the last moment, Jesus had to die. Just as to sacrifice his only son did not make sense to Abraham, it made even less sense to the disciples of Jesus that God could allow their Lord and Master Jesus to be executed. It was only after Pentecost that the apostles realized that our eternal salvation was brought about by the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Second Reading explained: This passage shares with the first reading the image of a father's willingness to give up his son and the son’s readiness to accept the father’s will wholeheartedly. Paul assures us that it is by the perfect obedience to the will of his Father, expressed in his suffering and death, that Jesus was glorified and made our Heavenly intercessor. Paul also affirms that He who gave His Son for us will give us all things with His Son. We have every reason to have confidence in God because it is Christ Jesus at the right hand of the Father who intercedes for us, and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ for us. Paul’s argument runs like this: “If God is for us, who can be against us?" Paul reminds us that God’s love has no limits, as He offered His Son to die for us. Paul argues that the greatest proof that God is for us is the fact of the Incarnation and crucifixion of His Son Jesus for us sinners. It necessarily follows that God will give us the assistance that we need to get to Heaven.
Gospel Exegesis: The objective: The primary purpose of Jesus’ Transfiguration was to allow him to consult his Heavenly Father and ascertain His plan for His Son’s suffering, death and Resurrection. God’s secondary aim was to make Jesus’ chosen disciples aware of Jesus’ Divine glory so that they might discard their worldly ambitions and dreams of a conquering political Messiah and might be strengthened in their time of trial. The Transfiguration also established Jesus’ glorious identity as the beloved Son of God and placed his Divine Sonship in the context of Jewish expectations about the kingdom and the resurrection of the dead. The event took place in late summer, just prior to the Feast of the Tabernacles. Hence, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration at about the time of the year when it actually occurred, in order to connect it with the Old Testament Feast of the Tabernacles. The Western tradition recalls the Transfiguration at the beginning of Lent, then celebrates the formal feast on August 6.
The location of the Transfiguration was probably Mount Hermon in North Galilee, near Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had camped a week before this wondrous event. Mt. Hermon was a desolate mountain, 9200 feet high. The traditional oriental belief that Transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor is based on Psalm 89:12. But Mount Tabor is a small mountain or a big hill in the south of Galilee, less than 1000 feet high, with a Roman fort built on it. Hence, it would have been an unlikely place for solitude and prayer.
The scene of Heavenly glory: While praying, Jesus was transformed into a shining figure, full of Heavenly glory. This reminds us of Moses and Elijah who also experienced the Lord in all His glory. Moses had met the Lord in the burning bush at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1-4). After his encounter with God, Moses' face shone so brightly that the people were frightened, and Moses had to wear a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-35). The Jews believed that Moses was taken up in a cloud at end of his earthly life (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4. 326). Elijah traveled for forty days to Mt. Horeb on the strength of the food brought by an angel (1 Kings 19:8). At Mt. Horeb, Elijah covered his face with his cloak and stood in the entrance of his as the Lord came and spoke directly to him (1 Kings 19:9-18). Finally, Elijah was taken directly to Heaven in a chariot of fire without seeing death (2 Kings 2:11 -15). These representatives of the Law and the Prophets – Moses and Elijah - foreshadowed Jesus, who is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets. Both earlier prophets were initially rejected by the people but vindicated by God. The Jews believed that the Lord had buried Moses in an unknown place after his death (Dt 34: 5-6), and that Elijah had been carried to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11). Thus, the implication is that, although God spared Elijah from the normal process of death and Moses from normal burial, He did not spare His Son suffering and death. Peter, overwhelmed at the scene, says how good it is to be there. His remark about three booths (or tents) may be a reference to the Jewish festival of Succoth, the most joyful of Jewish holy days, when booths were erected from which all kinds of presents and sweets came. Or it may be a reference of reverence, alluding to tabernacles to house the patriarchs and the Son of God.
God the Father’s Voice from the cloud: The book of Exodus describes how God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai from the cloud. God often made appearances in a cloud (Ex 24:15-17; 13:21 -22; 34:5; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11). We are told how God revealed His presence in the Temple of Jerusalem on the day the Ark of the Covenant was placed under the cherubim, and the Temple was dedicated: “When the priests left the Holy place, the Cloud filled the entire Temple, so that the priests could no longer minister because of the Cloud, since the Lord’ Glory had filled the Temple of the Lord” (1 Kgs 8:10-11). The Jews generally believed that the phenomenon of the cloud would be repeated when the Messiah arrived. God the Father, Moses and Elijah approved the plan regarding Jesus' suffering, death and Resurrection. God’s words from the cloud, “This is My Beloved Son; listen to him,” are similar to the words used by God at Jesus' baptism: “You are My beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” Mk 1:11). At the moment of Jesus’ death, a Roman centurion would declare, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (15:39). These words summarize the meaning of the Transfiguration, that on this mountain, God revealed Jesus as His Son -- His beloved -- the One in whom He is always well pleased and the One to whom we must listen.
The three transformations in our lives in our journey towards eternity: The first change begins at Baptism, which washes away original sin, transforming us into children of God and heirs of Heaven. The second transformation takes place through our victory over the trials and tribulations of life. Every challenge, every difficulty, every moment of suffering, is an opportunity for transformation and spiritual growth. The third transformation takes place at death. Eternal life in Heaven, perhaps after a period of further transformation in purgatory, is granted to those who have been found worthy. The last transformation or transfiguration will be completed at the Second Coming when our glorified body is reunited with our soul.
Life messages: (1) The transubstantiation in the Holy Mass is the source of our strength: In each Holy Mass, the bread and wine we offer on the altar are changed into the crucified and risen, living body and blood of Jesus. Just as Jesus' Transfiguration strengthened the apostles in their time of trial, each holy Mass should be our source of heavenly strength against temptations, and our renewal during Lent. In addition, our holy Communion with the living Jesus should be the source of our daily “transfiguration,” transforming our minds and hearts so that we may do more good by humble and selfless service to others.
(2) Each time we receive one of the Sacraments, we are transformed: For example, Baptism transforms us into sons and daughters of God and heirs of Heaven. Confirmation makes us temples of the Holy Spirit and warriors of God. By the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God brings back the sinner to the path of holiness.
(3) A message of encouragement and hope: In moments of doubt and during our dark moments of despair and hopelessness, the thought of our transformation in Heaven will help us to reach out to God and to listen to His consoling words: "This is my beloved son." Let us offer our Lenten sacrifices to our Lord so that, through these practices of Lent and through the acceptance of our daily crosses, we may grow closer to him in his suffering, may share in the carrying of his cross and may finally share the glory of his final “transfiguration,” his Resurrection.
4) We need “mountain-top experiences” in our lives: We share the “mountain-top experience” of Peter, James and John when we spend extra time in prayer during Lent. Fasting for one day will help the body to store up spiritual energy. This spiritual energy can help us have thoughts that are far higher and nobler than our usual mundane thinking. The hunger we experience puts us more closely in touch with God and makes us more willing to help the hungry. The crosses of our daily lives also can lead us to the glory of transfiguration and resurrection.
5) We need transformation in our Christian lives so that we may seek reconciliation instead of revenge, love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, give to the needy without expecting a reward, refuse to judge others and make friends with those we don’t naturally like. This transformation will also enable us to hold back on harsh words and let love rule so that we may seek reconciliation rather than revenge, pray for those who give us a hard time, avoid bad-mouthing those we don’t agree with, forgive those who hurt us, and love those who hate us. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)