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Reflections for the II Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the second Sunday in lent. He says that the readings invite us to work with the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.

Gn 15:5-12, 17-18, Phil 3:17—4:1, Lk 9:28-36

Central theme: The common theme of today’s readings is metamorphosis or transformation.  The readings invite us to work with the Holy Spirit to transform our lives by renewing them during Lent so that they radiate the glory and grace of the transfigured Lord to all around us by our Spirit-filled lives.

Homily starter anecdoteThe transforming vision of Elisha’s servant:  There is a mysterious story in II Kings that can help us understand what is happening in the Transfiguration. Israel is at war with Aram, and Elisha, the man of God, is using his prophetic powers to reveal to the Israelites the strategic plans of the Aramean army. At first the King of Aram thinks that one of his officers is playing the spy. But when he learns the truth, he dispatches troops to go and capture Elisha who is residing in Dothan. The Aramean troops move in under cover of darkness and surround the city. In the morning Elisha's servant is the first to discover that they are trapped, and he fears for his master's safety. He runs to Elisha and says, "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" The prophet answers "Don't be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.But who would believe that when the surrounding mountainside is covered with advancing enemy troops? So, Elisha prays, "O Lord, open his eyes so he may see." Then the Lord opens the servant's eyes, and he looks and sees the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). This vision was all that Elisha's disciple needed to reassure him. At the end of the story, not only was the prophet of God safe, but the invading army was totally humiliated. The Transfiguration scene described in today’s Gospel was intended to have a similar effect on Peter and the other apostles who were really afraid for their master’s safety in the context of the growing hatred against and opposition to Jesus. (  

 Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading describes the transformation of a pagan patriarch into a believer in the one God, the transformation of his name from Abram to Abraham, and the first covenant of God with Abraham’s family as a reward for Abraham’s obedience to God. In the second reading, St. Paul argues that it is not observance of the Mosaic Law and circumcision that transforms people into Christians, and hence, that Gentiles need not become Jews to become Christians. In the Transfiguration account in today’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as a glorious figure, superior to Moses and Elijah. The primary purpose of Jesus’ Transfiguration was to allow Him to consult his Heavenly Father in order to ascertain His plan for His Son’s suffering, death and Resurrection.  The secondary aim was to make his chosen disciples aware of his 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 trialOn the mountain, Jesus is identified by the Heavenly Voice as the Son of God. Thus, the Transfiguration experience 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.

First reading, Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18, explained: The Church gives us this story of Abraham at the beginning of Lent for two reasons. First, we are called to have the same Faith as Abraham. Second, what Abraham did with Isaac foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of His only-begotten Son 1800 years later; this is what we are preparing to celebrate at the end of Lent. Abram (God later changed his name to Abraham), is presented as the first person since Noah to hear and heed the Voice of God. At God's prompting, Abram moved his considerable holdings from the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), to a land he knew not (modern Palestine). As a reward for Abram’s trust and obedience, God promised him numerous descendants. He also promised Abram a land for himself and his family. When Abram asked for a sign that would seal this promise, God entered into a unilateral contract with him, using an ancient ritual of contract.  The parties who wanted to seal a contract would split the carcass of one or more animals, lay the halves on the ground, and walk between them, saying "May I be so split in half if I fail to keep the agreement we are sealing here." Abram fell into a trance and witnessed the procession of the fire pot and torch moving between the carcass halves. This symbolized God’s presence and action.   As this was a unilateral contract between God and Abraham, Abraham was not asked to walk between the carcass halves. The Holy Spirit, through the Church, has chosen this reading for us today because the story of Abraham prefigures the unwavering Faith of Jesus Christ who strengthens the Faith of his disciples for the Paschal event of his passion, death and Resurrection glory. Today’s Responsorial Psalm, (Ps 27), provides words for us to express our own Faith in God and in His unfailing love that supported Abraham, Paul and Jesus in their trials.

Second Reading, Philippians 3:17-4:1, explained: Among early Christians in several places there was a controversy about whether one had to keep the old Jewish law in order to be a follower of Christ. Saint Paul argues forcefully here that one does not have to do so. Those who say one must, are really "enemies of the cross of Christ," because they're acting as if the death and Resurrection of Jesus are not what save us; rather, they hold that keeping the Mosaic Law is what saves them. In particular, the law required eating kosher food and having males circumcised. The food is what Paul alludes to in ridiculing their devotion to their stomachs, and the circumcision is what he means when he says they glory in their "shame." St. Paul reminds us that the Christian journey of transformation is radically initiated at Baptism, but needs to be perfected day by day, until the end of time when “Christ will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” Transformed by love, grace and Faith, Paul emerges from his conversion experience with a new heart, mind and will. Totally given to Christ, he helps others to welcome that same transforming power of God into their own lives. The reading challenges us to welcome the transforming power of God’s love and to cooperate with the transforming power of God’s grace.

Gospel Exegesis: The objectiveThe Holy Spirit, through Church, invites us to reflect on Christ’s humanity by presenting the temptations of Christ on the first Sunday of Lent, But, on the second Sunday, by presenting the Transfiguration scene, the Church invites us to reflect on Christ’s Divinity. The Transfiguration of Our Lord, like Christmas, is a Christological Feast. In the Incarnation, the Divine enters the human condition. In the Transfiguration, the human shares in Divine glory. The Transfiguration of Our Lord on this Second Sunday in Lent gives those at worship a glimpse of the coming future glory of Christ on Easter. But it also reminds us that the only way to Easter is through the cross. The primary purpose of Jesus’ Transfiguration was to allow him to consult his Heavenly Father in order to ascertain His plan for His Son’s suffering, death and Resurrection.  The secondary aim was to make his chosen disciples aware of his 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. Further, the Transfiguration enabled Jesus to present himself to the apostles as Israel’s redeemer, as had already been foretold by the prophets (St. Ephrem).  The Transfiguration 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.  The Transfiguration took place in late summer, just prior to the Feast of 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, and then celebrates the formal feast on August 6. (Some Bible scholars think that the transfiguration narrative has been influenced and informed by the early Christian community’s post-Easter Faith. Some even argue that the transfiguration was actually a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, which the evangelists anachronized into the period of his earthly ministry).

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.   Moses and Elijah received God’s revelations on mountains. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). Elijah fled to Mount Horeb, and there, God spoke to him in "a sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV; RSV: "a still small voice"). It is those two men who appear on the mountain with Jesus and his companions.

The scene of Heavenly glory:   While praying, Jesus was transfigured into a shining figure, full of Heavenly glory. “In 1st century Judaism and in the NT, there was the belief that the righteous get new, glorified bodies in order to enter heaven (1 Cor 15:42–49; 2 Cor 5:1–10). This transformation means the righteous will share the glory of God. One recalls the way Moses shared the Lord's glory after his visit to the mountain in Ex 34. So, the disciples saw Jesus transfigured, and they were getting a sneak preview of the great glory that Jesus would have. (NET Bible notes).”

Moses and Elijah are seen with Jesus at the Transfiguration, because both of them had experienced the Lord in all His glory.  Moses had met the Lord in the burning bush at Mount Horeb (Ex 3:1-4). The Transfiguration scene closely resembles God’s revelation to Moses, who also brought along three companions and whose face also shone brilliantly (see Ex 24:1; 34:29).  After his encounter with God on Sinai, Moses' face shone so brightly that the people were frightened, and thereafter, whenever Moses went into the Tent to consult the Lord, he had to wear a veil over his face when he came out (Ex 34:29-35). The Jews believed that Moses had been 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 Kgs 19:8).  At Mt. Horeb, Elijah sought refuge in a cave as the glory of the Lord passed over him (1 Kgs 19:9-18).  Finally, Elijah was taken directly to heaven in a chariot of fire without seeing death (2 Kgs 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 from suffering and death. Peter, overwhelmed at the scene, exclaimed how good it was for them 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 days, when booths were erected in which the people dwelt during the time of the feast and from which all kinds of presents and sweets came.  It commemorates God's protection during the wilderness wanderings (Leviticus 23:39-43). As such the booths also symbolize a time of rest, which could be interpreted allegorically as the messianic rest.  Or they 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: “In the Old Testament the cloud covered the meeting tent, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people (Ex 40:34-35) and came to rest upon the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication (1 Kgs 8:10).” (NAB notes). 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 Kgs 8:10-11).   I Kgs, 8: 10 tells us how, by the cover of a cloud, God revealed His presence in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Temple of Jerusalem on the day of its dedication.  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 Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him,” are the same words used by God at Jesus' baptism (3:17), with the addition of "listen to Him."  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. By the words “This is my Son; listen to Him!” Jesus is not simply presented to the apostles as the Son of God, but as God’s mouthpiece. This designation is especially significant in the presence of Moses and Elijah because it tells the apostles that Jesus is the voice of God par excellence—even compared with the Law and th[e Prophets—through his filial relationship with the Father. The experience] is directed to the prophets as well, granting them a theophany in the person of Christ; Moses and Elijah had wished to see God in the Old Testament, and the Transfiguration of Christ fulfilled their wish.” (Andreas Andreopoulos, Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography, 48-49). While Peter’s suggestion to build three tents may have sprung from an enthusiastic desire to prolong such a wondrous moment of grace, it was probably prompted by the popular expectation (Zechariah 14:16), that the Messiah would appear in glory during the feast of Sukkoth (Tents or Tabernacles).  According to Dr. Watson, “the Transfiguration demonstrates the glorious value of Jesus’ suffering and death. This story reminds us that the extent of God’s love for us is revealed in the suffering and death of Jesus, which, though painted in hues of defeat and disgrace, is really an image of unimaginable victory and glory.”

The three transformations in our lives in our journey towards eternity: The first transformation in our lives 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 “transfiguration” in the Holy Mass is the source of our strength: In each Holy Mass, the bread and wine we offer on the altar become “transfigured” or “transformed” (transubstantiated) into the living Body and Blood of the crucified, risen and glorified 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) The Transfiguration offers us a message of encouragement and hope: In moments of doubt and during our dark moments of despair and hopelessness, the thought of our transfiguration 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, that through these practices of Lent and through the acceptance of our daily crosses we may become closer to him in his suffering and may share in the carrying of his cross so that we may finally share the glory of his Transfiguration.

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 can 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 can put us more closely in touch with God and make us more willing to help the hungry.  The crosses of our daily lives also can lead us to the glory of transfiguration and resurrection. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

14 March 2019, 14:29