Mar 1, 2015: 2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

Introduction

From early times, Lenten preparation for celebrating Easter included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.

Through our baptism we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant.

That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.

All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.

Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.

1st Reading – Genesis 22:1b-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18

God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he replied.
Then God said:
“Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a holocaust
on a height that I will point out to you.”

When they came to the place of which God had told him,
Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am!” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger.
“Do not do the least thing to him.
I know now how devoted you are to God,
since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about,
he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.
So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.

Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD,
that because you acted as you did
in not withholding from me your beloved son,
I will bless you abundantly
and make your descendants as countless
as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore;
your descendants shall take possession
of the gates of their enemies,
and in your descendants all the nations of the earth
shall find blessing—
all this because you obeyed my command.”

Today’s first reading is a story commonly called The Sacrifice of Isaac.  However, since Isaac is never actually sacrificed, it might be more appropriate to refer to it as The Testing of Abraham.

God put Abraham to the test.

We are told from the outset that this is a test, an occasion to prove the quality of the man through some form of adversity.  We have an advantage over Abraham; obviously he doesn’t know this.

He called to him, “Abraham!” 

The name Abraham means “father of a multitude.”  God changed his name from Abram to Abraham in Genesis 17:4-6, promising that he would make Abraham the father of many nations.  As we will see, Abraham’s fundamental identity and faith in this promise is what is being tested.

“Here I am!” he replied.

Abraham’s response shows his total availability.

Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,

God obviously knows the significance of this son.  Isaac is possibly referenced as the “only son” because Ishmael and his mother have been sent away (Genesis 21:10) and are living in the desert of Beersheba (the northern Sinai peninsula).  Or the term could refer to Isaac’s status as uniquely precious, especially loved.

Regardless, it is clear that Isaac was the one upon whom Abraham’s future rested.

and go to the land of Moriah.

Moriah was a three-day journey away.  This would give Abraham time to consider the command he is about to be given and the opportunity to do it deliberately.

There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

A holocaust is a whole burned sacrifice.  Abraham must not only kill his son, but kill him with the ritual observance, sedateness, and composure of mind he used to offer his burnt-offerings.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.  Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.  Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.  

From a human point of view, Abraham’s response is terrifying. His actions demonstrate his unquestioning obedience.

In the face of such horror, the economy of words and the absence of emotion are startling.  However, the point of the story is not the death of Isaac.  Thus the author moves quickly past the description of the preparation for the killing which, both author and reader know, will not take place.

But the LORD’S messenger called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”

This is a test, and Abraham has passed it.  His devotion (i.e., fear of God) is beyond reproach.  He has obeyed perfectly.

As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket.

The ram was, in later times, the usual victim for a holocaust offering (Leviticus 1:10-13).

Hebrew legend says that one horn was cut off to free the ram and this became the first shofar (the trumpet used to call the people to prayer and to war).

So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son. 

The alacrity with which Abraham obediently responds to the first command is coupled with piety that is demonstrated here, in the decision to offer a ram as sacrifice in place of his son.

Again the LORD’S messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said: “I swear by myself, declares the LORD,

God is making a covenant with Abraham by swearing an oath.  Since there is no one higher, he must swear by himself.

Very high expressions of God’s favor to Abraham are employed in this confirmation of the covenant with him, expressions exceeding any he had yet been blessed with.

that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son,

God recounts and emphasizes the details of Abraham’s obedience.

I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing – all this because you obeyed my command.”

In relinquishing his natural claim on the child of promise, Abraham has gained the blessing of a promise of more children than he can count.  God will not be outdone in generosity.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:31b-34

Brothers and sisters:
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?
Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.

Our second reading today is a testament to the all-conquering power of God’s love.  Paul uses the technical language of the law courts and a juridical approach to underscore his theological argument.

Brothers and sisters: If God is for us, who can be against us?

This rhetorical question is a type of a fortiori argument, moving from the greater to the lesser.

In a world that was fearful of capricious gods, deities that cared little for human beings, the claim that God is for us is a bold statement.  But such was the belief of the Hebrew people, and Christians inherited that conviction.

Paul is arguing that if the sovereign God is on our side, then regardless of what can be mustered against us, it is nothing in comparison to God’s power.

He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?  

Another a fortiori statement.  Like Abraham, God is willing to sacrifice a beloved son.  However, unlike Isaac, Jesus is not spared at the last moment.  He suffers vicariously “for us all.”

Paul is asking: if God was willing to make this supreme sacrifice, is it possible that he would deny us whatever other things we might need?

Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.

Who would dare bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?  If God himself justifies (acquits) us, this answers all. He is the judge, the king, the party offended, and his judgment is according to truth.

Who will condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died or, rather, was raised — who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

By the merit of his death, Christ has paid our debt.  Paul cleverly emphasizes the resurrection, presumably as evidence of divine justice.  If Christ had merely died, and not risen again, we would have remained where we were, convicted by our sin.

With the glorified Christ at the right hand of God, the place of honor, interceding for us, there is no one who will possibly condemn.

Gospel – Mark 9:2-10

Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.

Today’s gospel reading is the familiar account of the transfiguration, an event which is reported in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36) and is alluded to in John (1:14).

The story knits together traditions of Israel’s past, insights into Jesus’ identity, and a glimpse into the future of eschatological fulfillment.

The time is a little less than one year before Jesus’ death.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John

These three are privileged to witness this event and seem to form an inner circle.  They are also the only apostles present for the healing of Jairus’ daughter and at Gethsemane.

Their presence makes this a historical event, not a celestial one.

and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.

Mark and Matthew’s accounts don’t tell us why he went up the mountain, but Luke tells us that he went there to pray.

In Hebrew tradition, mountains were the traditional settings for supernatural revelations and theophanies. Suggested identifications of the mountain are Harmon and Tabor; the actual location is unknown and is largely unimportant.

And he was transfigured before them,

The Greek word used here, metamorphóō literally means “to change form.”

and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

Although this account emphasizes the new brilliance of Jesus’ clothing, it is he who was transfigured.

This is a glimpse of Jesus in his true glorified state.

Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Together, these men represent the basis of Israel’s tradition: the law and the prophets, respectively.

Both of them are associated with mountains (Sinai in Exodus 19; Horeb in 1 Kings 19), and both underwent a kind of transformation (Moses’ face was made radiant in Exodus 34:29-35; Elijah was transported in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:11).

Some commentators see their witness here as the fulfillment of what Moses and Elijah represent and foretell.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.

Peter’s plea for permission to set up three tents recalls the feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews remembered the temporary dwellings in which they lived during their sojourn in the wilderness.  By the time of Jesus, the feast had taken on messianic undertones (see Zechariah 14:16-19).

Given that Peter has already made his confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:27-30), it stands to reason that Peter’s request springs from a desire to enjoy messianic blessings.  In fact, given that Moses and Elijah have appeared and he is said to have been “terrified,” it’s likely that he sees this as the arrival of the end times and wants to eternalize the experience.

Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;

In the Old Testament theophanies (and also at the Annunciation) a cloud is a representation of God and the overshadowing denotes occupation or indwelling.

“It seems to me that this cloud is the grace of the Holy Spirit. Naturally, a tent gives shelter and overshadows those who are within; the cloud, therefore, serves the purpose of the tents. O Peter, you who want to set up three tents, have regard for the one tent of the Holy Spirit who shelters us equally” (Saint Jerome, Homily 80).

then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

This recalls the words from the scene of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17); the reference to a beloved son also brings to mind the story in our first reading, of Isaac as the son whom Abraham loved.

It’s unclear whether the directive to “listen to him” should be understood in a general sense, or specifically refer to the words he has for them on the way down the mountain.

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

Although only Jesus was transformed and only he spoke with the apparitions, the disciples were caught up in the experience as well.  They beheld the transfigured Jesus, they saw Moses and Elijah, they were overshadowed by the cloud, and the voice spoke directly to them.

As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Unlike other commands to silence in Mark, this one has a special time limit: Christ’s resurrection.  His directive to tell no one reminds them, especially Peter, that Jesus’ debasement must precede his glorification, which is prefigured in his transfiguration.

It may be that this experience was intended to prepare the inner circle of disciples for the unthinkable suffering and death that they would soon witness, in order to strengthen them in advance.

So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

The disciples clearly did not understand what he meant. How could Jesus be raised from the dead before and apart from the general resurrection, which was to occur at the coming of God’s kingdom?

Connections and Themes

Last Sunday we reflected upon the gifts that God has graciously bestowed on us.  Today we continue and deepen that meditation as we focus not on the gifts, but on the one giving them.  It is God who is in our midst, God who did not spare the beloved Son.  This same God now makes some demands on us.  In order to enjoy the incredible blessings that God has in store for us, we must be willing to relinquish our own dreams for the future.

Relinquish your future.  We all have dreams for the future, dreams about improvement and fulfillment, about success and well-being.  Our dreams aren’t necessarily selfish; we all want peace and a better world for our children and grandchildren.  Our traditions, whether religious or cultural, set before us aspirations that call for some form of personal transformation.  Such aspirations are admirable, even profoundly spiritual.  Yet it sometimes happens, when we are following the inspiration of our most devout aspirations, that obstacles are thrown in our path, preventing us from following our dreams.  In fact, it seems that we are being asked to give up what we were sure was God’s will for us.  Illness or disability prevent us from being of service to others; accidents alter the circumstances of our lives; we may discover that we have been misled by another.  In all of this we are forced to relinquish our dreams for the future.

Accept my future.  God does not call us out of our dreams into a vacuum.  If we are asked to relinquish a possible future, it is only to be offered another possible future, God’s future.  Our aspirations may be noble, but the possibilities that God offers will outstrip them in excellence.  Abraham was promised an heir; he relinquished his hold on his heir, and he was granted heirs beyond counting.  Jesus came as a rabbi; he allowed himself to be handed over to death, and he was revealed as the beloved Son who sits at God’s right hand.

Are we able to relinquish our hold on what we believe will be our future in order to receive a future that is not ours to control, a future beyond our imagination?  Do we really believe it is God’s plan that we be caught up into the transfigured glory of Christ?  And even if we answer yes, who has not wondered, with Peter and James and John, what rising from the dead might mean?

Our future is Christ.  The question is, where do we place our trust?  Is it in our own dreams and plans for the future, or have we placed it in the hands of Christ, who died for us and who intercedes for us in heaven?  Do we need a glimpse of Christ’s transfiguration in order to believe in his resurrection?  Do we have to see and touch Jesus, or are we able to believe because we have heard the message he proclaimed?  God’s future in Christ is open to us, but we must accept it in faith, even when we don’t fully understand what it means.

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