Mar 17, 2019: 2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

This is my chosen Son; listen to him.

Introduction

The Second Sunday of Lent celebrates the epiphanies of God; that is, the ways in which God’s divine presence is revealed.  If Lent is a time for us to be particularly open to the ways through which God can bring us to salvation, we need to be prepared to recognize those ways when we encounter them.

1st Reading – Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

The Lord God took Abram outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.
Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD,
who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

He then said to him,
“I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans
to give you this land as a possession.”
“O Lord GOD,” he asked,
“how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
He answered him,
“Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat,
a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
Abram brought him all these, split them in two,
and placed each half opposite the other;
but the birds he did not cut up.
Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses,
but Abram stayed with them.
As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram,
and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

When the sun had set and it was dark,
there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch,
which passed between those pieces.
It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram,
saying: “To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

In Genesis 12:1-2, God made a three-fold promise to Abram: nationhood, dynasty (name), and worldwide blessing. These promises were then secured by covenants.

Today’s first reading is the story of the first of these covenants.

The Lord God took Abram outside and said: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”

Abram will have descendants too numerous to count.

Abram put his faith in the LORD,

Despite the advanced age of Abram and his wife, Abram responds with faith (‘āman, the same word from which we derive the affirmative amen).

Abram, who will later be renamed Abraham, is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11), and all who believe are children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7).

who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

The verb “credited” is hāshab, the word used of priests approving an offering for sacrificial use (Leviticus 7:18, 17:4).

Righteousness is a relational term, denoting right relationship either with others or with God.  It is normally through acts of obedience of the performance of a ritual that one is declared righteous, but here the basis of righteousness is Abram’s faith.  He accepted God at God’s word.

He then said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans 

Divine self-identification, similar to the preface to the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2).  God is reminding Abram of the mercy he has already granted, as a basis for trusting his pledge of further mercy.

God always initiates.  God did the bringing, Abram acted in obedience.

to give you this land as a possession.”

The promise of land.

“O Lord GOD,” he asked, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

Abram’s request for a sign of assurance is more an indication of uncertainty than a lack of faith.  He believes, but he is asking for a strengthening and confirming of his faith.  Abram may have been asking for a sign as a protection against some future temptation of doubt.

He answered him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up.

God replies with a directive that contains elements of a somewhat sophisticated ritual, telling Abram to procure every animal that was suitable for sacrifice. The heifer, goat, and ram were all to be three years of age, at their full growth and strength.  Only the best animals were suitable for offering to God.

He will not actually perform a sacrifice, as we will see, but rather the ancient ritual known as “cutting the covenant.”

Birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, but Abram stayed with them.

Symbols of the dangers that will threaten the covenant, seen by some as the unclean neighboring nations. Abraham symbolically defends his promised inheritance against foreign attackers by chasing them away.  Like Abram, we must keep a very watchful eye on our own spiritual sacrifices, so that nothing preys upon them and renders them unfit for God.

Note that Abram does not yet know how these animals will be used as a sign to him, yet he implicitly obeys.

As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.

Abram is cast into the same kind of trance (tardēmā) as befell Adam when God created Eve from one of his ribs (Genesis 2:21).  It’s as if what follows is too mysterious or overwhelming for human eyes to witness.

When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking brazier and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces.

The ritual act of swearing the covenant.  From Jeremiah 34:18, we know that the covenanting parties passed between the split parts of the animals, showing their willingness to share the fate of the animals should they disobey the terms of the covenant.

Here, Abram is still asleep and does not pass between the pieces.  Only the smoking brazier (or fire pot) and flaming torch, which presumably represent God, do.  Some commentators see this as God taking the part of both parties, a sign that man is not strong enough to hold up his end of the covenant without divine help.

It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram,

In Hebrew, the text reads that God “cut” (kārat) a covenant with Abram.

A covenant is a family bond, which was more important and binding than a promise or a contract. It cannot be canceled or annulled.

saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

This verse makes clear that the cutting of the covenant is God’s reply to Abram’s request for a sign, almost like a ratification of the promise.

Both the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars and the promise of land from Egypt to Mesopotamia are extravagant.  Such is the generosity of God.

2nd Reading – Philippians 3:17-4:1

Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters,
and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us.
For many, as I have often told you
and now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.
Their end is destruction.
Their God is their stomach;
their glory is in their “shame.”
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters,
whom I love and long for, my joy and crown,
in this way stand firm in the Lord.

In today’s second reading, Paul compares the fate of true believers with that of opponents to the gospel.

Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.

Paul begins by admonishing his hearers to imitate his example of commitment to Christian living.  He doesn’t hesitate to propose himself for imitation since he himself is an imitator of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Paul is teaching in the wisdom tradition, according to which there are only two possible ways of living: the way of righteousness or the way of evil.  He is here guiding his hearers to “conduct themselves” (the Greek is peripatéō, “walk”) on the path of righteousness.

This sets the tone for the striking contrast he is about to make.

For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.

It is unclear who these enemies were.  Most scholars maintain they were Gnostic Christians, whose view of realized eschatology led them to believe they had already passed into a spiritualized form of existence and could live in this world unscathed by its allurements. They would see no value in embracing the cross of Christ since they were already living resurrected lives.

Whoever these people were, Paul had warned his hearers about them before, and he does so hear with great emotion, in tears.

Their end is destruction.

For these enemies, the end-time will be destruction.  Paul uses the term apōleia, an eschatological term for the final divine retribution.

Their God is their stomach;

If the enemies referred to were the Gnostics, this would be a reference to their belief in being absolved from any kind of dietary restrictions.  They felt they could occupy themselves with earthly matters without risk of infidelity.

Another possibility is that this is a reference to the enemies’ concern for keeping themselves well fed. Recall that when Jesus sent out the seventy, they were to take
nothing with them as they traveled and completely depend upon those to whom they
ministered.

their glory is in their “shame.”

They not only sinned, but boasted of and gloried in it, when they should have been ashamed.

Their minds are occupied with earthly things.

They relish earthly things and have no regard for what is spiritual and heavenly.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

True believers, in contrast, are aliens in this place.  Their citizenship is in heaven, not on earth.

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.

Unlike the enemies of the cross, they knew they would have to embrace that cross, and then with Christ’s coming, they would be transformed into his glory.  In fact, we cannot enter the heaven without this transformation (1 Corinthians 15:50).  This is especially poignant in light of our gospel reading today, which tells of Christ’s transfiguration: we too will be transfigured.

The fullness of this transformation is in the future, and will be accomplished by Christ.  While still in this life, they were to live as citizens of heaven.

“When we rise and are changed and are made spiritual in soul, body and spirit (for all these three make up one man and are one spirit), the body in which we have been humbled will be raised. It will be of the same and equal form to the body of Christ’s own glory. So too we shall be spirits as he himself is a spirit.” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians 3,21]

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, beloved.

The reading ends with Paul exhorting his hearers to steadfastness.  The introductory word “therefore” (hōste) indicates that what follows depends on what preceded.  In other words, having drawn the comparison between the two ways of life, he now admonishes them to be faithful.

The tears with which Paul wrote earlier have now been replaced by an expression of uncommon love (agapē).  His attachment to the community to which he writes is obvious: he not only takes joy in them, he compares them to the crown (stéphanos), the laurel wreath given to the winner of an athletic competition.

The exhortation is straightforward: stand firm!

Gospel – Luke 9:28b-36

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.

Today’s gospel is the story of Christ’s transfiguration.  The account is rich with symbolism, suggesting that its significance is less in its historicity than in its theological meaning.

The time is about one year prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has fed the five thousand, walked on water, delivered the bread of life discourse, and Peter has made his revelation at Caesarea Philippi, “you are the Christ.” Jesus has just bestowed upon Peter the name of Rock (Kephas), promised to build his church upon this Rock, and given Peter the ability to bind and loose.

Jesus took Peter, John, and James

The privileged inner circle of disciples. Peter is always listed first, showing primacy.

and went up the mountain to pray.

The identity of the mountain is not given; it is enough to know that mountains had theophanic importance.  Both Moses and Elijah, the glorified men who will join Jesus at the transfiguration, had encounters with God on mountains.

While he was praying

Jesus is often portrayed by Luke as being at prayer before an important decision: election of the twelve (6:12); Peter’s revelation (9:18); instruction on prayer (11:1), the agony in the garden (22:41).

his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.

It was during this prayer that Jesus was transfigured both from the inside (his face) and on the outside (his clothes).

Luke does not use the word “transfigured” (metamorphothe) as Matthew and Mark do, perhaps because it had been used so much in the Pagan theology.  He uses an equivalent phrase: to eidos tou prosopou heteron, literally “the fashion of his countenance was another thing from what it had been.”

Luke describes Jesus’ clothing as exastrapton, “bright like lightning,” a word used only here.

And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,

These two men represent the law and the prophets, respectively: the sweep of God’s unfolding plan as found in the Israelite religious tradition.

who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Saint Luke is the only Gospel writer to tell us what Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing.

Commentators believe that Jesus’ exodus includes his death, resurrection, and ascension: all the important events in God’s plan of salvation.  That these men were discussing these events in their glorified state indicates that Jesus’ death was not a tragic mistake, something he was unable to avoid.  Rather, it was known beforehand by those who represented the entire religious tradition of Israel.

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 

The episode may have occurred at night, when the disciples would have been drowsy and/or weary.  This would be consistent with the reference in Luke 9:37, “the next day,” which immediately follows the account.

Or it may be that the disciples were sinfully careless, and should have been joining Jesus in prayer, as later during the Jesus’ agony in the garden.  As a result, they miss the opportunity of seeing the transfiguration as it happens; they only see Jesus after he has assumed his glorified state.

As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter does not want the apparition to end.  He offers to construct three tents, dwellings for the three glorified men.

But he did not know what he was saying.

To what misperception was Luke referring? Perhaps it was naivete on Peter’s part in thinking that a glorified saint in heaven would have any interest in occupying a humble tent on earth.

Some commentators suggest that his misunderstanding was having judged Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah.  If so, this would be corrected by the theophanic experience that follows, which has profound christological significance.

While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.

They are all taken into a cloud, a symbol of the hidden presence of God.

In Exodus 40:34-35, God took possession of the tabernacle and temple in the form of a cloud, and Moses was not able to enter.  In 2 Chronicles 5:14, when the divine cloud filled the temple, the priests could not stand to minister.  No wonder the disciples were frightened!

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

A voice from the cloud proclaims Jesus divine identity in words reminiscent of Isaiah (42:1) and Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22).

Jesus is vastly superior to Moses and Elijah — he is the Son of the living God.

The voice not only authenticates Jesus’ identity but also enjoins the disciples to listen to his words, regardless of how challenging or perplexing they may be.

After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

The cloud and the glorified visitors vanish; only Jesus remains.  The disciples reported this experience to no one at the time, but after the unfolding of Jesus “exodus,” they will understand its meaning.  From then they will proclaim the good news fearlessly.

Connections and Themes

In the covenant.  The first divine epiphany is the manifestation of God as one who initiates a covenant, an exceedingly intimate relationship, with human beings.  Not only does God initiate the agreement, he seals it with blood, making it official.  It is a historical event, having occurred with a particular family at a particular place and time.

We see this in the community of the Church, where, through our own rituals, God enters again and again into covenant with us.  Although we ritualize our relationship with God in a religious setting, the call to enter the covenant can come in the ordinary events of life.  No life is too simple; no life is too busy.  Human history itself is the setting for our encounters with God.

In the suffering Christ.  The glory of God is revealed in the transfigured Jesus, who discussed his suffering and death with Moses and Elijah.  Though we may want to share in this glory, like the three apostles who witnessed it, we must first share in his suffering.  Lent is a time for us to enter into this suffering, not merely through reflection, prayer, and penance, but concretely, by sharing in the suffering of the body of Christ.  This suffering is all around us: in the fear of children who have been deprived of their innocence, in the aimlessness of youth who don’t appreciate their own worth, in the desperation of parents who must raise their children in the midst of violence, in the empty eyes of the aged who often forget and are themselves forgotten.  Like Jesus who covered his glory in human flesh, the glory of God remains just beneath the surface of the lives of those who suffer.

Lent is a time for us to step back from suffering in order to discern God in the midst of it.

In the example of others.  God is revealed through people who live lives of Christian commitment: their integrity strengthens us, their religious sentiments inspire us, their endurance gives us confidence.  God is revealed in those who help improve the lives of others.  God’s love is seen in the compassionate; God’s understanding is seen in the patient; God’s mercy is seen in the forgiving.  There are many in our midst whose example we would do well to imitate.  God is revealed in very ordinary ways if we but open ourselves to see him.

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