Mar 8, 2020: 2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

1st Reading – Genesis 12:1-4a

The LORD said to Abram:
“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.

“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”

Abram went as the LORD directed him.

In the gospel reading, we will see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Here, our first reading gives us the context in which we are to understand what is being fulfilled. We read the call of Abram (who was later renamed Abraham), the very beginning of the story of salvation history.

The LORD said to Abram:

Note that the initiative is God’s, not Abram’s. The name Abram means “father who is exalted,” yet he is 75 years old and childless.

“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.

There are two requirements placed on Abram: 1) complete disassociation from the pagan past, 2) migration to a land of God’s choice.

The directives from God require profound faith on Abram’s part. In traditional societies, one would not move out of this kind of social enclave without a significant reason, such as war or famine.

Abram is being asked to sever himself from the most fundamental ties an individual has: the ties of origin. These were not merely family attachments, they were social and ethnic bonds. They determine his identity (his past), his place in society (his present), and his inheritance (his future). God was asking him to start anew.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”

The ancients often believed that land was under the jurisdiction of various gods; to leave a land was tantamount to leaving the domain and protection of the god of that land. It is clear from this narrative that the God of Abram is not bound to such territorial restrictions: God exercises authority over Abram while he is in his land of origin, and promises to bless him when he is in another land.

This story introduces the idea of covenant: God enters into a relationship of mutual love and mutual responsibility with Abram and his descendants.

God makes a five-fold promise of blessing:

  1. “I will make you a great nation”: a promise which upgraded to a covenant in Genesis 15 and fulfilled in Moses,
  2. “I will bless you,” with prosperity and protection,
  3. “I will make your name great,” a promise which is upgraded to a covenant in Genesis 17:1-19 and fulfilled in David,
  4. “I will bless those that bless you”, which fits together with the next and final blessing,
  5. “I will curse those who curse you”, indicating how God will respond to the treatment Abram’s nation will receive from others.

The last promise God gives: “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you,” is a worldwide blessing which is upgraded to a covenant in Genesis 22 and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

These blessings show God’s favorable regard for Abram and enhance Abram’s individual and family life. People will use him as a standard of blessing (see Galatians 3:8).

Abram went as the LORD directed him.

Striking as it is that he obeyed, even more striking is his swiftness. No questions were asked, and no long period of preparation is suggested.

It is only in this last verse that any action by Abram is taken, and his action is that of following God’s instructions.  In that sense, this narrative is really more about God and God’s plan than it is about Abram.

2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 1:8b-10

Beloved:
Bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.

He saved us and called us to a holy life,
not according to our works
but according to his own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began,
but now made manifest
through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,
who destroyed death and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel.

After writing the epistle to Titus, Saint Paul went to Rome. There, both he and Saint Peter were seized and thrown into prison. This was around the year 66-67. This letter is his last, as he was martyred in 67, and thus this letter can be regarded as his final spiritual testimony.

Timothy was the pastor of the Church of Ephesus. The two letters which Paul wrote to him contain a series of rules and recommendations for the good government of the young community, whose members were mostly of a Gentile background.

Beloved: Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

Paul exhorts Timothy, his often timid disciple, to preach the gospel despite the fact that Paul is now in jail for doing just that.

He saved us and called us to a holy life,

The kerygmatic nature of verses 9-10 has led some to classify it as a Christian hymn, something the early Christians would have recited as a profession of faith. It outlines what God has done for us and what Christ has done on our behalf.

The “hymn” begins with a double statement of God’s graciousness: 1) he saved us from a life of sin, and 2) he called us to a life of holiness.  We have been rescued from one life and invited into another.

not according to our works

Neither salvation nor the call to holiness is the fruit of any deed we might have done. They are not rewards for good behavior; they have come to us freely out of the goodness of God. They are freely and graciously given according to God’s eternal plan (see Ephesians 1:4).

but according to his own design

For Paul himself, salvation is normally a future event, e.g., “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Paul recognizes what God has already graciously achieved for humanity in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus (the past). He also recognizes that through God’s grace, he is working in us now (the present), and that the end result is something of the future as we must one day appear before the tribunal of Christ to account for what one has done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10).

“Observe … how Marcion, and Manes, and Valentinus, and others who introduced their heresies and pernicious doctrines into the Church of God, measuring divine things by human reasonings, became ashamed of the divine economy. Yet it was not a subject for shame but rather for glorying: I speak of the cross of Christ. … For in themselves death and imprisonment and chains are matters of shame and reproach. But when the cause is added before us and the mystery viewed aright, they will appear full of dignity and a matter for boasting. For it was that death on the cross that saved the world when it was perishing. That death connected earth with heaven; that death destroyed the power of the devil and made men angels and sons of God; that death raised our nature to the kingly throne. Those chains enabled the conversion of many.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 393-397), Homilies on the Second Epistle to Timothy, 2]

and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,

Though this grace comes from God, it comes to us through Christ.

There is an allusion to the preexistence of Christ here: grace was given through Christ before the ages of time, but it was only made manifest through Christ’s appearance (epipháneia).

who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Christ destroyed death by not letting death destroy him.  He endured it, then he threw off its hold on him and rose to new life.  Through this resurrection, he gave new meaning to both life and immortality (the Greek word translated as “immortality” is aphtharsía, or incorruptibility).

The reading closes as it began, with a reference to the gospel.  In the first instance, Paul refers to the suffering that fidelity to the gospel brings.  Here the focus is on the gospel as glad tidings: it is through this gospel we are brought to see the hope of new life.

Gospel – Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Last week we heard of Jesus’ temptation in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry. Today we hear of his transfiguration, which occurred about two years later, after the feeding of the five thousand. The account of the transfiguration confirms that Jesus is the Son of God and points to the fulfillment of the prediction that he will come in his Father’s glory at the end of the age (Matthew 16:27).

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,

Peter, James and John are the apparent inner circle of the apostles. They were also chosen to be alone with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37) and at the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:37).

and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

A mountain is symbolic of revelation, as high mountains were long thought to be places where the gods dwelt. God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12-18) and Elijah at the same place (1 Kings 19:8-18).

No localization is necessary, although Carmel, Tabor, and Hermon have been suggested.

And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.

The transfiguration is an insight into Jesus’ identity, when his inner reality shone forth and transfigured his outer appearance.

Like Moses after the Sinai revelation (Exodus 34:29-35), Jesus’ face shines brightly, but his clothes are also brilliant. White garments are the traditional dress of heavenly beings.

In essence, the disciples are seeing Jesus’ divinity.

And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,

Moses and Elijah represent respectively the Law and the Prophets, i.e., the entire religious tradition of ancient Israel. Jesus joins these two as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (see Matthew 5:17).

Some interpret the presence of Moses and Elijah as a confirmation of the authority of Jesus and the legitimacy of his teaching. As a Jewish teacher, Jesus taught in fidelity to his own religious tradition. However, those who considered themselves experts on the law and the prophets often found themselves in disagreement with Jesus because they were legalists and Jesus was not.

Elijah was assumed bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and Hebrew legend has it that Moses was also assumed. This may explain how both can appear here in bodily form.

conversing with him.

Neither Matthew nor Mark tell us what was discussed, but according to Luke 9:31, “They spoke about his departure (exodus), which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord,

Matthew uses the word “Lord”, while Mark uses “rabbi” as the form of address. “Lord” literally means “my great one”, an address of respect to God, angels, and earthly sovereigns.

it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

A person who is going to stay to dwell with the people needs a tent. Peter’s offer to put up three tents implies that he would like to prolong Jesus’ transfiguration and conversation with the ancient heroes — and that all three of them will stay.

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,

This is no ordinary cloud, but the luminous and mysterious shekinah (glory cloud), the divine presence. A “pillar of cloud” had led the Jews out of Egypt. When their tabernacle was completed, a cloud had covered it, and the glory of the Lord had filled it. It was in a cloud that God had given the tables of the Law to Moses. And a cloud had filled Solomon’s temple at its dedication.

then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; 

These words are a revelation of the sonship of Jesus, and a repeat of the words spoken at the baptism (Matthew 3:17).

listen to him.”

Not “Listen to them” (Jesus, Moses, and Elijah), but “Listen to him.”

When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.

The vision and transformation of Jesus do not appear to have disturbed the disciples; however, the voice from heaven strikes fear in their hearts and they fall prostrate.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Jesus’ touch overcomes their fear and perhaps consecrates them to further service. Luke’s account of the transfiguration suggests the disciples were asleep and this is a dream-vision.

And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

The disciples may have witnessed Jesus’ transformation, but the author makes it clear that they did not see his return to normal appearance.

Note that Moses and Elijah have withdrawn, diminished in significance before the fuller revelation in Jesus. Moses and Elijah won’t need tents; the disciples are to listen to Jesus.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The transfigured Jesus was identified as Son of God, but here Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, who will be raised from the dead.  Though very different, both titles connote an aspect of divinity.

Why does Jesus charge the disciples to remain silent? Earlier in the gospel when Jesus warned the disciples of his coming death, Peter did not understand what he was saying. He even rebuked Jesus, saying “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus is telling the disciples not to talk about what they do not yet themselves understand. After Jesus rises from the dead, they will understand what the transfiguration revealed about Jesus’ divinity and why it is Jesus to whom they should listen. Until then they should simply remain silent.

Connections and Themes

Divine blessings.  This week we meditate on the many blessings conferred on us by God. They are undeserved gifts; they were not earned. Abram was called because God had a plan for him, not because Abram had performed some noteworthy deed. Similarly, in the second reading, Paul is very clear about the reason for our salvation: it was not because of any works of ours, but because of the grace bestowed by God according to his plan. In the gospel reading, the three apostles did nothing to warrant the privilege of witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. They didn’t even understand its significance. In each case, God is not only liberal in bestowing particular blessings, but God seems always ready to lavish us with even more. What alone is required of us is openness to receive the blessings.

A new beginning.  The graciousness of God transforms us in such a way as to effect new beginnings. It can be seen in the promises made to Abram: he leaves the past behind and moves into a new future. We see it in the second reading as well: through Christ Jesus we are called to a new life of holiness; we escape the fetters of death and are brought into the freedom of Jesus, which through grace we will be able to share. In the gospel reading, Jesus is transfigured, an event that marks the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem for his passion. Lent is a time of new beginnings — beginnings that find their origin in the abundant blessings of God.

Choose Christ.  The ultimate blessing of God is Jesus himself. The gospel account of the transfiguration confirms the authority of Jesus and the legitimacy of his teaching. Through Moses and Elijah, it links him with the cherished tradition of the Jewish nation, while the voice identifying him as beloved Son makes a claim not even ancient Israel dared to make. This vision is a kind of proleptic glimpse into the future. It reveals the glory which is already with Jesus, but which will be revealed to all in the future. Once again, the Lenten readings focus on the merciful action of God in our lives, and in the end they point us to Jesus. In them we see the fullness of what it means to be human as well as the unexpected graciousness of God in the lives of the faithful.