2nd SUNDAY OF LENT(A) March 5, 2023
Genesis 12: 1-4a; Psalm 33; 2 Timothy 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9
By: Jude Siciliano, OP
One would think that on the second Sunday of Lent we would find our scriptures heavy with tales of sin, condemnation, repentance and other "appropriate" themes of Lent. At least that might be our initial expectation. But the scriptures today place emphasis elsewhere and give us perspectives on Lent that can form and deepen our experience of the season. In other words, in Lent the scriptures extend to us what they always do: an offer of grace. That is what we look for in today’s readings. Without grace, Lent is a drudgery, a brooding season of frustrations, as we try to change old and ingrained ways by our own efforts.
Our Genesis reading takes us back to the beginnings of our faith. In fact, the three major religious traditions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, look to Abraham as our "father in faith." This first reading is very short and, as is usual for our first readings on Sunday, is chosen to go with the gospel for the day. But where is the link? It may have to do with the importance of hearing and then being docile to the Word of God.
Abram (that’s his name at this moment in his story) is asked by God to sacrifice: with his wife Sarai, to leave their land and their family and set off to a place yet unknown to them. They had to respond to God’s command and then continue to listen to God’s Word for further instruction on what God wanted of them. That is what it meant for them to be God’s servants: to hear the Word of God and then to respond to it. That is also what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus, to do what the voice from the cloud says to us today: to listen to him, hear his word and then to respond to what we hear.
Matthew’s gospel was written for a community that had, in large parts, its roots in Judaism. Therefore, Matthew is showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jews. In this gospel Jesus tells his disciples that he has come "to fulfill the Law." Matthew depicts Jesus as the new Moses who establishes, through his life, death and resurrection, a new covenant with us—Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus, we find many allusions in this gospel to prophecies and characters in the Hebrew scriptures. And today’s Transfiguration story is no exception. It might help our hearing if we first showed some of the links between the two testaments in order to learn and respond to what Matthew is revealing to us about Jesus.
Since Matthew is showing Jesus as the new Moses, he frames his account with clear references to the Moses tradition. (You might read Exodus 24 and 34 for some background.) Notice what Exodus and Matthew’s Transfiguration have in common: they take place on a mountain; Jesus and Moses’ face shine; a select group of onlookers is present; there is a bright cloud and a voice speaks from the cloud. To make the link clearer – Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah, the prophet, are present in Matthew’s account.
What the voice said at Jesus’ baptism ("This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleases....") is repeated on the mountain, "This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him." But at the Transfiguration we also hear, "...listen to him." Another link to Moses, since he predicted that God would raise up a prophet like Moses, "Him shall you hear" (Dt. 18:15). We are well into Matthew’s narrative and are reminded at this midway point how unique Jesus is. His identity as favored Son is affirmed again with the admonition to his disciples and us, "Listen to him." What does he have to say to us that he hasn’t already said in the gospel? Or, what does he have to repeat and clarify? The disciples and we have to hear Jesus’ disturbing emphasis on his suffering.
The Transfiguration account is surrounded by two predictions of the passion – one comes immediately prior (16:24-28); the second is later in the same chapter as the Transfiguration (17:22-23). The disciples on the mountain certainly understood the glorious part of Jesus’ identity. There he was, shining bright, with Moses and Elijah and a voice from heaven affirming him – it doesn’t get much better than that! What they missed and we often do too, is the meaning of a later event in Matthew when Jesus goes up to another "high place" – his cross. There were onlookers at that "high place" too. But the presence of God wasn’t obvious to Jesus as he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" At the crucifixion, Elijah and Moses are replaced by the two thieves and Jesus’ garments are not "white as light," but are stripped off him in preparation for his death. At the crucifixion there is not the same evidence of God’s glory as there was on the mountain. Instead, there is the mockery of the onlookers and the soldiers crown Jesus with thorns and shout, "All hail, king of the Jews!" Was this what the voice on the mountain was telling the disciples to listen to – that we must heed what we hear from Jesus and follow the same path he chose, the way of the cross?
The disciples did get the part about glory while they were on the mountain with Jesus. What they didn’t get was the message about discipleship Jesus had for them as they came down from the mountain and continued their journey to Jerusalem. On the way down the mountain Jesus told the disciples, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the son of Man had been raised from the dead." He had more to teach them and they had to listen to him – just as the voice directed.
We can ask ourselves in Lent: Do we listen to Jesus? Do we understand what discipleship asks of us? Are we willing to include in following Jesus both realities: the glory of the Transfiguration and the glory of the cross? Like the disciples, we are attracted by what we see of Jesus on the mountain and resistant to what he says about the cross. Going up the mountain to get a glimpse of glory is one thing; going up on the cross is quite another!
Like Peter, we don’t want to leave the former place and we do want to avoid the cross. Yet, as Jesus’ disciples, if we "listen to him," we learn that the cross is an integral part of the package. We can’t pick and choose the parts of discipleship that come before, on the mountain top and leave behind that part that follows the descent when Jesus says things like: "Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all" (20: 26-27). In fact, if the disciples were really listening to Jesus, they would have heard him say, even before they climbed the mountain with him, "Is you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and begin to follow in my footsteps" (16: 24).
We identify any situation that brings pain and loss to our lives as our "cross." When we endure suffering we are consoled that Jesus is present to help us bear and accept our cross in union with him. We surrender ourselves into his hands, the one who loves us and saves us from despair. Jesus, the crucified, is the sure sign to us that God has first-hand experience of human pain and loss and will never abandon us. As we bear our cross of suffering we are united in Christ to God and what was said over him God says over us, "This is my beloved child."
But the cross Jesus offers his disciples in the gospels is a different kind of cross because, while we don’t have a choice to accept or reject sickness and pain, we do have a choice when it comes to the cross he offers us in the gospel. Note how he puts it, "IF you wish to come after me...." He gives us an option, to accept suffering and even death for him. As Timothy describes it today, "Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God." Jesus accepted his share of suffering "for the gospel," and invites us to follow him and do the same. But we are not on our own, as Timothy reminds us, we have "the strength that comes from God."
Jesus asks us to take up his cross: to live in loving relationships with others, even when opposed and taken advantage of; to respond in love to enemies; to serve and embrace, as our sisters and brothers, the poor and outcasts; to practice peacemaking in a world of violence, etc. In other words, to give our lives as Jesus gave his, for the sake of new life. Jesus was transfigured on the mountain and his disciples saw his glory. Through his death and resurrection he transfigured the cross by revealing it as the means to new life for those who would take it up to follow him.
There is one small and tender moment in today’s gospel that should give hope to us this Lent; we who are trying to pick up our cross to follow Jesus. When the disciples heard the voice from the cloud they, "fell prostrate and were very much afraid." Then, Matthew tells us, "Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and do not be afraid.’" This is a detail only Matthew tells. In the gospel Jesus’ words and touch have been healing, empowering and life-giving. The Transfiguration depicts the disciples, weak humans like us, falling prostrate and afraid before the divine revelation about Christ. But Jesus’ touch and encouraging words give us all the courage, desire and ability to renew our commitment to follow him this Lent.
Jesus tells us this Lent, "Rise up and do not be afraid."
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