2nd Sunday of Lent (Year C)
First Reading: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 Second Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1 Gospel Reading: Luke 9:28b-36
“IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP!”
There is a story told of a certain woman who was always bright, cheerful and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend visiting her one day brought along another woman – a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It's better higher up.” When they reached the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It's better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were set on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment's hesitation the shut-in, pointing towards heaven, responded, “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.”
She was not looking at temporal things and earthly sufferings. With the eyes of faith fixed on God, she was joyfully looking forward to the ultimate glory that awaited her.
Last week, the 1stSunday of Lent – 'Temptation Sunday,' the Gospel Reading led us to the desert with Jesus, where he prayed and fasted for forty days & nights and was tempted by Satan – and we had a “desert experience” of spiritually disciplining ourselves through prayer, fasting & works of piety. This week, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel Reading takes us to the mountain-top to contemplate the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus and invites us to have a “mountain-top experience” of spiritually strengthening in us the cardinal Christian virtues viz. Faith, Hope & Love.
Each year, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel Reading speaks of the Transfiguration of Jesus; so, it may not perhaps be wrong to call it 'Transfiguration Sunday.' All the three Evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels, viz. Matthew, Mark & Luke, mention this important event in Jesus' life with remarkable agreement. In today's account from Luke, we note that it is only Luke who describes it without using the word 'transfigure.' Also, it is only Luke who has Jesus going to pray and the disciples asleep; and it is only Luke who mentions what Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah. Why did Luke add these distinctive features?
But, before going into the explanation and meaning of the Transfiguration of the Lord, let us first put the event in the proper context - Jesus was just about to set out to Jerusalem and to the cross; and he had told his disciples that it was in Jerusalem that he would be handed over to evil men to be put to death, but that on the third day, he would rise again...whatever 'that' meant. The disciples were anxious and Jesus knew what was in their hearts. He knew what they had had to bear over the past three years since they had become his disciples. But he also knew that what was about to happen in Jerusalem would shake even the strongest, even the most devoted among them. And so, Jesus took three of his most intimate disciples, Peter, James and John, and went up onto a mountain to pray. We do not know which mountain but, in general, mountains in Scripture are holy places, places where God is especially felt to be present. Traditionally Mount Tabor is identified as the mountain in question, but it really does not matter.
While he was praying...
In the Gospel of Luke, prayer precedes every important event that takes place in Jesus' life – his baptism, his choosing of the apostles and sending them on a mission, his passion. So also, it is when Jesus is praying that the Transfiguration takes place - “While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” Also, in Luke, whenever a character is at prayer, amazing things happen – Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth and Simeon – as we already know – were visited by angels. So prayer is an important prelude to anything happening for Luke. This is something we ourselves might want to keep in mind in this season of Lent. We need to pray so that our Easter event this year can be truly remarkable.
Overcome by sleep...
The Transfiguration of Jesus took place while the three disciples were asleep. They wake up and see Jesus in glory speaking to Moses and Elijah. It is a strange thing, this sleep that returns every time that an important event in the lives of the elect of God is about to take place! For, when God decided to create the first woman, He "caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh." Also, it was while they slept that God spoke to many important people of the Old Covenant: Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, to name a few. It was also during sleep that Joseph, the spouse of Mary, received from the Angel the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation. But, what relates directly to the mystery of the Transfiguration is the sleep that fell upon the very same three apostles: Peter, James, and John, at the time of the Agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, after having prayed to his Father, Jesus said to Peter: "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?" Truly, sleep is important in the life of a Christian, because the eternal life to which he is called consists precisely in rest and residing in God...
Moses and Elijah...
In the Transfiguration, the union of God with humanity in the one man, Jesus Christ, was made manifest in a special way. Jesus becomes transfigured, i.e. the veil is lifted and his disciples receive a glimpse of his divinity shining forth through his humanity. The presence of Moses and Elijah attests to Christ’s complete and total fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and although the two are 'in glory' Jesus is found speaking with them about his forthcoming death - “his exodus that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The original 'exodus' was the passage of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land, whereas this exodus is infinitely greater. It will be the passage of Jesus from this world through his passion and death to the glory of the Resurrection.
As so often in the Gospel, the messages seem to be contradictory - death and glory sitting side by side. In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw that there was more to Jesus than what they could see and hear and touch - they got a glimpse of the future glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Our celebration of Jesus’ Transfiguration during Lent reminds us that the 'Lenten penance' will give way to the 'Easter joy.'
Voice from heaven...
The power of this vision also lies in the presence of all three persons of the Blessed Trinity. As in the Baptism of our Lord, the Father speaks from heaven, this time enjoining upon the disciples obedience to his 'Chosen Son,' and the Holy Spirit is evoked in the cloud that envelopes everyone. There is a voice from heaven, “This is My Son, the Chosen One. Listen to Him.” God is telling them that Jesus knows what he is talking about - and salvation will come through him - even if how it happens does not always make sense to the disciples.
The disciples were overcome by the experience - and who can blame them! A vision that is both frightening and exhilarating! It would be wonderful for such an ecstasy to never end. Peter tries to interpret it - and, in a way, make it manageable and permanent - “Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” as a lasting memorial of what has happened.
The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain is also awaiting each of us after death. It calls us to have “the virtue of hope,” the hope of our future glorification. On the mountain Peter, James and John had a privileged experience of Jesus’ transfiguration. This was not simply something the disciples were to see and experience as happening to Jesus alone. It was also an invitation for them to undergo a transfiguration of their own. That is what St. Paul says in the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Philippians - “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.” St. Paul urges us therefore to stand firm in our faith and to live a life of discipleship with Jesus now, so that we share in a glorious future later.
The First Reading of today from the Book of Genesis is also an encounter with God, where God reconfirms to Abraham his promise of land and many descendants. Today's text reminds us that Abraham and Sarah did not come to such faith easily but against the constant backdrop of barrenness and hopelessness. And today, we too are called to practice “the virtue of faith,” to trust completely in God in the ups and downs of our own life.
Abraham asks God for a sign that he will indeed inherit the land. God calls for a sacrifice to emphasize the irrevocable nature of the covenant. The slaughtered animals are conventional symbols of the time to underline the seriousness of the oath that has been undertaken on both sides. But wholly unconventional, and indeed miraculous, is the sign that God uses to introduce his solemn promise: the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass through the slaughtered animals. God breaks through the darkness that envelopes Abraham to speak his sacred promise. The 'deep sleep' is preparing Abraham for the divine presence which passes between the two halves of the animals, which stands in parallel by the disciples' sleep in the Gospel Reading of today.
Now, God establishes a New Covenant with mankind in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross on Mount Calvary. It speaks of “the virtue of love.” Here, we see the love, the power and the glory of God Himself shining forth in human flesh. Jesus is the Father's pledge of eternal love for us. He is the pledge of our future redemption - that our broken, tired, anxious flesh will one day come to be like his. Through this we become God's adopted children and heaven becomes our new promised land. During every Eucharistic celebration, we ponder this mystery, which is a sacrament of our redemption, where bread and wine are transformed into the glorious body and blood of our risen Savior.
Finally, don't we sometimes feel like the whole world is collapsing on our heads? At times like these, we need to go up the mountain of prayer and ask God to open our eyes that we may see. When God grants us a glimpse of eternity then we shall realize that all our troubles in this life are short-lived. Then shall we have the courage to accept the apparently meaningless suffering of this life, knowing that through it all God is on our side. All it takes is a little glimpse of heaven to empower us to take up our daily crosses and follow Jesus, knowing that the 'cross of Lent' is followed by the 'crown of Easter.' So, let our eyes of faith be fixed on God, and let our hearts be filled with hope, and let us joyfully look forward to the ultimate glory that awaits us all, bearing in mind always - “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.” And this is the Good News of today.