2nd Sunday of Lent (Year A)
First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:8b-10 Gospel Reading: Matthew 17:1-9
“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 1st Sunday of Lent – ' The 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 the devil – 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 calls us to 'holiness' by having 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 'The Transfiguration Sunday.' All the three Evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels, viz. Matthew, Mark & Luke, mention this important event in Jesus' life with remarkable agreement. This is Year A, so we have St. Matthew's account of the Transfiguration this Sunday. He presents the singular event of the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus' external appearance, the momentary presence of Moses and Elijah, and the hearing of God's voice. Only three of the Apostles witness this revelation and they are warned to speak of it only after Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
But, before going into the explanation and meaning of the transfiguration of the Lord, we need first to put the event into proper context - Peter had just, in the name of the other disciples, recognized their Teacher, Jesus, as the expected Messiah of Israel. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." It was a climactic moment in Jesus' relationship with his disciples. But this was immediately followed by Jesus clearly telling them exactly what being Messiah was going to mean for him. Far from being a mighty warrior-king who would crush all the enemies of God's people, he was going to be rejected by the leaders of his own people, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and eventually executed - not by them but by the very hated enemies they expected the Messiah to overthrow. This was too much for Peter and he objected strongly. In turn, he was severely scolded for obstructing God's way of doing things. Even more, Jesus had said that, if anyone wanted to be his follower, then they would have to be prepared to walk the same road of rejection, oppression - and even death. All of this must have seemed like a large bucket of cold water landing on the heads of the disciples. What Jesus had said was totally against all they had ever heard about the expected Messiah. It is in this perhaps depressed mood that today's experience takes place.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS:
And so, to give a boost to their morale, to help them see that the way of Jesus would lead to victory and triumph, Jesus takes three of his most intimate disciples, Peter, James and John, and goes up onto a high mountain. They are the inner circle of the Twelve and are found with Jesus at other times of crucial importance e.g. at the raising of Jairus' daughter and the agony in the garden. 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. When they reached the top, “He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” 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. It is as if this transfiguration was necessary for Jesus to give his disciples a glimpse of his divinity, that he really is 'the Son of God.'
a) Moses and Elijah...
In the vision, the presence of Moses and Elijah attests to Jesus' complete and total fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and although the two are 'in glory' he is found conversing with them about his forthcoming death. Moses is the one who symbolizes the scriptures and the law of God. Elijah is the symbol for all of the prophets. Jesus is there showing that he continues what has gone before, but now he sums up all of the past. 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.
Now, 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 - “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” as a lasting memorial of what has happened.
b) Voice from heaven...
The power of this vision also lies in the presence of all three persons of the Blessed Trinity. St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus displays his characteristic interest in Jesus as 'the Son of God,' which clearly echoes in the voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; Listen to him.” As in the Baptism of our Lord, the Father speaks from heaven, this time enjoining upon the disciples' obedience to His 'Beloved Son,' and the Holy Spirit is evoked in the cloud that envelopes everyone. Here 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.
c) “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
The disclosure of the voice in the cloud stunned the disciples into shock. They were frightened, of course, for they did not properly understand what they were experiencing. Understandably, terrified they fell on their faces. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” Then he warned them to tell no one of what they had witnessed. It was necessary to await the Easter resurrection for the rest of the disciples.
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.
THE CALL OF ABRAHAM:
The First Reading of today from the Book of Genesis is also an encounter with God, where we hear about the call of Abraham, a call to holiness, a life lived in covenanted relationship with the Lord. Abraham was a pagan, before God called him and this is the first time in the scriptures when God calls someone to follow Him in a very specific and clear way. It is a very important passage, because this call of Abraham is a model for any call that we might receive from God.
God told Abraham to leave the land of his kinsfolk and to proceed to a land, which He would show him; He would bless him and would make of him a great nation. Abraham believed in what God promised him, even in an impossible circumstance. In this way, he was made righteous through his faith in God. Abraham thus is a model believer and a father of us all in faith. The terse phrase, “Abram went as the Lord directed him,” is epigrammatic of the entire saga of tested and proven fidelity on Abraham’s part . As such, it is also a wonderful summary of the essence of holiness - living as the Lord directs us. And today, we too are called to holiness through the practice of “the virtue of faith,” i.e. to trust completely in God in the uncertainties of our own life.
GOD SAVES US AND CALLS US TO A HOLY LIFE:
In the Second Reading of today from his 2nd Letter to Timothy, St. Paul asks Timothy to endure with him the fatigues and trials of preaching the Gospel. They are fulfilling God's purpose in their work. Jesus Christ has abolished death and achieved immortal life for all. He indicates that God offers us salvation and sanctification as a pure gift and not as the result of our works. He tells Timothy that God saves mankind in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross on Mount Calvary and calls everyone to a holy life. 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. Therefore, a special call is given to join in the suffering for the gospel and in the midst of sufferings, a person is called to rely on the power of God.
In conclusion, the transfiguration of Jesus is a small glimpse of the destination of the Lenten journey, Christ's risen glory. It reminds us that the 'Lenten penance' will give way to the 'Easter joy.' It gives hope that we might reach that same destination, the abolition of death and the bringing to light of life and immortality through the Gospel. For our Lenten journey to be effective and fruitful, we need to have our destination in mind. There is, of course, a danger of losing sight of it, of turning our eyes away. We need Christ to lift us up, to take away our fear. We should have eyes for him only. We try, through our Lenten penances, to be detached from the things of this world and not to fix our faces on the earth, but rather keeping our vision fixed on the Christ who touches our very lives. 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.