Meditations on the 2nd Sunday of Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent 2-25-18

Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm: 116:10, 15-19; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10

Many primitive cultures have practiced human sacrifice, including the ancient tribes in the Middle East. Archeologists tell us that the area outside of Jerusalem, the valley of Gahenna, was once a place where human sacrifice was practiced.  It was a place that provoked great fear. These very early people instinctively knew that to sacrifice a human life was the greatest and most supreme sacrifice that could be made. More grapes and wheat could be grown. More lambs and goats could be bred. But humans came only from the mysterious event of birth.

I am always a little sickened by the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. It seems to go against every thing we hold as right and decent as well as everything we believe about a loving God. Even the ending, when the ram appears and is used as the sacrifice, leaves me uneasy about the story. Nevertheless, since we are told that God is good, and since Isaac was a child who was brought to life by a miracle, we should know that Abraham was right to trust God.

Sacrifice was a significant ritual for the Jewish people. Historians tell us that the blood from the lambs ran in red rivers down the streets of Jerusalem from the temple during Passover. We usually think of gifts as benefiting the person they are given to. At Passover, animals were sacrificed so that the givers could receive something valuable; as a community they recalled being protected from the plagues God put on the Egyptians, and thereby were freed from slavery and lead into the Promised Land. Animal sacrifice ended when the Temple was destroyed, only some 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, but a ritualized image of sacrifice remains in our own Mass.

The Lectionary uses all this to set the tone, to prepare us to think deeply about the crucifixion, which occurred at Passover. It is framed in the immensity of the thought of a loving and all-powerful God willingly sacrificing his son to a frenzied mob motivated by little more than silver coins and the desire for power. That mob continues to haunt us; too much of human interaction is still mob mentality, where superficial information and ignorance leave people open to faulty conclusions and horrific actions.

It is not hard to understand why Pontius Pilot handed over Jesus to the mob to be crucified – giving them what they wanted was the only way to avoid a full-blown riot. The worst part of the Good Friday reading of the Passion is when the congregation is expected to read the words the crowd spoke: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” At that point, I always say a prayer that I will never be part of a mob chanting like that.

I recently heard from a woman who had lost both her husband and her only daughter within 2 months. Naturally, she was in shock. Among other things, I suggested that she lean on the Blessed Mother, because she too, as a widow, had lost her precious child in the most terrible of circumstances.   It was an image that helped this grieving woman.

Likewise, the Lectionary gives us the story of Abraham and Isaac to help us understand the idea of God losing his precious and sinless son to mob who had no respect for his life. At the same time, our Gospel reading reassures us that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become an unearthly dazzling white; he talks with Elijah and Moses. God says Jesus is “my beloved Son.” Afterwards, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone about this except when the “Son of Man had risen from the dead,” which confuses the disciples even more.

So what are we to take away from this muddle of sacrifice and death, alongside transfiguration? The Abraham story assures us that God’s promises can be trusted, even when the situation is dire. Indeed, the children of Abraham did become as many as the stars in the sky, through his son Isaac.   The transfiguration story is also to build trust for the apostles, because very shortly their faith will be badly shaken. Jesus is the son of God and will rise from the dead. The apostles could trust in this message from God, as can we, for the risen Christ is the primary foundation of Christianity. If the 2nd Sunday of Lent were to have a name, it would be “trust”. This Lent, let us set aside our fears of the future, and trust that Creator, Son and Holy Sprit will be with us as we travel together through these 40 days leading to Easter Morning, and beyond.

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Lights, Sounds, Visions: Transfiguration

Transfiguration 8-6-17

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9

In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd.  We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects.  But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.

Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God).  Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets.  There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.

I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to.   It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage.  The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith.  The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”

So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God.  Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.

By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented.  Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.

But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us.  Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.

Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?

The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight.  St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real.  Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof.  God has the last word: Listen to him!