by Dan Loch
Why does this Transfiguration reading always come up on the Second Sunday in Lent? Why is it paired this Lent with a First Reading about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac?
The First Reading story of Abraham and Isaac is a grim tale of how a father would sacrifice his son. We hear it first as children, and know it well. We tell it with hope. We do not know if Isaac, like Jesus, asked, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” We know only that he obeyed. He did as his father required. He let his father lay him on the firewood altar. He watched his father raise the knife. He could only look to his father with a struggling hope for love. Why do we re-tell this story with the Transfiguration gospel? Because both are about a parent’s sacrifice of a beloved child.
For many years at the 10:30 AM REACH Mass in the hall each grade 4, 5, and 6 classroom from January to May had a turn at a Gospel Reaction, the students’ personal take on their Sunday’s gospel. Often they chose to act out the gospel, but they were encouraged to do a Gospel Reaction about what their gospel meant to them today. Easy to do with the parables, tough to do with the Transfiguration. And yet some class got the Transfiguration each year as their Gospel Reaction.
One year a REACH fourth grade Gospel Reaction keyed in on “Listen to him.” They acted out listening in turn to friends, parents, and teachers, in three quick scenes. The teacher ended with:
Most of the time God does not come to us in big, splashy ways. We don’t get to see any Transfigurations of Jesus on a mountain top. God comes to us in ordinary, everyday events…in being friends, in helping others, in obeying the Commandments, in praying, in receiving Communion. We are listening to Jesus right now during this Mass. No mountaintop, no voice from a cloud. But Jesus is here…if we just be quiet and listen. We can hear him in the Readings, in Father’s homily, and in our hearts.
During the Transfiguration the Father’s voice reaffirms Jesus as the Beloved and the Messiah: “This is my beloved Son,” then immediately adds, “Listen to him!” Listen, to what he has been saying about going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Being God’s “beloved Son” does not exempt Jesus from suffering but in fact draws him to it. In Mark just before the Transfiguration (Mark 8:31-33) Jesus revealed what kind of Messiah he will be – one who will suffer and die in Jerusalem and rise after three days. Peter protested (“Stop it! This is crazy talk, Jesus.”), and got a severe scolding from Jesus for not listening: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
The disciples struggle to grasp the meaning of the Transfiguration, of what they have seen and heard. Peter wants to build a basilica. But Jesus does not allow the disciples to remain in the “high” of this experience. He immediately leads the boys back down the mountain. Life is not lived on the mountaintop but back down in the valley. A mountaintop experience gives new insight and new energy, but it is back down in Lent, and back down in the valley that the world waits, that the real work, the hard work needs to be done “in being friends, in helping others, in obeying the Commandments, in praying.”
How can we possibly do that hard work in the valley? Well, as Paul told the Romans in the Second Reading, God is on our side. And with God on our side, how can we possibly fail? Yes, Lent is a time of discipline, a time of penance, yet its discipline is not there to focus us on guilt and unworthiness, but rather on “God is for us”, is with us, and “God … acquits us”, forgives us. “He who did not spare his own Son …, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” Lent and the Transfiguration focus us and renew us on doing the hard work in the valley. Just do it! Embrace His grace.