Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings: Gen 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-28; Rm 8: 31b-34; Mk 9: 2-20

God put Abraham to the test.  Life seems to be a series of tests, one after the other.  We don’t get out of school without passing tests.  You can’t take things for granted without testing what is hidden or inside.  Who takes a used-car dealer’s word for a model’s worthiness without taking a test drive?  When someone comes to join the monastery, Benedict tells us to test the spirits.  The past work resumé may look fine, but that will not tell us how he will respond under stress or crisis.  Sometimes it is the very crisis or test that brings out unknown capabilities that otherwise would never come to light.

The story of Abraham’s test seems to have had a happy ending. Because God saw how devoted he was to Him, he blessed Abraham with land and descendants.  But sandwiched in between the beginning and the end is a rather disturbing story of almost sadistic cruelty.  The authority of God is used to demand inhuman behavior (a lesson unfortunately learned by some who have represented that authority).  A father is told to offer his son up as holocaust. This abbreviated version of the story eliminates some of the dreadful conversation between Abraham and his son, Isaac.  There is no meaning to all this except to prove obedience and exact loyalty.  The last-minute reprieve only makes it all the more cruel and pointless.

Articles and books have been written to make this foundational story more palatable and innocuous.  A conflict existed between an imperious and violent Elohist theology and a compassionate and loving Jahwist theology.  The text champions the compassionate God.  Or: the text serves to prohibit the common practice of child sacrifice.  But these are interpretations and theodicies not in the text of the story itself.  As it reads, it is pretty raw grist.  The “theology” distances us from the experience.

It is not uncommon to privilege a ready-made interpretation over the information we are fed by experience itself.  The experience may be too disturbing or even traumatic for us to assimilate.  An acceptable and palatable interpretation shields us and allows us to return to normal functioning.  Our behavior, our theology, and even our religion can distance us from the questions, crises and contradictions that once cried out for salvation and help.  Our religion and interpretations can smother the fire that gave impetus and spirit to our seeking.

God calls Abraham to the mountain of Moriah and Jesus invites three disciples to a mountain to encounter God.  The transfiguration of Jesus is not a promise of a happy ending to sustain his disciples in their sufferings or as they witness the apparent failure of their Master.  They are not going to be keepers of a secret interpretation that will confound all opponents and make their sufferings palatable in a trivialized relativity.  They were so terrified.  They were drawn into a raw experience which carried them beyond explanations or the sacrilege of trying to cram a transcendent encounter into comprehensible language.  Tell no one the vision.  You ae not going to be able to explain it. The vision was a manifestation of the presence and reality of God at work in and through human history and suffering.  It was the inexplicable conjunction of suffering and life, of absence and presence.  The scandal of a suffering savior, of a God immersed in the raw messiness of human life remains.  God is one with us in the depths of our vulnerability and susceptibility to danger and fear.

What the journey of Abraham and the transfiguration of Jesus reveal to us is the impulse of the Spirit to constantly evoke in us a response of trust in God.  This is not a trust in our own capacities to fend off crisis with self-constructed barricades.  It is a trust which dares to be exposed to life-threatening powers and crises with the naked offer of Here I am. It is a trust which has nothing to count on but the knowledge that God is for us and that He, too, says Here I am.  Now I know that you love me, how devoted you are. This is enough.  It binds together in scandal the depths of our raw experience with the integrity and wholeness of the Holy One.  The tests in life move us ever more into the depths and abyss of God.  To continue walking into the desert (or up the mountain) is to move deeper and deeper into a place of unknowing.  It is to become lost to oneself, a bewildering and terrifying experience, but one somehow necessary to the mysterious process of being remade in God (Douglas Burton-Christie, “Simplicity, or the Terror of Belief”, CSQ 40, p. 369).


Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings:  Gen. 12:1-4a; 2 Tim. 1:8b-10; Mt. 17:1-9

What you need to bring.  When we are entering into a new environment, we like to have some advance information about what we should bring with us. Schools will often send new students a handy list of what they will need to have.  When candidates apply to the monastery, they are given a list of what to bring (work shoes) and what not to bring (IPhones).  Travel to a foreign country may call for changes to our wardrobe.  Our lives are full of transitions to new environments and we don’t always know what we should bring from our past.  Some transitions are part of development and growing up.  We need to put aside the things of a child and act like adults.  Other transitions are more dramatic and unwelcome:  illness, loss of a job, death of a loved one.  Those can be more difficult transitions to negotiate.  We try to preserve the order and stability we had become accustomed to in the face of changed circumstances. We know where we had been, but aren’t sure where we are going. 

Often it is those disturbing transitions that make us look at where we are going.  What are we living for?  Merton’s famous remark was that if you want to know who I am, ask me what I am living for.  And then ask me what is keeping me from realizing what I am living for – in detail.  It is easier to readjust our sights to attainable satisfaction than to suffer disturbances that don’t promise rest and gratification.  We become settlers, settling for what is good enough, aimlessly wandering in shrinking circles.  Pope Francis has called this a grey pragmatism that flourishes in small-mindedness.  We can become mummies in a museum (Joy of the Gospel).

Lent is a privileged time to take a close look at where we are going and what we need to bring with us. Like using the zoom button on the computer, we can look with greater clarity at the movements shaping our lives and the conclusions they inevitably bring.  Is the baggage of past behavior and desires equipping us to deal with present and future reality?  Can we move into a space which offers us enough objectivity and distance to see the impermanent and secondary for what they are.  In our prayer this morning, we asked for a spiritual sight made pure.  An inner transparency, simplicity, and lightness of being attunes us to the vision of the glory of God hidden before our eyes.

God seldom (never?) satisfies the need we have to know how his designs are being materialized in our lives. The God of the Bible shows himself to be a disturber of the peace. He has called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design.  When he called Abram, he didn’t give him a map or picture of where he was going.  Go forth from the land you know to a land that I will show you.  Abram walked from a land of the familiar into the great suspense of faith and trust.  I will show you.  It is God’s plan and design. Jesus led them up a high mountain.  They were led.  I will show you.  In the Transfiguration, the presence and reality of God pervaded the humanity of Christ in a visible form.  The disciples were given a vision of where they were going and where we are going.  But the cloud and the voice overwhelmed their capacities to comprehend or capture what this experience fully meant. Their response would be lived out in obedience (Listen to Him) and in the trust that knows God’s presence in darkness, unknowing, and suspense.  Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

With the disciples, we are summoned from moments of clarity and luminosity into the suspense that demands our trust.  Bear your share of hardships for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.  What do we need to bring with us?  The baggage gets lighter and lighter.  We have been called to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his design.  Our deepest sense of being comes alive in being addressed, called, by God.  It is an experience we know in the intimacy of prayer when we leave our land, kinsmen, and father’s house to simply be who we are.  It is to stand in poverty, courage and nakedness before the reality of an incomprehensible God who transforms and transfigures our humanity with His Spirit.  This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him.


Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture Readings: Gen. 15:5-12, 17-18;  Phil. 3:17-4:l; Lk. 9:28b-36

Some of us may have had the experience of being approached by someone who asked us, Do you have a few moments? I’d like to share something with you.  We feel the rush of a certain apprehension since we know we are being invited into a special zone of confidence, honesty, and intimacy. We feel honored and privileged, but also hesitant and unsure.  The seriousness and gravity of the request call for an honesty and openness on our part.  The floor of superficiality and casualness has collapsed.  I was once told in confidence by an acquaintance that he had shot and killed a friend in a hunting accident.  Knowing the burden that he carried changed the relationship I had with him.  I can’t remember him without thinking of how his life had been changed by that accident.

Jesus selected only three of his disciples to accompany him up the mountain to share in his encounter with the Father.  They must have felt privileged and honored.  They were not quite able to grasp what they were being offered.  They fell asleep.  Perhaps some of their fatigue came from the effort to defend and fortify the perimeters of their identity.  It takes a lot of energy to maintain the distances we think we need for our security.  In his prayer, Jesus allowed his whole being to be penetrated and permeated by the presence and reality of God.  His humanity was revealed as the manifestation of God. It was glorified.  The Father wanted to share something of Himself with Jesus and Jesus opened Himself totally to the change in Him that his sharing would mean.  The disciples (= the church = we) are invited to share in this experience, but are very, very slow to let the implications of this encounter filter into their comprehension and understanding.

The delayed response is not at all unusual for those whose experience a trauma.  A trauma is a wound, a violation of core assumptions, an experience of stress which is beyond our ability to cope or adapt.  There is a sense of helplessness and even an inability to verbalize the source of suffering.  A cloud seems to block out any orientation or perspective.  A trance fell upon Abram and a deep terrifying darkness enveloped him. … He did not know what he was saying.  While he was still speaking a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.  When Luke says that they saw his glory, he is indicating that they were deeply affected and impacted by this revelation of God’s sharing His presence in the humanity of Christ.  It was an experience that had the effect of a trauma: undeniable, but an assault on what had seemed possible or sustainable.  It would take time for the implications of this vision to infiltrate their full consciousness.  They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.  The limits of human nature were now seen as permeable to the incomprehensible immersion of God.  The transfiguration of the face and clothes of Jesus was not merely a one-time display of celestial pyrotechnics.  It was the revelation of the transformation of human nature realized in the on-going trauma of the incarnation.  Like the poor heifer, goat, and ram of Genesis, the firm confines of humanity are split open to lie exposed to the word and spirit of God. 

The mystery of the transfiguration is the transformation of human nature at its roots in the incarnation. Our immersion in this mystery through baptism is being chosen and taken into God’s confidence.  The body of Christ is his covenant, the confidence he places in us which enables our confidence and trust in Him. Abram put his faith in the Lord who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.  Our Lenten practice is living in this active trust, in this conversatio (citizenship) with God’s presence (heaven).  This practice develops the spiritual sight to see his glory in our humanity (Opening Prayer: be pleased to nourish us inwardly by your word, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory).  One of the principles of liturgical renewal proposed by Vatican II was to drop the accretions, additions, and repetitions that had accumulated over time and let the intrinsic nature of liturgical action appear and be manifest.   The superficial and casual level of our minds being occupied with earthly things collapses under the weight of discovering the divinity that Christ shares with us in our common humanity.  Glory is both luminosity and weight — purifying our sight and joining us to the gravity that grounds us in the heart of God.  Robert Taft, the late Jesuit liturgist, has written of Lenten practice: It is nothing more than the necessary objectivity and distance from whatever is impermanent and secondary in the human endeavor; the self-discipline necessary to maintain true freedom and make the right choices; the destruction of egoism by the honest person who has the courage to stand naked before self and God…. an openness to new life and through it an openness to others.  Blessed are those pure in heart who will see his glory.