Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, March 1)

“Here I am,” said Abraham when he heard God’s call. Little did he know at that time what that call would entail. Abraham had heard God’s call before. He knew God’s voice. The first time God spoke to Abraham was when he asked him to leave his land to go to a new home. The Lord promised that he would make of Abraham a great nation, that he would be blest and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him (cf. Genesis 12:1ff.).

Abraham responded in faith. He gathered his family, livestock and possessions and set out for the land of Canaan. When we think of it, this act of faith was huge. The distance to be traveled was akin to going from the east coast of the United States to Indianapolis. Remember, in those days there were no means of modern communication, transportation or roads. He would be going to and through lands of foreigners and strangers. Despite the magnitude of the Lord’s request, Abraham put his faith in the Lord and went.

Now we are some years later. The relationship between Abraham and the Lord has grown. Abraham learns of the Lord’s providence and care, his patience and mercy and love. In those days God had promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens even though he had no children. It took some time but that promise was fulfilled. Despite his old age and the barrenness of his wife Sarah, Abraham did have a son who would inherit the promises. His name was Isaac. And now God calls Abraham again.

“Abraham!,” God said. “Here I am,” Abraham replied. God then said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” Of course, we know that God was going to test Abraham but he did not know this. He must have been shocked.

The command itself reminds us of the magnitude of this test. The Lord says, “take your son Isaac.” Here is Isaac, the heir to the promises, the blessing provided to Abraham, the answer to all his hopes. Then he says “your only one.” Isaac is the only child, there is no other, the long-awaited son.

In saying this the Lord highlights the significance of what he is going to ask Abraham to do. Then he says “the one whom you love.” This child is a gift. He is loved by his father and he loves his father. The test is enormous and Abraham passes the test. He responds in faith to what the Lord asks and is stopped just before the sacrifice is offered. Isaac is spared and the promise is renewed and expanded: “I swear by myself that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing – all this because you obeyed my command.”

The sacrifice of Isaac reminds us of the call to faith. Faith in the Lord is an obedience based on trust. The event also prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross whereby our heavenly Father offers his son. In this sacrifice, in contrast with that of Isaac, the Son willingly presents himself for the sacrifice, in the greatest act of faith. He suffers and dies on behalf of all humanity; and the Father raises him up after three days. The season of Lent provides us the time to meditate on this great mystery of God’s love and mercy.

The transfiguration of the Lord is the Gospel account for today’s liturgy. The passage is packed with meaning. The location for the Transfiguration is a high mountain. A number of times in the Old Testament God encounters his people and is made manifest on “high mountains.” In this case, Jesus’ glory is manifest to Peter, James and John as Jesus becomes brilliant in white light. Moses and Elijah appear with him. They represent the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). God, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is present. Jesus the Son is the focus of attention. The Holy Spirit is represented by the “cloud” casting a shadow over the disciples. The Father speaks from the “cloud” saying: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

His words not only identify Jesus as his Son and instruct the disciples to listen but also serve as a corrective. Prior to this Peter had suggested erecting three tents – one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. In doing this he puts Jesus on an equal plain with Moses and Elijah. But Jesus is more than the law-giver or a prophet, he is the “beloved Son.”

Another important element of the transfiguration of Jesus is preparing the disciples for His passion, death and resurrection. After the transfiguration and as they are coming down from the mountain, Jesus “charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” St. Mark relates that they did not understand what Jesus had meant by “rising from the dead.” The passion of the Lord will be a test for their faith.

The impending passion, death and resurrection is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry and mission. His death will bring life and will inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Just prior to the transfiguration scene Jesus had said to his disciples: “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”

In the account of Peter’s confession which precedes the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts his passion. When Peter says: “You are the Messiah,” Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Then “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” At once Peter rebukes Jesus, which brings the response: “Get behind me Satan. You are thinking not as man does, but as human beings do.”

Jesus continues by telling the disciples that they too must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection is not only central to his life and mission; it is central to the lives and mission of his disciples.

Faith in God is a response in loving obedience and trust. The disciples’ faith was shaken by Jesus’ passion. Most ran away when Jesus was arrested. Peter stayed for awhile but ended up denying the Lord. Mary, John and some of the women stayed to the end but they were the few. All this is to say that sometimes it is difficult to face the cross.

During the season of Lent we take on the tri-fold discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. There is penance involved but the discipline is also used for strengthening our faith and our will. Denying ourselves certain goods, giving to the poor and acts of prayer help us to grow in our dependence on God alone and to trust in his providential care. We have the opportunity to deepen our response to God in loving obedience so that when the crosses in life arise we can embrace them and through them come to an even deeper experience of faith and love.

God loves us. He has vindicated us through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Nothing is more central to life than this realization. Life surely has its challenges along with its joys. As our faith grows, we come to experience joy even in the midst of those challenges and crosses because we realize, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.