(See the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Feb. 24)
The stars in the night sky shine brightly on a clear night. Several years ago when I was studying in the Holy Land a group of classmates decided to make a pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Mount Sinai. Our plan was to drive to the border with Egypt and then camp out overnight before crossing onto the Sinai Peninsula. We had no tents just sleeping bags.
The night sky was one of the most spectacular sights that I have ever experienced. Lying on the ground by the shore and looking up, the vast night sky was full of bright specks of light coming from the stars. It was incredible — the number of stars visible at that spot away from the city and its own light.
The image of the night sky full of stars is one that the Lord uses to describe His blessings to Abraham in today’s first reading. The Lord says: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.” When I hear this passage I think of that night sky in the Negev. Many of us have had the opportunity to see a brilliant night sky; we each have our own recollections. The vast quantity of stars is countless.
With the advent of modern astronomy, millennia from the time of Abraham, science would verify that “countless” is an apt description of the “number of stars” in the sky. The Lord tells Abraham to count the stars “if you can.” It’s impossible; there are just too many. Such is the image that the Lord uses to describe the number of descendants that will follow Abraham.
The descendants of Abraham are a blessing from the Lord, a blessing given in abundance; a blessing that flows from the faith that Abraham put in the Lord and the covenant that ensues. A fact that makes this blessing even more remarkable is that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was barren. She could not have children and here the Lord is promising descendants as numerous as the stars.
Abraham puts his faith in the Lord and, eventually, the blessing is fulfilled. The promise begins to be fulfilled with the conception and birth of Isaac. Child of Abraham and Sarah the blessings God promised Abraham would be passed on to him. Yet he was the only child of their union. But it is through him that the promise continues.
The promise continues down through the years to the coming of Christ.St. Paul will remind us in his Letter to the Romans it is through Christ that the promises to Abraham were fulfilled. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, he is a child of Israel. Through baptism we all become members of the Body of Christ and through this incorporation become children of Abraham. Thus through Christ, the promise to Abraham is fulfilled.
The immensity of God’s blessings finds an echo in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration. The context for this passage is the question of Jesus’ identity. In the previous section Jesus raises the topic. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” he asks his disciples. After their response he adds “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, speaking for the others, says “The Messiah.” Jesus then predicts His passion and gives an instruction on discipleship as tied to His passion.
St. Luke tells us that eight days later Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go up the mountain. It is here that he is transfigured before them. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus help signify this fulfillment. Moses, the traditional author of the Torah, represents the Law. Elijah, considered by many to be the greatest prophet, signifies the Prophets.
So in this account we encounter Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah as he continues on His journey toward Jerusalem. He fulfills the Law and the Prophets in His very person. Yet the conversation of the three help to signify the specific manner in which God’s blessings to Israel, and indeed to all mankind, would be accomplished and made manifest. St. Luke tells us that the topic of their conversation was Jesus’ “departure,” a clear reference to His passion, death and resurrection. Peter’s response suggesting three tents can be seen as a reference to the Feast of Succoth, which commemorates the wandering in the desert.
Recall the Tent of Dwelling was erected each time the Israelites would settle during this period. God’s presence would fill this tent and the people would know that He was with them on their journey. Peter’s suggestion of building three tents may be an allusion to this feast. Saint Luke tells us that Peter was erroneous in suggesting the three tents. The reason for this is two-fold.
First, Jesus is not on the same plain as Moses and Elijah; this becomes clear when our heavenly Father speaks from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Second, Peter is trying to qualify or restrain God’s glory by suggesting the tents. God’s glory, his blessings, his presence is so abundant that it cannot be limited to a tent. The immensity of His glory cannot be contained.
An additional significance of the Succoth allusion is that the Feast was a pilgrimage feast. Jews would travel to Jerusalem and live in tents as part of the celebration. Jesus is just about to begin His journey to Jerusalem which will end in his glorification.
God’s blessings are vast and numerous. It is not easy to quantify God’s blessings to Abraham and to us. God’s glory is perfectly manifest and encountered in Jesus. Jesus becomes the source of blessing to all peoples of all times; a blessing that knows no limits.
Today as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Lent we are reminded of these blessings that God bestows on us. In the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and His passion we are reminded of the immensity of God’s love. A love that nothing could bar not even sin or death. During Lent we reflect on this great blessing seeking to enhance our response to love in love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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