Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 9:28b-36

Two groups of people are the objects of the Church’s special focus during these days of Lent.  The first are those people known as Catechumens, those people for whom this journey will climax in the Easter Vigil, when by the light of the Easter Candle that attests to Christ’s Resurrection and life, they will enter the waters of the Font to die to all that was, only to rise from the waters reborn in Christ and so live with Christ for the rest of their lives’ journey.

The second group is the Penitents, those who are making the journey to return to their lives in Christ and the Church.  There was a time in the Church’s history when Penitents would be clothed in sackcloth and ashes and sit at the entry to the church begging prayers and forgiveness from those entering into worship.  See what a rich sign the cross of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday becomes.  All of us began a journey of repentance.  We may not have formally apostatized, rejecting our faith, or committed any other major sin that would have severed us from the community, but we do know what it means to have sinned and so have reason to number ourselves at least emotionally, with the Penitents.

For all, Lent is a forty-day journey during which faith is strengthened and even rekindled.  The Church puts squarely before us what our faith is all about and in whom it is that we believe.  The Church also wants us to know who will be our strength during the difficult days of the journey so that we will not be scandalized by the suffering Christ, especially should we find ourselves sharing in that cross in ways we could not have imagined.

It is natural for people to want signs to support flagging faith.  Haven’t you ever prayed for a sign so that you will know that you have made a wise decision, or, as you keep vigil with a loved one who is dying, that you can be assured there will be a heaven to welcome your dear one?  In part, that is why every year on the Second Sunday of Lent the gospel of  Jesus’ Transfiguration is read.  We are supposed to remember what we see on this mountain later when we see Jesus crucified on that other mountain.  But let’s spend a few moments with the first reading from Genesis before we get to Tabor.

We meet Abram, not yet Abraham.  He is aging even as he clings to the promise God made to him that he will be the father of many nations.  His faith is being tested because not only is he getting older but so also is his wife Sarah who so far is barren.  Just prior to this reading, Abram has complained in his prayer that as things are going it seems likely that he will die and whatever he has amassed will go to his servants since there are no progeny to inherit his wealth.

What a beautiful scene is described.  It is as though God and Abram, like two longtime friends, are walking together in the late afternoon.  God knows Abram’s doubts and fears and invites Abram to look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.  Just so shall your descendants be. A crucial phrase follows.  We are told that Abram believed, that is, put his faith in the Lord.  And Abram is deemed to be in right relationship with God.  Hence comes the word righteous.

But Abram asks God for a sign so that he will know that all these promises and plans will come to pass.  God reminds Abram of their past dealings with each other, how God chose Abram and brought him out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give him the land on which he now stands.  Now God directs Abram to bring animals and birds for sacrifice, and, except for the birds, to cut them in half and place them in opposition so that God and Abram can walk between the halves and so form a covenant.  Abram follows the instructions, but when the carcasses are laid out, Abram has to fend off the attacking birds of prey.  Abram protects the sacrifice from contamination until sunset when darkness envelops him.  He falls into a trance and sees the blazing firepot and a fiery torch pass through the splayed animal parts.  It is a theophany and the covenant between God and Abram is sealed.  Abram knows God’s promises to him will come to pass.

It is a theophany that we witness in the Gospel.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray.  The amazing happens.  Jesus begins to shine like the very sun.  It is as though Jesus’ body becomes transparent and the God within blazes forth. Moses and Elijah appear and begin to talk with him about his exodus.  The word is an obvious link to the Genesis event, when God led the people out of slavery.  It is also a reference to the coming passion that will be the deliverance from sin for the disciples.  Moses is the great lawgiver.  Elijah is the great prophet.  Both roles come together in Jesus who teaches love as the law and speaks to the people what God wants them to hear.

Imagine your joy had you been there.  You’ve had the experience, I’m sure, of thrilling moments of sublime beauty and joy that you wished could go on and on.  That’s exactly what happens with the three on-lookers.  Peter spews forth with the idea of building three tents, one for each of the principals, so that they all can stay in this moment and Peter, James, and John can bask in the wonder.

Then something they had not bargained for happens.  The cloud forms.  Remember how the cloud enveloped the mountain when Moses spoke with God and received the Decalogue?  Here, Moses and Elijah disappear as the cloud wraps around Jesus and the voice of God is heard: This is my chosen Son; listen to him. The three are filled with terror and fall on their faces in prostration.  After all, no one can look on the face of God and live.  And the moment is over.  When they look up, Jesus stands alone before them in normal visage just as he was before the transfiguration began.

The way the pericope concludes might seem strange.  Luke tells us that the three did not tell anyone else about what they had seen.  Wouldn’t you think that they would be bursting to tell the others?  The point is, they did not understand what they had seen, what the significance of the moment was.  They will not understand until after Jesus rises from the dead.  It is not mere coincidence that what follows this incident in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels is the same.  Jesus begins to talk about going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die and on the third day rise again.  It is the Passover event accomplished in Jesus that will give meaning to that moment on the mountain.

We walk by faith and not by sight, the hymn proclaims.  That’s not always easy.  Some people begin the trek only to give it up, ceasing to believe, going back to former ways.  In the second reading from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul, from prison, writes to his beloved converts to Christ and urges them to imitate their teacher and be faithful to the very end.  Paul is conscious of the fact that his death might well be imminent.  He weeps when he thinks of others he has preached to and baptized who are no longer faithful.  He pleads with the Philippians who have so often been stellar examples of what it means to live lives of faith to keep up their practice, continue to inspire others, and remember heaven that is coming.  Their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of his dying and rising, will ensure that they will walk in glory with the Lord.  Christ, in Resurrection, has the power to bring all things into subjection to himself.

These readings are meant to challenge and encourage.  In the midst of the Assembly, Catechumens have been preparing for Baptism.  These readings invite them to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus who journeys with them and is transfigured before them.  This is the Lord they will meet in the Font, the one who delivers and saves them and brings them into the presence of the living God.

We, the baptized, are meant to be challenged and encouraged too.  The readings challenge us to be open to grace and so find the way to put aside whatever of sin remains in us.  We’re challenged to live the faith we celebrate in Eucharist, to live conscious of the One who lives in us, the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.  We’re challenged to be that presence in the world.  And we are meant to be encouraged, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and so know that even if the worst should befall us, Christ will see us safely home.  Death did not defeat him.  Death will not defeat us.

Heaven awaits.  And so does eternal life.



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