Sixteenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Second Sunday of Lent
Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36
I mentioned last week that Christianity is the religion of the “both/and.” That reality finds its ultimate confirmation in the mystery of the Incarnation, true God and true Man in the one person of Jesus Christ, and its ultimate expression in the events of His Passion and Resurrection – the totality of which we can call the Redemption, the ransoming (Latin redimere, to buy back, to ransom) of creation back to God. Part of what these things mean is that the physical is just as important as the spiritual. We have a tendency not to think that way when we become too religious or too spiritually-minded; the pendulum tends to swing one way or the other. We are not meant to “transcend” our bodies and escape them; after all, we’ll be back in them on the last day, and then for all time. By the same token, we should not act like the visible tangible reality is all that there is; we shall walk beyond its confines one day soon. Neither is greater or lesser than the other. So this lack of partiality we are to exercise in being “merciful like the Father” extends even to the earthly home we live in now and to the heavenly home destined for us.
In our First Reading, taken from the Book of Genesis, God makes His covenant with our forefather Abraham (whose name is not yet changed from Abram). And He does so in a way that may seem highly strange and unusual to us: through the sacrifice and bisection of a specific selection of animals, and an offering of small birds. Yet in the ancient world this would have been remarkably recognizable as a means of making a treaty between two parties. I say “remarkably” because one of the parties to this treaty is the Creator Himself! This story is the first time in salvation history that God lowers Himself like this to someone who trusts Him, condescending to explain and reveal Himself in a way Abraham would be able to understand, in a way that other peoples around him would be able to understand. Then as the sun goes down, as the birds of prey swoop down around Abraham to feast on the flesh, as he grows more and more afraid as he waits for a sign from God Who bade him perform these actions, another thing happens that does not escape Abraham’s comprehension. The presence of God appears as “a smoking pot and a flaming torch” between the animal pieces, shining as a light in the darkness to dispel Abraham’s fear, bathing the sacrifice in fire Himself to confirm its acceptance.
A similar light occurs in the Gospel reading, as Jesus’ inner circle – Peter, James and John – is privileged to see Him transfigured upon the mountain where He would pray: “His face changed in appearance and His clothing became dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah are seen on either side of Him, speaking of the events of His Passion which were soon to occur in Jerusalem. These three men are given a brief and terrifying glimpse at Jesus’ true glory as the focal point of both the Law and the Prophets – “the true light that enlightens the whole world,” as it would be recorded years later in John’s own Gospel account. It is a bizarre and unexpected sight, but not one outside their comprehension. When the Gospel tells us that the disciples awoke, it speaks of both their physical and their spiritual states. They clearly recognize the three people there, they clearly know that it is still Jesus standing there even though His appearance has changed, they clearly hear what is being talked about – otherwise Luke would not have been able to record it as he did when he investigated this story (possibly with John as a source). And as the cloud passes over the mountain and they stand afraid in darkness just like Abraham before them, the presence of God comes to them, this time as a voice: “This is My chosen Son; listen to Him.”
This transfiguration was a hint of what was to come in the Resurrection, something Saint Paul alludes to in his letter to the Church at Philippi from which our Second Reading is taken: “He will change our lowly body to conform with His glorified body.” He does this not by imposing it upon us from on high, but by offering it to us intimately, compassionately, by first becoming fully one of us – having a body like ours and then transforming it, glorifying it, restoring it, fully aligning human nature with divine nature from the inside out. He is able to do this, says Paul, “by the power that enables Him also to bring all things into subjection to Himself.” This is the same power that used ancient manners of making a treaty to give a tangible sign of covenant to Abraham, the same power that used a common offering of firstfruits to remind His chosen people of the relationship they share with Him. It is the same power by which God took on human flesh in the Incarnation and glorified it in the Resurrection. And it is exercised precisely not to lord His rule over His subjects – which we all are – but as an invitation to share in His own eternal glory. This humble exercise of absolute dominion has now given us a model to follow and a goal to aim for, not simply of getting beyond the physical world to get to the spiritual but of embracing both worlds as fully as possible now, because both were created and blessed by God.
If the spiritual world is not real, the Redemption is an inspiring fairy tale. But if the physical world does not matter, the Redemption is pointless. We should always take care to avoid becoming so materialistic that we become like those enemies Paul observed: “their God is in their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’” But just because “our citizenship is in heaven” does not mean earth is of no consequence at all. The same God Who created and rules heaven also created and rules earth. God is God of all, and through His Son He founded a way, a community, a religion, a church that is to embrace all just as He does, without partiality. May we always be examples of that attitude to everyone we encounter, including ourselves. May we always be beacons of true mercy.
“Master, it is good that we are here!”