Monday, March 21, 2011

Homily for 2d Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of LentMarch 20, 2011
Matt 17: 1-9
Christian Brothers, Iona College
Boy Scouts NYLT, Putnam Valley, N.Y.
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“Jesus took Peter, James, and John…up a high mountain…. And he was transfigured before them” (Matt 17: 1-2).

What was this transfiguration? It was a glorious change in Jesus’ appearance—of his person and of his clothing: “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (17:2). This description evokes Moses’ experience after encountering God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 34:29-30) and in the meeting tent in the Hebrew camp, where he would sit down and speak with God face-to-face, so the book of Exodus tells us, as a man speaks to his friend (33:11). And his face would become so bright that no one could look at him, and he would have to cover it (34:33-35). (In Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses, what appear to be horns rising from his head are actually supposed to be beams of light.) Heavenly messengers in the Bible shine radiantly—the angels at the empty tomb, for instance. So the imagery of Jesus’ transfiguration suggests Moses, who then shows up as part of the vision on the mountaintop, and heavenly messengers, those who bring God’s word to his people. No angels in this vision, but the prophet Elijah does show up. Jesus fulfills or completes the work of Moses and the prophets.

What is the context of this strange happening? Our reading omits the 1st words of the 1st verse of the passage: “After six days,” or “Six days later.” “After” or “later” than what? Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), followed immediately by Jesus’ 1st prediction of his passion, death, and resurrection (16:21) and his instruction of the disciples that all who would be his followers must deny themselves and take up their own crosses, and the only way for one to save his life is to lose it (16:24-25).

Moses was the liberator and the lawgiver of Israel. He led them from bondage in Egypt into the freedom of their own promised land, and with the Law he established a covenant between them and God—a covenant of faithful relationship. God who set them free will keep them free; he will be their God. And they will worship him alone and keep faith with all others who belong to this covenant.

Elijah the prophet came, in God’s name, to call Israel back to this covenant relationship, to the worship of him alone and to faithful dealing with one another. In the face of fierce opposition, even persecution, he was faithful in delivering God’s word.

In sum, both Moses and Elijah represent faithfulness: to one’s relationship with God, to speaking God’s word to his people.

Jesus was faithful in his relationship with God, and he gave us a new law, the law of love, as an expression of that faithfulness. He was faithful in speaking God’s word even in the face of hateful opposition. Of course the Father will acknowledge him as the beloved Son with whom he is well pleased (17:5), the same words spoken from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (in Matthew’s accounts of both events).

The Transfiguration by Raphael

The transfiguration of Jesus—the revelation of his glory as the Father’s beloved Son, the revelation of his roles as the new Moses and as the greatest prophet of God’s word—thus ties back to his identity as Messiah and Son of God (Peter’s confession) and his destiny: to suffer, to die, and to rise. God’s Son will be faithful in proclaiming God’s word, he will suffer for doing so, and God will raise him on the 3d day. All who follow him along the same path will likewise suffer and be glorified along with him.

Some commentators draw up parallels between the happenings on this mountain and those of another mountain—Mt. Calvary.[1] Here Jesus is flanked by 2 OT heroes, there by 2 criminals (Matt 27:38). Here he’s accompanied by 3 male disciples, there by 3 faithful women (27:56). Here a cloud casts a shadow over the scene, there “darkness came over the whole land” (27:45). Here a voice from the cloud identifies Jesus as “my beloved Son,” there the centurion proclaims, “Truly, this was the Son of God” (27:54).

The events on this high mountain of the transfiguration are prelude to the events on Calvary, events by which Jesus is identified as Messiah and Son of the living God.

Which is why the voice from the cloud adds a command: “listen to him” (17:5). As Pope Benedict said recently in a scriptural reflection, “Christians respond to their vocation thru both faith and behavior.”[2] We believe with Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. We believe that God has raised him to heavenly glory: “he is seated at the right hand of the Father [and] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (Creed). But we belong to him, we will share in his glory, only if we “listen to him,” i.e. act on his teaching, carry out his command to love one another, to be peacemakers, to be clean of heart, to be faithful to our commitments and true to our word, not to judge others, to forgive, to share our possessions and our hearts, to pray, to trust the Father absolutely, and—not least—that command spoken from another mountain outside Jerusalem: “Go into the whole world and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).

If we listen to Jesus, we will indeed suffer with him, and we shall share in his glory “at the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,” as Paul says in the 2d reading, when the judge of the world destroys death and brings life and immortality (2 Tim 1:10) to his own.
[1] See Michael T. Winstanley, SDB, Lenten Sundays (Bolton: Don Bosco Publications, 2011), p. 27. [2] Address to seminarians in Rome, reported in Whispers in the Loggia, March 8, 2011.

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