2d Sunday of Lent
Feb. 21, 2016
Luke 9: 28-36
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“Two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 30-31).
|The Transfiguration, by Perugino|
Last Sunday’s New York Times had an opinion piece titled “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” The author is a historian of the so-called “American prosperity gospel,” which she describes as “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” She attended closely to its tenets and its adherents and apparently accepted its truthfulness—until she was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35.
It’s something of an echo of a book that a rabbi wrote about 20 years ago that asked why bad things happen to good people. We all ask those kinds of questions: Why is there suffering? Why is there evil in the world? Why do evil people prosper?
On the 2d Sunday of Lent every year, we read the gospel of Jesus’ transfiguration from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke. It’s a rather strange episode in his life, in which he transcends his normal earthly existence; he and his 3 closest disciples are transported to another level of existence, another world.
That’s the world of glory, of heaven, of eternal life, of the very presence of God. God’s presence is indicated by the blinding light, by the cloud that overshadows the scene, and of course by the Father’s voice. Peter doesn’t want to leave (v. 33), and we can’t blame him. Many people who’ve had near-death experiences are truly disappointed when they’re revived by EMTs or doctors, recalled from a glorious light and deeply comforting feelings of warmth.
Two heroic figures from Israel’s past appear alongside Jesus—appear “in glory,” in heavenly light. Moses is the lawgiver, the liaison of the covenant between God and Israel; he’s the one who leads Israel from foreign slavery into freedom and a homeland—the leader of Israel’s exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Elijah is the model of all the prophets who constantly recall Israel to their covenant responsibilities, their relationship with God, challenging the grievous infidelities of kings, nobles, priests, and people, and who are made to suffer on account of their prophesying. Elijah, e.g., had to flee for his life and go into hiding in the desert. Neither Moses nor Elijah volunteered for the roles that God assigned to them or for the hardships involved. But now, after all their trials on earth, after all the opposition that they met from human authorities and even from their own people, they enjoy eternal life and heavenly glory.
As we read the story in the gospels, Jesus has yet to enter that glory. He has already been warning his apostles that he will suffer and die, and after 3 days rise from the dead. That is the exodus, the passage, the journey that lies ahead of him, which Moses and Elijah speak with him about. His transfiguration, his keeping company with Moses and Elijah, shows not only that he’s the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, i.e., of the entire history of Israel, of the entire Old Testament, but also that by going thru his own exodus he’ll reach the glory of eternal life that they already enjoy—the “promised land” where God welcomes all his people, all his sons and daughters.
The voice of God the Father coming out of the cloud—“This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (v. 35)—isn’t addressed to Jesus, however. He’s not the one who needs a reminder of the road that he’s on, the destination he’s heading toward. It would be Peter, James, and John who need that reminder, that advice, that encouragement.
Those words, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him,” are addressed also to us. God’s chosen Son, his beloved Son, his only Son, is on an exodus, a passage, a journey of pain and suffering and death that will be the price for his fidelity and goodness. Beyond the pain and suffering and death lies glory—eternal life, a place in God’s kingdom.
Do you know anyone who doesn’t have pain in his or her life? who doesn’t suffer heartache or physical pain or loss or anxiety, etc.? Do you know people who have more than their fair share of pain? Do you know anyone who isn’t going to die? Have you known people who suffered a death they didn’t deserve, by our way of reckoning such things? Of course. Are we afraid of suffering and of how we might die? Probably.
Jesus suffered those anxieties too, most notably in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he faced them down. The apostles were, blatantly, looking for earthly glory without suffering, without the cross. But life’s not like that for anyone, and we disciples of Jesus know now—after his passion, death, and resurrection—life’s certainly not like that for us. There’s a transfiguration ahead for us, as there was for Jesus; but 1st comes the exodus, the Passover journey with Jesus, walking thru what the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen” calls “this vale of tears,” this earthly life with its mix of joy and sorrow, of pleasure and pain, of happiness and disappointment, where we’re constantly challenged to “listen to” God’s chosen Son, listen to Jesus, follow Jesus, be faithful to Jesus: to love and forgive others even when it’s difficult, to be honest, to be pure, to be patient, to pray, to share our goods and talents, to be faithful to our spouses and our friends, etc.
If we listen to Jesus, bravely carrying a share of his cross, then, as the psalm says today, we “shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13). We’ll join Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in heavenly glory.