Second Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow in my footsteps.” Mark 8, 31-38
Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than the work of any bleacher could make them.   Mark 9, 2-10

This second Sunday of Lent presents me with a challenge, simply because some readers of this weekly reflection will hear a gospel-reading from the end of Mark Ch. 8 and others will hear Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus from the start of Mark Ch. 9. I will try to touch on both gospel-readings, and will include some comments on today’s first reading from Genesis – the story of Abraham & God

The Cross casts a shadow over everyone’s life. A mixture of anticipated and unexpected concerns, griefs, betrayals and the like cause us pain and anguish and even drive us to distraction, desperation and self-pity. We refer to them as our crosses. While we long for the time when we can be relieved of these crosses, we learn, with the benefit of hindsight, that underneath many of our crosses lie opportunities for hope, healing and resurrection. Jesus recognised the potential of life’s burdens for new life and freedom, and urged those who would be his disciples to embrace their crosses as the way into new life for themselves and for others. We have to trust that God will somehow help us to find the strength to cope with the people and events that burden us and to find ways to make our way through whatever troubles us. Then, we will emerge not only uplifted ourselves, but will have the ability to listen to and console others in their time of need and a capacity to lead, encourage and lift them up.

We hear of tragedies on our roads almost every day. Some years ago, a ten-year-old boy lost his left arm when the car driven by his father was swiped by a passing truck, left the road and ended upside down in a ditch. All escaped with minor injuries except for the young lad. Once he became mobile again, he took up judo lessons. His teacher or sensei was an elderly Japanese master. Under his tuition, the youngster did extremely well, but was puzzled because, after three months, he had been taught only one move. Finally, he asked: “Sensei, shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” “This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know”, answered the master. Not fully understanding, but trusting his teacher, the youngster persevered with his training and worked at mastering that one move.

A few months later, the sensei entered the lad in his first tournament. To his own surprise, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third was more of a challenge, until his opponent lost patience and charged. The boy deftly used his one move and won. He now found himself in the finals. But this time, his opponent was bigger, stronger and more experienced. It seemed that the boy was unevenly matched. At least, the referee thought so, and feared the youngster would get hurt. The referee called a time-out and was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened: “No, let them continue,” he insisted. Shortly after the resumption, the boy’s opponent made a critical mistake in dropping his guard. The youngster seized his opportunity, using his one and only move to pin his opponent, winning the match and the tournament. On their way home, the boy and his sensei reviewed all of their matches. Finally, the boy found the courage to ask what was really on his mind: “Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?”
“You won for two reasons” the master replied. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult moves in all of judo. And second, the only known defence for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus convinces me of the writer’s skill as a dramatist. To give his audience a feel for the drama and intensity of the revelation that is to come, Mark first whets their appetite with the very first sentence of chapter 9, in which he quotes Jesus: “I assure you, among those standing here there are some who will not taste death until they see the reign of God established in power” (Mark 9, 1). Then he launches into how, just six days later, Peter, James and John were led by Jesus up a high mountain, where they experienced something of the majesty and power of God emanating from Jesus himself. But, it was not an earthly power of triumph, military and political strength, or luxury and wealth, but a spiritual power that would free people from fear, alienation and emotional servitude. In order to highlight the significance of the revelation which Peter, James and John were privileged to experience, Mark puts in place the dramatic props that were milestones in the history of the Jewish people. He includes the pivotal mountain-top experiences of ancestors for whom they had great reverence – Moses and Elijah – and crowns the awesomeness of the experience with the advent of a cloud, from which came the voice of God, repeating the message heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him” (Mark 9, 4 & 9, 7).

Peter, James and John, as well as every Jew in Mark’s community (well over 70 years later) would have been familiar with the mountain-top experiences of Moses and Elijah. Elijah, we remember, had spent forty days in hiding on a mountaintop, in anticipation of a dramatic revelation from God. However, God was not revealed to Elijah in the violent storm or the fierce wind or the earthquake he experienced, but in a gentle breeze. The Transfiguration account recalls how Moses, too, went to the mountain of God to receive the commandments, the code for living that would guide the wandering people in their relationships with God and with one another. Moreover, we are told Moses emerged radiant from the mountain cloud that had kept him hidden from those awaiting his return.

The Transfiguration is the all-but-final chapter of the story of God’s love for humanity. The First or Old Testament traces that story, and God’s interactions with Abraham, Moses and Elijah were high points along the way. The birth, ministry, death and resurrection were the final chapter and climax of the saga of God’s love for humankind. The Transfiguration of Jesus was the moment of revelation to Peter, James and John of the divine dwelling deep within Jesus. It was a revelation of the goodness and love of God alive in him and reaching out to the world. Overcome with awe at what they witnessed, the three disciples were left stunned. Peter, however, grapples with how to deal with it and blurts out: “Let’s build a tryptic shaped monument to capture something of the experience.” Our modern equivalent would be: “Let’s see if we can capture it on youtube!”

Like it or not, something of God’s goodness and love dwells deep within each of us. Today’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to let loose God’s life and love, first within ourselves, and then into our part of the world in the shape of compassion, encouragement, mending broken hearts, actions of mercy and justice. In so doing, we can help others to see and express their capacity for transfiguration.

Finally, we have to deal with the very challenging, and, often, misinterpreted first-reading about Abraham. If the words attributed to God. – “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you” (Genesis 22, 2). – are meant to be taken literally, then I ask myself if I or anyone would want to believe in a God who asked that of anyone. Obedience to that kind of demand led to the genocide of the Holocaust, to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and, more recently, to the attempted extermination of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Obedience is a virtue only when it serves a cause that is just. Obedience for the sake of an unjust cause is cowardly, slavish and, even, criminal.

I am indebted to the insight of the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) for an understanding of this Abraham story. In his gut-wrenching book, With God in Hell (Sanhédrin Press, N.Y. 1979), Berkovits explored questions like: Why did Jewish people hold on to their faith in God when they were being herded into ghettos across Europe by the German SS? Why did they continue to have their children circumcised as a sign of their covenant with God? Why did they continue to pray in the face of death during their days in Nazi concentration camps? How did they manage to keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel when it seemed as though that God had abandoned them? Berkovits found his answer in the story of Abraham. It was there that he came to appreciate the unbreakable trust that held Abraham and God together. In trying to describe that trust, he imagined what Abraham might have said to God as he experienced three days of hell on his journey to Moriah to sacrifice Isaac:
In this situation, I don’t understand You. Your behaviour violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You and me, because it is us, Almighty God! What You are asking of me is terrible…But I have known You, my God. You have loved me, and I love You. My God, You are breaking your word to me…Yet, I trust You; I trust You.
Berkovits shows just how intimate was the relationship between Abraham and God. In seemingly impossible circumstances, it was God who had blessed Abraham and Sarah with their son, Isaac. And Abraham, struggling with a demand he could not understand, was still able to trust God with the life of the child God had given him. Somehow Abraham came to discover that life and life with God are one and the same. As a consequence, he could not bring himself to choose survival. – his own survival and that of his son. – over life with God. He could not live apart from God.
Other stories in Genesis relate how Abraham’s trust in God had faltered. Remember that, out of fear of being killed if it were discovered that Sarah was his wife, he passed her off as his sister, not once, but twice, thereby allowing her to be taken as a concubine by a foreign king. He put Sarah in that terrible situation because he didn’t have sufficient trust in God.
The message of the Abraham saga is that God has chosen to establish a mutual trust relationship with us human beings. We know that trusting other humans makes us vulnerable. We can be deeply hurt when trust is betrayed. Trusting God can also make us feel vulnerable. Still, God has chosen to relate to us and our world through trust. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus testifies to his trust in God and God’s trust in him, and, by extension, in us his brothers and sisters. Trusting in God can hurt like hell; it can also be bewildering. Jesus assures us that it will eventually take us into the arms of God. Can we put our trust in him?