by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Peter said to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark 9, 2-10
All three readings set down for this Second Sunday of Lent are difficult. If we fail to grasp that the gospel account of Peter, James and John on the mountain with Jesus and the Genesis story of Abraham being asked by God to deliver up his son, Isaac, in a human sacrifice are made-up stories, we will end up with a very strange view of God. Both accounts are stories from very old Semitic cultures with references and images with which the Jews from before, during and after the time of Jesus would have been very familiar. Every Jew who turned up for worship in a synagogue would have known that bright lights, clouds, visions of prophets, and mountain-tops all suggested close encounters with God. The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all include this “transfiguration” story to highlight the specialness of Jesus and to emphasize that his mission was inspired by the depth of the relationship he had cultivated with God throughout his life.
Today’s gospel is a story designed to illustrate the quality of Jesus’ relationship with God, and the first reading from Genesis is another story to illustrate something of Abraham’s relationship with God. But let’s not forget that these are stories, similar in style and intention to The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan and Dives and Lazarus – all used by Jesus to teach.
The second reading from Romans also needs to be read carefully, for we could come away thinking that God had a part in planning the death of Jesus.
So, how do we make sense of today’s three readings, and what is their relevance to us and to our lives as we continue into the season of Lent?
It is not too difficult to see why the story of Abraham and Isaac is paired with the reading from Romans. The Genesis story tells how Abraham was willing to give up his only son (born in extraordinary circumstances to Sarah and Abraham in their old age), while Paul makes reference to God’s willingness to let go of Jesus, allowing him to be the victim of those who brutally murdered him. But let’s be clear about this: God did not plan the death of Jesus. Nor did God agree to Jesus’ murder by turning a blind eye to a sneaky plan cooked up by those who would stop at nothing to rid themselves of a man who threatened their comfort.
By being born into our world, Jesus took on the mystery and limitation of human freedom. He stood in solidarity with all of humanity. As a consequence, he was surrounded by all the risks, accidents, surprises, coincidences and chaos that touch the lives of every human being, that are part and parcel of life. So he was caught, like the rest of us, in the crossfire of other human beings expressing their freedom in the ways they chose. Therefore, we must keep reminding ourselves that Jesus didn’t simply die. He was savagely tortured and executed. What was done to him is not something to be celebrated with joy. His death, like the death of every other human being, remains the wrenching, grief-filled, crushing thing that all death is. We do him and God a disservice by trying to sugar-coat it, by wanting to dignify it as something planned by God.
I suggest we could get a better insight into the Father’s stance towards the life and death of Jesus by looking at what all parents go through as they let their daughters and sons go off to make their way through life; as they send them off to study in universities, to find their first job or to live in rented accommodation away from home. Parents know that their children, on the verge of adulthood, are vulnerable. They know they will see them making mistakes, yet they will hold back their urges to interfere. They will pray for their children and be always ready to support them whenever they are invited to assist. But those same parents are also courageous enough to respect the individuality and the wonder of the mystery of their children’s unfolding lives. Moreover, they are sensible enough not to take responsibility for the mistakes their children make and for the pain and hurt that they experience through their own fault or the treachery of others. Yet, we would not say that those parents planned their children’s misfortunes, even though they might have seen those misfortunes coming. But like Jesus’ Father, they stand in solidarity with their children through thick and thin. Their courage is demonstrated by their allowing their children to be exposed to all the ups and downs of the human condition.
Even though we might find ourselves shocked by the Genesis account of Abraham’s testing time, today’s first reading is asking us to reflect on what may be the “Isaacs” in our lives. What or whom do I need to let go of, who or what is preventing me from growing into the person I know I truly want to be? Lent is a time for us to reflect on things like that.
Let’s turn our attention to the gospel story of the “Transfiguration”. All the symbols which I have already mentioned tell us that Mark is describing an extraordinary, peak experience – an encounter with God – that Jesus had and which Peter, James and John witnessed. Peter was so dazzled by it all that his first response was to want to commemorate it with three shrines. Had it happened in modern times, he probably would have wanted to get photographs. Mark is telling us that the presence of God was so intense within Jesus that it shone through him. And the voice Jesus and the disciples heard was Mark’s way of telling us that this was God claiming Jesus as Son and proclaiming that he was the Messiah.
But the wind was quickly taken out of Peter’s sails – a situation matter-of-factly summed up by Mark: “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.” Moreover, to emphasize that, Jesus tells the three of them to keep their mouths shut, and then starts talking about death and resurrection. Perhaps this was as much a reality check for Jesus himself as for his companions. Had he dwelt on what had just occurred, he might have had second thoughts about continuing to pursue the mission he had mapped out for himself, for he knew that the pursuit of that mission would inevitably make enemies for him and that they would not be satisfied until he was exterminated.
The implication of Jesus rejecting the possibility of commemorative monuments leads me to conclude that this “transfiguration” event is also about Peter, James, John and us. God’s life, after all, was present in the three disciples and is likewise present in us. Moreover, being brought back to earth for the disciples and for us surely means that the life of God in us in intended to shine brightly in the way we live our lives in our messy, chaotic world, in the kindness, compassion, forgiveness and encouragement we extend to everyone with whom we live, work, recreate and engage. Lent is an insistent invitation to us allow our lives to be transfigured by the God who dwells within us, so that we, in our turn, can become agents of transfiguration in the lives of everyone we meet.