March 13, 2022 – Second Sunday of Lent, Year C
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Psalm 27:1, 7-9, 13-14
“The way Jesus shows you is not easy. Rather, it is like a path winding up a mountain. Do not lose heart! The steeper the road, the faster it rises toward ever wider horizons!” (Pope St. John Paul II, World Youth Day Message, 1996)
I like to imagine that as Jesus led Peter, James and John up the Mountain of Transfiguration to pray, as we hear in our Gospel this week, they were wondering why on Earth he was dragging them up it. Couldn’t they pray somewhere a little less austere? Once there, however, he reveals his glory to them, and they do not want to leave. Again, I like to imagine that on the way down the mountain, they were wondering why on Earth he was dragging them down it, back to the rigmarole and trials of daily life.
But such is the way of following Christ. He invites us, again and again, on arduous journeys that detach us from the comforts and delights this world has to offer. He does so, not to condemn the world, but to help us understand the hidden mystery that underlies its inherent goodness. In that mystery is the source of true and everlasting life. It is the mystery of Christ’s “exodus” revealed to us in the Cross as the sole and blessed path to Resurrection and the communion with God and others for which we long and for which we are made. Without this vision of the mystery of death and resurrection underlying all things, we are prone to want to enjoy the things of this world for their own sake, as ends in themselves. But they do not last. They wither and fade. And so, too, does our joy in them.
And so, Christ detaches us from them, at times in painful ways — steep and arduous journeys along winding, uphill paths — to reorient us again and again to the unfailing mystery underlying all things, infusing them with lasting meaning, and purifying them of their vicious tendency to lead us away from their Creator. The steeper the path, the wider the horizon that opens up to us.
But then he calls us back down. Why, Lord? Just as we are learning to appreciate the view. The reason, I suppose, is the same reason he himself came down from his heavenly horizon in the first place: for the mission of redeeming the world, lifting it up to its full potential.
In the same World Youth Day message, St. John Paul reflected on this dynamic. “It is our duty,” he said, “to live in history, side by side with our peers, sharing their worries and hopes, because the Christian … cannot escape into another dimension, ignoring the tragedies of his era, closing his eyes and heart to the anguish that pervades life. On the contrary, it is he who, although not ‘of’ this world, is immersed ‘in’ this world every day, ready to hasten to wherever there is a brother in need of help, a tear to be dried, a request for help to be answered.”
The hope we receive in the vision of the glory to come that Christ gave to Peter, James and John on that mountain — a glory shared already by Moses and Elijah — is a hope meant to drive us back down the mountain and straight to the foot of the Cross wherever it manifests itself, which we embrace with fearless love precisely because of the hope that inspires us.
That the sun sets in Genesis 15:17 in our First Reading this week, makes it clear that when God took Abram outside in Genesis 15:5 to look up at the sky and count the stars, as a promise of the innumerable descendants he would have, he did so in broad daylight. There was not a star to be seen at the time, but Abram knew and believed with certain hope that the stars would appear. So, too, the hope God gives us that the darkness of the Cross, when embraced in faithful love, leads to the glory of the Resurrection, calls us to believe that there is more to this world than meets the eye. And that belief changes everything — not on its surface, but in its hidden depths, in what matters and lasts.
This is what Lent is all about — ascending the mountain again with Christ, to let go of our attachment to the things of this world and regain the vision of the glory to come, which transforms how we live in the valley of tears.
St. John Henry Newman put it better than I ever could, and so with his words I close:
“They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come, relinquish it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 6, sermon 7)