Second Sunday of Lent
2 Timothy 1:8b-10
So many good-hearted folks suffer with biblical anxiety. Not growing up with a familiarity with the Scriptures, they either avoid scripture all together, other than hearing it proclaimed on Sunday, or they dabble in it trying to grasp its significance only to be frustrated. In our parish, we begin each meeting reading the upcoming Sunday Gospel. Afterward, when we are asked for words, ideas, thoughts that come from the reading, there is often silence. I think of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 struggling to understand Isaiah when Philip descends upon his chariot to help him grasp the words. I think of Jesus accompanying the discouraged disciples to Emmaus. On the way, Jesus opened their eyes to understand salvation history culminating in his saving death. (Luke 24: 13-35) We need guides to help us understand the living word of God.
Recently, I read in a Catholic primer that if the Bible could be reduced to four words they would be, “Man sinned. God saves.” If this concept was the hub of the wheel, we could work our way through the entire Bible discovering all the ways God continued to intervene with his saving hand after humanity fell, messed up, turned away or brandished its sword. The story is so repetitive, and I think if people would see the ebb and flow of that human/divine dynamic, perhaps the Scriptures would be more manageable.
If ever there was a scripture passage that built a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, then it is the Gospel for today where Jesus takes his inner circle of apostles, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain where they witness Jesus’ transfiguration. Matthew has a literary field day with the many parallels between this passage and the Old Testament. Here are just a few.
Mountains are places of divine revelation. Remember Moses, who went to the mountain and who received the tablet of the Law? When he returned, his face was radiant capturing the light of God upon it. Elijah, too, went to the mountain to escape Jezebel who sought to kill him. There he encountered the living God in the stillness beyond the wind, the fire and the earthquake. (1 Kings 19:11-13) Jesus goes to the mountain in order to encounter his Father in prayer.
There Jesus is transfigured and his own glory fills the atmosphere. Elijah and Moses appear with him in conversation. And once again, Jesus hears the voice of his Father who reinforces what Jesus heard at his Baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” The words are so powerful that the apostles witnessing this vision fall prostrate upon the earth, struck by fear. But for Jesus, the words from his Father are encouraging, affirming once again his identity as Son.
I have often wondered what Jesus, Moses and Elijah conversed about on that mountain. Moses and Elijah were in a place of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s salvific plan. And of course, Jesus is becoming more aware of his impending death. Just before this transfiguration experience, Jesus makes it clear to his followers that he is destined to go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer, die and rise. These words were not received well by Peter. (Matthew 16:21-23)
When someone is about to enter into a battle for their lives, whether it is a struggle with cancer, Parkinson’s disease or any life-threatening diagnosis, what is most necessary is the encouragement and support of their friends and family. Taking the cloud of his death with him to the mountain, I believe Moses and Elijah were called to encourage Jesus, to coach him along with words of hope. I believe they were telling him that all of those people of the covenant who went before him, people like Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and all the tribes of Israel, David and the prophets, were waiting with bated breath for the accomplishment of Salvation that would come through his death and resurrection.
The event was enfolded by a “cloud that cast a shadow over them,” reminding the reader of the many times in the Old Testament when the presence of God was manifested by a cloud, especially on the journey in the wilderness of Sinai.
The transfiguration scene in the end is a parallel of sorts to the execution narrative in Mt. 27:32-54. One commentary* beautifully noted: “In the one, a private epiphany, an exalted Jesus, with garments glistening, stands on a high mountain and is flanked by two religious giants from the past. All is light. In the other, a public spectacle, a humiliated Jesus, whose clothes have been torn from him and divided, is lifted upon a cross and flanked by two common, convicted criminals. All is darkness.”
Lent gives us intentional introspective time. It is both a gift and a challenge to grow. Perhaps we could read Matthew’s Gospel together during Lent enlightened by the Holy Spirit. And perhaps any new insights that come to us will be graced reasons to know the living God all the more.
*Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:706
(There are many Catholic study guides to Matthew available on line or in Catholic bookstores. Check with your parish to see if any studies are happening there. Get together with a friend/friends, get ancient maps, read the footnotes and trust the Spirit to be your guide.)