2nd Sunday of Lent
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm - 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
Second Reading - Romans 8:31b-34
Gospel - Mark 9:2-10
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Every year that I've lived in this country, I've always been amazed at the great spirit that abounds among people of Irish descent around the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, which is tomorrow. For years, those of Irish descent have always told me "everyone's Irish on St. Patty's Day."
While the fact remains that I really am not even part Irish, I think that I've come close to being considered Irish at least on one occasion. You see, just months before I entered seminary, my vocations director at the time, Fr. Gould thought that it would be a good idea for me to earn as much money as I could before starting my studies. I had already quit my consulting job and wanted some time to visit with my friends and family, but Fr. Gould wanted me to work at least part time. So, he got an old friend, Mrs. Murphy, to hire me for 8 weeks to work as a waiter at her pub - it's called Murphy's Irish Pub on King Street in Old Towne. Maybe you've been there. Well, you can imagine that it caused a stir among the staff when they learned that a future priest would be working side by side with them. Mrs. Murphy said that it was the best thing that ever happened to the pub - the bartenders stopped swearing; the wait staff stopped smoking; even the bouncers were nicer. On my first day, the manager sat down with me and presented me with my time card, apron and name tags. As you know, my last name is Magat. Well, in an attempt to make me feel welcome, he had one nametag that read, "McGat" and the other, which was my favorite read, "O'Magat." I think that's the closest I'll ever come to being Irish.
In the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, also known as the Roman Canon, the priest, standing in front of the altar, prays:
Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.
I begin with these three characters of the Old Testament, with a special emphasis placed upon "Abraham, our father in faith" because our first reading from Genesis has such powerful connections with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and hence, the Mass itself. What I would like to do, by way of this homily, is to open up the very rich passages of our first reading and the Gospel.
For the Jews, their blood connection with Abraham, as his direct descendants gave them a special access to salvation. In time, Jews became known as the Chosen People. When Christ came upon the scene, he opened up this access to salvation to the Gentiles, our forefathers. Throughout his writings, St. Paul explains that all mankind has access to salvation through Christ, a covenant which began with Abraham, who is our father in faith, not our father by blood lineage.
Unfortunately, whoever the person was at the Bishops' Conference who made the determination on the verses selected for our first reading today, left out some really important details about the story of Abraham and Isaac that really bring out this scene in Genesis as a foreshadowing of Christ's sacrifice at Calvary, which we are all preparing to participate in more fully on Good Friday.
We know that Isaac was a unique child. When God called Abram and Sarai to be the father of the Jewish people, they were both elderly and could not conceive a child. In turn, God promises them a son. God even changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah as a sign of their new and unique role in salvation history. Incidentally, the name "Isaac" means "laughter" because that was Sarah's reaction when Abraham told her that she would conceive a son.
So, place yourself in Abraham's shoes for a moment. You don't have a child, let alone a son, who can carry on your family linage, and then one day, God tells you that you need to go and sacrifice your only beloved son to Him, for apparently no good reason. If you're Abraham, you're probably totally confused and perhaps a little angry - as if God teases you with a child and then asks for him back. Yet, Abraham obeys and he goes and follows God's plan. He doesn't really get into any arguments with God, as if God does not know what He's doing. Abraham's faith is worth our imitation.
Now, notice the parallels between this story and Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Our Lord is signified by Isaac. God the Father is signified by Abraham. God gives us His only beloved son, Jesus the Lord, to die for our sins.
Like Jesus, Isaac arrive at the land of Moriah, which is the same area in which Jerusalem was later built. Interestingly, Isaac arrives on a donkey, just as our Lord did on Palm Sunday. Like Jesus, Isaac carries the wood up the hill to be used for the sacrifice. In a stroke of irony, Isaac asks his father who the sacrificial victim is going to be. That must have broken poor Abraham's heart. Of course, we know the rest of the story, Abraham is on the verge of killing his son when God tells him to back-off. This is where the parallel between Isaac and Jesus end. Unlike Isaac, when Jesus lays down his life on the wood of the Cross, Jesus is both the priest (the one who offers the sacrifice) and the victim (the one sacrificed). This is the role of the priest at Mass - to be both the priest and the victim (standing in the person of Christ) on behalf of his people. In the story of Isaac, some of the Fathers of the Church say that it is also the ram who represents Jesus - the one killed in order to save a man.
We should take a moment to really marvel at the very deep and profound faith of Abraham. His faith is a special gift, which he nurtured by a constant life of prayer and communion with God.
The fact that faith is first a gift, is brought out in our Gospel passage from the Gospel according to St. mark. Here, we have the classic passage of the Transfiguration, the object of the 4th Luminous Mystery, promoted by the Holy Father in October. Incidentally, last week's Gospel about the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with a call to repentance is the object of the 3rd Luminous Mystery. In any case, the Transfiguration is evidence that faith is a gift. The Fathers of the Church tell us that among the twelve apostles, Jesus selected three - Peter (the first Pope), James (the first bishop of Jerusalem) and John (the youngest and traditionally, the most mystical) to be part of his most intimate of apostles. When they get towards the top of Mt. Tabor, Jesus is Transfigured before them. Jesus is flanked by Elijah, who represents the prophets and Moses, who represents the law. Jesus, in the midst of these two, reveals himself as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Notice, that the new law of love is not just a legal code - it is a person. Jesus asks us to live in His love and we do this most appropriately when we receive Holy Communion when we are properly disposed to do so.
Jesus appears to the three apostles in the same way that he would have appeared to them on Easter Sunday - in a glorified state. This moment is a pledge of future glory that Jesus promises to all believers. We even have a voice, the voice of the Father, affirming that in fact, Jesus the Lord is His only Son whom we should listen to. The Fathers of the Church tell us that Jesus showed these three apostles the future glory of the resurrection in order to steady their faith, which would have been devastated on Good Friday. Yet, we know that in spite of this pledge of future glory, the apostles' faith was severely shaken on Good Friday - in fact, Peter would deny Christ three times just the evening before the Crucifixion. It would not be until Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, that the Holy Spirit would infuse the virtues of faith, hope and charity into the twelve and give them the courage to proclaim the Gospel to the very ends of the earth. So, faith, while it is also a response to God's invitation to live in His plan, is really first a gift, where a person is given the capacity to know things of God and then make a response to that initial gift. We first receive the gift and the capacity for lived faith at Baptism.
Just as Jesus was Transfigured in glory, we too have access to this transformation, through the sacraments. For example, in Baptism and Holy Orders, the recipient of the sacrament is forever transformed into a Christian in Baptism or a deacon, priest of bishop in Holy Orders. Holy Orders are not merely titles, but ordained ministries which mean that they become intrinsic to the soul of the ordained. In the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick, there is a real transformation by way of spiritual and bodily healing. And most importantly, in the Eucharist, there is the transubstantiation of ordinary bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ so that even if the appearances of the species remain bread and wine, nothing of bread and nothing of wine are longer present - Jesus is literally in our midst. The Mass, like the Transfiguration, is a pledge of future glory for what we do at Mass - adore, praise, thank and ask for God's grace and commune with Him bodily - is exactly what we will do in heaven forever in glory. In heaven, the faith of Abraham will no longer be needed for we shall see God face to face and know Him as He truly is.
So, my brothers and sisters, as we continue our Lenten works of discipline - prayer, fasting and almsgiving, let us rededicate ourselves to fervent and worthy reception of the Eucharist at Holy Mass. May the Blessed Mother, who was the first to bodily conceive Christ in her womb, teach us to conceive Christ in our hearts with the same love that Abraham, our father in faith did so well, so many years ago.
Jesus Christ, now and forever!