Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

February 17, 2008

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Genesis 12:1-4a; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9)

In the Sundays of Lent the church invites us to travel along two parallel but inter-connected journeys at the same time.

In the readings of the Old Testament we stop each week at one of the great ‘stations’ on the journey of the Israelites as they wrestle with who this God Yahweh is and what his promise really means. Their ongoing question is: Can we trust this revelation?

Then in the Gospel we stop each week at one of the high-points in the unfolding ministry of Jesus, as he is gradually becoming clearer about the nature of his mission and what it is going to cost, leading up to his passion and resurrection.

So let’s see what is happening on that first track. Last week in the story of Adam and Eve’s sin we saw the beginnings of human turning away from trust in the goodness of God. There had been a promise – ‘if you only place your trust in me you will enjoy all the blessings of the garden I have created for you’ – but they could not believe it. They couldn’t trust it.

The Book of Genesis then continues for the first 11 chapters to spell out the consequences as crime after crime ensues, beginning with the murder of Abel by Cain. The whole sad story reaches its climax when the people reach the height of their unreal assessment of themselves. They decide to claim divine power for themselves. They will build a tower to storm heaven. And we know how God laughs at them and brings them to utter confusion. It all becomes Babel. Any hope of human community and solidarity is lost because none of what we say can be understood by the people of the next nation – or the next block, the next room. We are each trapped in hopeless isolation.

Then in today’s reading, in Genesis 12, the story takes an enormously dramatic turn. The devastation has gone on long enough. God begins the long story of His effort to bring us back, to God and also to our real selves.

It starts with what seems to be the story of one individual, Abram (not yet Abraham). But the call is not simply that of an individual, for Abraham is being called to be the father of the three great religious traditions of the West: we Catholics refer to our him as our father in faith, but remember, the Jews revere him in the same way – and so do the Muslims. We have a common revered ancestor. And in truth, at that moment God begins the call of all nations, the whole of humanity, back to Himself. Abrham’s children will be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sands on the seashore. It is a process which has not ceased for a moment across the ages and down to our day. Our God wants us with Him.

It begins with a huge challenge, one that perhaps only a sovereign Lord has a right to make. Abram is called to leave all that gave him security on this earth: his land and his kinfolk. It requires a break from the past. If we are going to put our trust in the Lord and His promises we must give up our reliance on the things that made us comfortable, the things we used to rely on. It will involve separation. Saying no, perhaps to family or friends; certainly to the messages of our culture. Our nation. And, yes, perhaps our church. John Paul II reminded us ceaselessly that if every culture, whether secular or sacred, brings us support, every one is also infected by sin and idolatry. The call of God relatives the claim of every human institution. The journey to union with this transcendent God will not be a picnic. We are promised infinite blessings, but for now they exist in the difficult guise of a promise.

Paul understood this well. In his second letter he tells Timothy that it’s all part of a great design, a plan sweeping across the whole span of human history “from before time began.” God has never ceased being about the business of revealing Himself and His love for us, letting us know who God is and who we really are. God continually holds in front of us the promise: Trust in Me. Break from your old ways and I will bless you.

And so we turn to the Gospel ‘track.’

In recent weeks we saw Jesus going forth on his mission. And the first thing he did was to get in line with sinners, allowing himself to be baptized by John. He is identifying himself radically with us. And the Father tells us “This is the Son in whom I am well pleased!” And he is immediately led off by the Spirit, to wrestle with the meaning of his vocation. He is confronted with several seductive ideas of what it might mean to be the messiah. And with reliance on his Father’s word he rejects them.

And then in today’s Gospel we reach a new high-point. Jesus has just informed his disciples that he now realizes he must suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders of the people. He will ‘rise,’ but what does that mean? (He is clearly preoccupied with this prospect because he repeats it three times.)

And now there is this new epiphany, what we call his ‘transfiguration.’ It is a new manifestation of his Father’s pleasure at a new moment of his unfolding realization of where it’s all heading.

It is a commonplace to present the transfiguration as the Lord’s way of preparing his disciples for what is going to happen, a way of strengthening them. The great Dominican theologian Fr. Schillebeeckx suggests that it is better understood as the occasion of the strengthening of Jesus’s own resolve in the face of what he sees on the horizon.

Consider who appears and talks with him: Moses and Elijah. They represent the Law and the prophets, but more importantly, they are great prophets who suffered at the hands of their own people. Elijah was hounded by the people, to the point that he was so weary that he asked to be able to put the whole burden down, it was too tough. And we know how Moses had to struggle again and again with that ‘stiff-necked people.’ At the end of it all he wasn’t permitted to enter the promised land although it was in sight. He was a failure. Although we don’t know what the three of them are talking about, Schillebeeckx has Jesus asking them about the cost of it all.

And it is at this moment that the Father once more says “This is the one in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus now has begun to appreciate the full consequences of his call; what it will cost. And he is saying yes. He is re-committing himself, at a new moment with his eyes open.

And that is what Lent calls us to. At our Baptism we were called to break from all that is not of God. Most of us were probably infants; someone else made that commitment for us. And if you were baptized as an adult, you know what it cost you to cross that threshold and leave the old behind, in trust in the Lord’s promise. Now we are being called to make that commitment to trust once again, only this time we have to make it with fuller knowledge of what it can cost. We know now the conflicting messages bombarding us from our culture: where we are supposed to find our identity and our security, the things we need in order to be ‘with it,’ to be accepted by our peers.

The conversion we are being called to make once more is not naive. It is not romantic. The Christian journey is not a matter of just ‘thinking positive,’ as some of the televangelists would have us believe. You can do it! Just believe in yourself! They use the language of Jesus as a personal savior but if you listen carefully it’s clear that they are preaching good old American ‘can do-ism.’ A messiah without the cross, fulfillment of the promise without the pain of breaking with a culture deeply wounded by greed and violence.

The two tracks are ultimately not separate, they are the same story enacted in different moments in time. Jesus is the true son of Abraham. He never stops preaching the fulfillment of the promise. That is what the kingdom is all about. There will come a time when all tears and sadness will be wiped away; when we will sit down at a banquet, able to be transparent and in solidarity with one another. “Joy will come in the morning,” as the song of our elders has always trusted. But not yet. We ‘are not there yet.’ God has work to do with us yet, and at each new moment on our journey.

As we praise our God for a Messiah-savior, as we receive his life together at one table this day, let’s ask for a true appreciation of the kind of Messiah sent to us by a compassionate Father. A new acceptance of the revelation that the fullness of life only comes in dying to ourselves, living for our neighbors. And for a new commitment, at a new moment, a new stage on our journey back to a God who will never be satisfied until we are once more at home with Him..