Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

February 24, 2002

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(based on Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33:4-5,18-20,22; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-8)

"And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone."

What is going on with today's readings? Here we are just moving deeper into Lent and the purification it calls for -- and we are presented with a picture of Jesus transfigured and in glory.

In order to appreciate why this event is put before us for our mediation, we need to understand where it fits in Matthew's presentation of the Jesus story.

In the 16th chapter the story of Jesus' mission reaches a high point. He has been going about preaching and healing for some time, and now comes the moment for him to test how much they have understood. He asks "Who do people say that I am?" and Peter makes the dramatic proclamation: "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God." It's working; they are beginning to get it. So Jesus feels they are ready to hear just what it will mean. He reveals to them that "he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day." Apparently the disciples aren't that ready, because Peter blurts out strongly, "No way! Lord, God forbid that this could ever happen to you." And Jesus has to rebuke him: "Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip up and fall. You are not judging by God's standards but by human ones." Discipleship is going to be costly.

What would a first-century Jew 'hear' upon encountering this story?

It begins with an unattached phrase "after six days". Matthew clearly intended a point by inserting it. The Israelite listener would instinctively recall that Moses was six days surrounded by a cloud on the mountain before God spoke to him. And on hearing that Jesus' face was illumined and became as bright as the sun, the listener would remember that after speaking with God Moses' face became so radiant that he had to put a veil over his face when talking about it; it was too much for his hearers. They would recall the very same words used at Jesus' baptism: "This is my son, my beloved" -- only this time there is the added injunction: "Listen to him." The hearer would know that Matthew is presenting Jesus as the new Moses, the great prophet.

The whole experience is to show them where the passion is heading. There will be suffering, but it is moving toward union with God, to glory. It was to strengthen the faith of the Apostles in the face of the struggle to come, to give them hope in what lies beyond it, on the other side.

And what might it mean for us, today?

We are in the midst of our passion, make no mistake about it. Or maybe it's only the beginning. We are actually entered upon three passions all at once, three painful conflicts.

As a country (and as world) we are waking up to the power of terror, of faceless enemies and the destruction they can cause. Our illusion of security has been ripped away and nothing is as sure as we thought it was.

As a city we are being torn this way and that as we seek answers to issues of inequality and racism and class injustice.

And sadly as a church we are being deeply wounded and troubled by the revelations of sexual misconduct and abuse by priests, and by over-up by our leaders. Our church is the subject of public shame and head-shaking. Leaders are being vilified and told to step down by their people. Innocent priests are being looked at with suspicion and the bond of trust between them and their people is being called into question And it will get worse, as the public record are opened and trials take place. We are a wounded people.

In each of these passions there are those who know, those who have all the answers.

At the national level we have those who declare that we simply have to trust our leaders because any sign of difference will weaken us; challenging the government is unpatriotic. While others will declare that freedom to challenge is precisely what makes us a nation; to simply kowtow to government means the terrorists have won. In our city we have those who declare that a boycott is the answer, the only way of bringing poor leaders to account; and others will say that the only thing as boycott will accomplish is to hurt the very people we say we're concerned about, the poor. And in our church there are equally those who have the answer. It's 'get rid of Cardinal Law' or 'change the celibacy requirement' or 'ordain women'.

And in each of these passions there will be a lot of posturing by those who will use the situation for their own advantage, for other agendas.

We are being treated to half-truths on all sides. Yes, there are terrorists -- but does that mean we are blameless, that we don't have to look at the ways we have contributed to create an unjust world? Our civic leaders have been and are ineffective -- but how much do we as citizens work at building just structures in our city? Our seminaries have in many instances left our priests under-developed sexually -- but who attends to the reality that by far the most sexual abuse of boys and girls takes place in the home, perpetrated by fathers and mothers who have marital relations?

The truth is, we don't know how to create peace, because we've never seen a world fully at peace; we don't know how to listen, how to let go of our greed in order to find a common good. We don't know how to act justly, to really stand in the other person's shoes. We don't know how to be a really forgiving people, because we've never been offended at the level our God has been offended; because it involves acknowledging our sinfulness and complicity, our isolation from the task of building a holy people.

We need to ask God to take us up onto the mountain with Jesus, to let us see the Son as Peter and James and John did, so that we can enter into our passions with hope and conviction that God will bring glory out of pain.

But that transition will cost us what it cost Abraham. We will have to leave the familiarity of our life-as-usual, the comfortable patterns we have contributed to; we will have to leave our settled home.

And that is what our Communion is all about:

"And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone."