Second Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 27

The Lord God took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

There is something oddly refreshing in the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story which we hear every year on this second Sunday of Lent. Part of that refreshing experience is the passage from Genesis which concerns the Patriarch Abraham.

The ancient ancestor of Jesus set the pattern for his and our relationship with God; that is, faith. This mysterious, undefinable quality is the only way to know God.

We might suppose today’s readings describe another way to know God, his direct appearance to us. Surely Abraham knew God after the “deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him” and he saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces” (of sacrificed flesh.)

Surely Peter, James and John knew Jesus was God after his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, a vision so astonishing and terrifying they could tell no one about it.

Saint Paul described similar experiences. He often spoke of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. But he also spoke in the third person of his ecstatic trip to the third heaven:

I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter. About this person, I will boast, but about myself I will not boast, except about my weaknesses.  

He makes light of the incident. It happened fourteen years ago and was only to the third heaven; his opponents the “super apostles” claimed more recent, more outrageous journeys into more distant spaces of God’s inner world. Saint Paul insisted he could not boast of those incidents perhaps because he had suffered so many setbacks in the meanwhile: beatings, imprisonment, hunger, thirst, sickness, deprivation, contempt, and so forth. Only a madman would cling to his memory of ecstasy in the light of so much suffering.

In his book Man is not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the challenge of faith:
Many of us seem to think faith is a convenient short cut to the mystery of God across the endless, dizzy highway of critical speculation. The truth is that faith is not a way but the breaking of a way, of the soul's passageway constantly to be dug through mountains of callousness. Faith is neither a gift we receive undeservedly nor a treasure to be found inadvertently.

We do not stumble into achievements. Faith is the fruit of hard, constant care and vigilance, of insistence upon remaining true to a vision; not an act of inertia but an aspiration to maintain our responsiveness to Him alive.

Just as men are unable to notice the most obvious phenomena in nature unless they are anxious to know about them -- as no scientific insight will occur to those who are unprepared -- so are they incapable of grasping the divine unless they grow sensitive to its supreme relevance. Without cleanliness of will the mind is impervious to the relevance of God....

The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing HIs presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God's grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp the theme.

If our Christian tradition insists that faith is a gift we receive undeservedly, the Rabbi will insist that it also requires “constant care and vigilance, of insistence upon remaining true to a vision.”
Given his experience, Saint Paul could not have disagreed with his fellow Jew.
In today’s gospel, Jesus appears discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” He would not easily endure his trial, the mockery of the high priests, soldiers and crowds, his scourging, crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, crucifixion and death. His exodus and final victory would be like silver refined in a crucible, purified seven times.
If you and I have been faithful we can admit it’s not been easy, even as we insist we are grateful for the gift, and freely admit it came not through human effort but from God. It has sometimes been downright terrifying, though we don’t often dwell upon those anguished hours.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. John 16:21
In Lent we remember the anguish so that our joy – refreshed -- might be complete at Easter.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.