Second Sunday of Lent (C)
By Msgr. John N. Fell
St. Paul addresses and encourages his followers, both in ancient times and now, “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, [to] stand firm in the Lord” (Phil 4:1). These words of affirmation in his Letter to the Philippians reveal a faith completely certain of God’s providential love for his people. This sense of assurance, Paul’s absolute certainty that God would bring about the eternal salvation of his people is the theme of our readings this Second Sunday of Lent.
Paul’s trust in God’s offer of salvation does not imply, however, that Christians are promised stress-free lives devoid of all difficulties. Rather, as Paul himself was very well aware, Christians, like everyone else, are destined to endure their share of suffering just as Jesus, our Savior, was called upon to endure his share of suffering; we are assured, however, that such suffering is not a sign of divine disfavor or abandonment. Rather, this suffering unites us with the Person of Jesus Christ, and fidelity amidst this suffering is a privileged path to salvation. St. Paul promises eternal glory to those who remain faithful despite the trials they face: “our citizenship is in heaven . . . [and therefore God] “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body” (Phil 3:21).
Our first reading from the Book of Genesis lays before us the quintessential figure of faith, the patriarch Abraham. By this stage of his life, Abraham had well-learned that faithfulness to God’s will sometimes involves extraordinary effort. He had already moved from his ancestral homeland to the land of Canaan. Having left behind all that was familiar, Abraham was sorely in need of God’s reassurance. By passing through the middle of the ritual sacrifice, God symbolically showed Abraham that he would fulfill his promises. Abraham’s faithfulness would not go without its reward, despite the demands which that fidelity might sometimes entail.
With this background in mind, we come to this Sunday’s Gospel reading, St. Luke’s telling of the Transfiguration story. Set here near the beginning of Lent, this Gospel is intended to reassure us that God will never abandon those who follow him; nothing will ever separate God’s faithful ones from his all-powerful love. This Gospel shores us up for the terrible, necessary events that we will recall during Holy Week, as well as for the doubts and difficulties that we face in our own lives. This Gospel story is directed to all who need a bit more reassurance that lives of faith are possible and ultimately worth the effort.
This scene opens eight days after Jesus’ teaching in Bethsaida. He had begun to reveal that his mission had more to it than simply working miraculous cures for those in need. Obsessed as they were with his wonderful powers, the crowds and even his disciples themselves proved much less interested in the more difficult themes of sacrifice, suffering, and the cross which were to also characterize his ministry.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John (the three privileged disciples who were with him at very intimate moments of his ministry) and went up a high mountain (the traditional place of divine revelation). Once there, these favored disciples saw Jesus revealed in his divine glory. Along with Jesus were Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Testament Law and prophets which Jesus had come to fulfill. St. Luke recounts that Peter and the others were awestruck. Peter, sensing the divine Presence before him, asked to build three booths, three permanent dwellings, so that these celestial figures could remain with them forever.
Suddenly, they were all surrounded by a cloud (a symbol of divine glory) and God the Father spoke, claiming Jesus as his Son, the Chosen One, and commanding the disciples, “Listen to him” (Lk 9:35). As soon as they had received this commission, Peter, James, and John found themselves standing alone again with Jesus.
This extraordinary moment of grace served to reassure the disciples that their faith in Jesus would never be in vain, that it would carry them through whatever difficult moments lie ahead. The message of the Transfiguration is a message that all indeed shall be well, that despite the trials and suffering which we encounter, the love of Christ is inexorably drawing us all closer and closer to his heart. This Gospel also serves to remind us of the dual nature of all encounters with Jesus. First, of course, each encounter with the Lord is an opportunity for us to bask in his presence. But each encounter with the Lord is also always an experience of being commissioned. Just as the disciples were commissioned to speak and live Jesus’ mission, so also we are commissioned to spread the glory of the Lord which we encounter to others. These commissions serve to encourage us as people of faith, like Paul and Abraham, to trust in the Lord’s ultimate salvation despite the many crosses which may seem to threaten our way.
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and director, diocesan Office for Priest Personnel