Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Transfiguration, Fr. Dick Clifford, SJ



Today is the second Sunday of Lent, a good time to ask ourselves how we are observing

this season. By this time, our Lenten resolutions have probably lapsed, since they may have been

unrealistic to begin with. So we are invited to look again at Lent. Fortunately, the readings today

provide us with an opportunity to view Lent with fresh eyes.

The first reading is from the book of Genesis and it is one of the most mysterious

passages in the Bible. It is night. Abraham is sleeping and has a dream, but it is more than a

dream, for the Lord appears to him in it and in the course of the conversation leads him out of his

tent to look at the starry sky. Before he went to sleep, Abraham had complained that God

promised him a land and descendants, the two things Abraham most wanted, but had never

delivered. So Abraham complains: “O Lord God! How am I to know that I shall possess these

great gifts?”

Instead of giving him an answer, God tells him to carry out a strange command: "’Bring

me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a

young pigeon.’ [Abraham] brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half

opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up.” As might be expected, birds of prey sweep

down on the bloody carcasses, and Abraham has to beat them back. And then Abraham falls into

a trance, a deep sleep, which indicates that God was doing something important.

When Abraham is in the deep trance, God speaks. Then the LORD said to Abraham.

Your descendants will live for a while in a land not their own, where they shall be enslaved and

oppressed for four hundred years, but. . . in the end they will depart with great wealth. “You,

however, shall join your forefathers in peace; you shall be buried at a contented old age.” In

other words, Abraham will have descendants, plenty of them, but it will be a later generation that

will actually possess the land of Canaan as their own. The answer is more satisfying that might

appear, because in those days people lived through their children more than people do today; to

know that your children would possess the land was, in a sense, like possessing it yourself.

Before going farther, I want to explain a feature of the story that may have puzzled you:

the meaning of the smoking fire pot and flaming torch. The fire pot and flaming torch represent

the presence of God when they move. “God” walked between the slaughtered animals and then

Abraham walked between them. Walking between the split and bloody corpses symbolized

something crucial: if you were not faithful to the covenant, you would suffer the same fate as the

dead animals. You would be struck dead. What is amazing is that God took upon Godself the

that terrible penalty if he ever failed to live up to the covenant. The sworn agreement between

God and Abraham was sealed and is now in force!

Let us stop here for a moment and take comfort from the bond between God and

ourselves. God has sworn, and he cannot be untrue to himself. Our Lenten resolutions are only

attempts to keep up with God’s total commitment. Our resolutions are small gestures designed to

waken our appreciation for God’s enormous commitment to be and remain our God.

Th reading from Luke likewise underscores the glorious presence of God, but this time

the divine presence is not represented by a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, but by Jesus, the

Messiah. Instead of a flame, shining white garments. At that time it was often the case that a god

appeared to worshipers on a mountain, for mountains were seen as suitable dwellings for a

god–high, exalted, removed from the hubbub of everyday.

Why are Moses and Elijah doing talking to Jesus? They are the heroes of the earlier

history of the holy people. Moses represents the great revelation at Mount Sinai where the Torah

or Instruction was given to the people. Elijah represents all the prophets that predicted in

different ways that God had more to do with the people, that if you understood the prophets

correctly, you would see that they spoke of Jesus the Messiah.

As the disciples looked on, “Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory, spoke of his

exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Luke adds this sentence; it is not in Mark

and Matthew’s account of the transfiguration. What is this “exodus,” this “going forth,” that

Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem? Simply this: as the messiah was predicted to do, he will go

to Jerusalem, to the place where God dwells. In popular imagination, the messiah was expected

to be revealed in glory and purify the temple, the city, and the people. And that’s what the

disciples expected. But Jesus knows the full story and it is different. He knows that in Jerusalem

he will be put to death, not raised up as a popular hero. So grim is that fate that, in a sense, it is

necessary that this moment of glory be granted to him and to his disciples. They need to savor

this moment when the glory that will ultimately be his at the second coming be glimpsed now.

So powerful is this appearance that the three disciples react to it in the same way that Abraham

reacts to the covenant appearance of God: they both fall asleep, not out of boredom, but because

the appearance of God is so overwhelming.

The covenant with Abraham and the transfiguration of Jesus are different manifestations

of God. But they are similar in that in both God appears to humans in a striking way so that they

might be closer to God. God assures Abraham of his power and love, and Jesus likewise assures

his disciples of his ultimate victory and presence. Whatever our Lenten resolutions are, they

should focus on the God who wants to come closer to us.

Let us end with a prayer:

God of the Covenant, your presence fills us with awe, your work gives us unshakeable hope.

Fix in our hearts the image of your son in glory

that, sustained on the path of discipleship, we may pass over with him to newness of life.

Grant this through Christ, our deliverance and hope.

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