Friday, March 18, 2011

The Beginning of the New Exodus: Reflections on the Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent

This Sunday we are only eleven days into Lent, still very early along on our Lenten pilgrimage.  The readings today share the theme of beginning the journey of faith, even while giving us a glimpse of our final destination.

In all three years of the Lectionary cycle (A, B, C), the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent always pair a key pericope from the Abraham narrative (Gen 12-22) with an account of the Transfiguration from one of the Synoptic Gospels.

The First Reading is the famous opening of the Abraham narrative from Genesis, recounting God’s initial call to Abram while he was still in Ur:

Gen. 12:1   Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”  4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

In this way Abram is called to begin a journey of faith, which lead him from Chaldea (modern Iraq) to the Canaan (modern Israel).  Journeying by faith will become a motif throughout salvation history.  Generations later, Abram’s descendants the Israelites will journey by faith into the wilderness in the hopes of arriving at the same Promised Land to which Abram himself journeyed, in an event we call the Exodus.  Generations later still, the people of Judah will be forced to journey to Babylon, where they will struggle to keep faith for seventy years, before being allowed to journey back to that same Promised Land.  As Lent is still young, we continue to hear God’s call on our own lives to begin a spiritual journey with him over these forty days, to a destination we don’t know, but God will show us.

Dr. Hahn showed me years ago that there is a progression in the specific blessings given to Abraham in these verses.  Abram is promised to become a Great Nation—this is fulfilled at Sinai, when the multitudes of Abram’s descendants are formed into a nation by receiving, as it were, a constitution for a national polity, the Mosaic Covenant.  Abram is promised a Great Name—a concept associated with royalty, which finds fulfillment in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89), in which one line of Abram’s descendants (David and his heirs) is established as kings over Israel (and the whole world, if one reads carefully) forever.  Finally, Abram is promised that through him will come Universal Blessing—literally, “in you all the tribes of the earth will be blessed” (I prefer taking the niphal of brk here as a simple passive, as does the LXX, rather than the [unwarranted?] reflexive of the RSV or the NAB’s circumlocution).  This looks forward to the New Covenant, when Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 1:1) will become the conduit of divine blessing to all the Gentile “families”—which, by the way, are listed just two chapters earlier in Genesis, namely, in Genesis 10.  People think the Old Testament is a book about salvation for the Jews.  This is incorrect.  The Old Testament is universal in scope.  It is about the means of blessing for all of humanity, for all the “families of the earth” (the NAB’s “communities of the earth” is inexplicable).  This means of blessing is Abram and his descendants—ultimately, one descendant in particular.  Abram is only chosen that he may ultimately restore blessing to the rest of humanity.

The Responsorial Psalm is mostly taken from the end of Psalm 33, from verses meant to encourage us on our journey of faith, both the journey that is Lent, and the larger faith journey of our lives: “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you.”  As you might guess, the Hebrew word translated as “mercy” here (from Ps 33:22) is actually hesed, one of the most common and theologically rich terms in the Psalter.  Hesed, often translated “mercy” or “steadfast love,” actually has a more technical meaning: covenant fidelity, the kind of unwavering love and faithfulness that covenant partners were to show toward one another.  So in this Psalm, we call on God to continue his covenant faithfulness to us, since, through Jesus the Son of Abraham (Matt 1:1), we are heirs of the covenantal promises given to Abraham so long ago.

The Second Reading (2 Tim 1:8-10) also encourages us to bear up under the hardships of our journey, whether these are external difficulties, or self-imposed mortifications of Lent:

Beloved: bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

The next verse reflects on God’s call to a “holy life”—a theme from God’s call to Abram in the First Reading:

He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began...

The remainder of the verse makes reference to the “manifestation” and “appearance” of Christ, who brought life “to light” for us.  In these phrases we can hear an anticipation of the manifestation of Christ in light through the Transfiguration in the upcoming Gospel reading:

but now made manifest through the appearance of our Savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.

God has called us to a new life, a life of holiness—and the glorious goal of that life is shown to us when we gaze on the glorified Christ.  We will become like him if we continue on this journey.

The Gospel reading is the Transfiguration account from Matt 17:1-9.

1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light ...

As the Fathers long recognized, the Transfiguration is a foretaste or glimpse of the glory of Christ in his resurrected state.  The sight of his glory is given to Peter, James, and John to encourage them to persevere through the difficult times that lay in front of them before they witness Christ’s resurrection.  For us now hearing this Gospel proclaimed at Mass, it is meant to encourage us to persevere not only in Lenten mortification and asceticism until we sacramentally experience Christ’s triumph at Easter, but more broadly in embracing the sufferings of the Christian life until our lowly bodies become like his glorious body (Phil 3:21).

3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three tabernacles (booths) here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

As has long been recognized, Moses and Elijah are representative figures of the Law and the Prophets respectively, the two main divisions of the Jewish canon of Scripture at that time.  So, without questioning the literal historicity of the account, we can also see in it an iconic significance: here are the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament/Covenant) conversing with Jesus (the New Testament/Covenant).  Peter, always eager to say or do something—although not always with sufficient forethought—misunderstands the significance of the occasion: he sees Jesus as another prophet, on par with the previous “greats” of salvation history, Moses and Elijah.  Thus, three booths (tabernacles), one for each.

Peter has some understanding of Jesus’ identity at this point, but has not grasped His entire uniqueness as the Son of God: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ...” (Heb 1:1-2).  While Moses and Elijah were great prophets, they are in no way comparable to the One who has now been manifest.

In a different Gospel, one of the apostles who saw Christ transfigured emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus as the Revealer of the Father over all other prophets and holy men of the past:

And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. ... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)

As the account of the Transfiguration continues, the Father himself corrects Peter’s well-meant but misguided equation of Christ with the prophets of the Old Covenant:
5 He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

The words of the Father from the cloud echo at least two pivotal passages from the Old Testament.  First, Psalm 2, the royal coronation hymn, probably sung at the accession of each new Son of David to the Throne of David in Jerusalem, which proclaims the glory of the Davidic Covenant, saying in verse 7:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”

So the words of the Father remind us of Jesus Davidic Kingship, that he is the royal heir, who like the Sons of David of old, was also given the privilege of being a son of God (cf. 2 Sam 7:14).  Yet Jesus surpasses the previous sons of David, because he is Son of God not only by covenant but also by his nature.

Secondly, in using the phrase “Beloved Son,” the Father calls to mind the image of Isaac in Genesis 22, who three times in that chapter is referred to as Abraham’s ben yahid, “one and only son,” which the Septuagint translates as huios agapetos, “Beloved Son.”  This turn of phrase reminds us that Jesus is the New Isaac, who, like Isaac in Genesis 22, will carry the wood of his sacrifice up the mountain to offer his life to God in obedience to his Father.  So the Mount of Transfiguration looks forward to Calvary.

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

The uniqueness of Jesus as Mediator between the Father and humanity is emphasized one last time by the fact that, rising from prostration, the disciples now see “no one but Jesus only.”  The “one and only” Son is the only Mediator who is ultimately necessary.

The Transfiguration is also linked to the theme of “the journey” that we have observed in the other readings, although we have to borrow from Luke’s account to see the connection.  In Luke 9:15, St. Luke specifies that Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus his upcoming “exodus” in Jerusalem.  The very next day, he tells his disciples of his upcoming Passion (9:41), and shortly thereafter he “sets his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51) and begins his final earthly journey.  Therefore Luke 10-19 (roughly) is known by scholars as the “Travel Narrative,” because, during this entire time, Jesus is journeying from Galilee south to Jerusalem to make his “exodus.”

For the remainder of Lent, we spiritually accompany Jesus on his final journey toward suffering, humilation, death ... but ultimately Glory.

[The Mount of Transfiguration is on our itinerary for the pilgrimage (May 9-18).  There is still room to sign up: click here.]


Randy said...


Thank you for your commentaries on the readings so far this Lent.

God Bless!

Unknown said...

Dr. Bergsma: Thank you for these stimulating and oh so spiritual commentaries on the Sunday readings. Kathleen