Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Living by Faith and the Transfiguration: The Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent

Trust in the Lord. That is the major theme of this week's lectionary readings. From Abraham as a model of faith, to Jesus, who tells his disciples, "Do not be afraid", this Sunday the liturgy underscores the importance of faith.

Let us look at how this motif is developed in the readings this Sunday.

FIRST READING: Genesis 12:1-4a
The LORD said to Abram:
“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
Abram went as the LORD directed him. 
The first reading comes from Genesis 12. This is the chapter in the Bible that really introduces the story of Abraham. Although much could be said, there are a few things to note in reference to the major theme of this Sunday's readings.

The promise of blessing and reversing the effects of fall. What is striking about Genesis 12 is the dominance of the theme of “blessing”. Go back and count the number of times “bless” is used here--it's pretty much the dominant feature of the passage.

Specifically, scholars recognize here in Genesis how God is setting in motion his plan to reverse the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3, humanity sinned and curses were unleashed—relationships would be marred by sin, work would be linked to toil and fruitlessness (“thorns and thistles”), pain became associated with childbirth, and death entered the world. Yet now with Abraham we have the promise of future blessings.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The promise made to Abraham inaugurates the economy of salvation. . .” (CCC 705). 

Three promises and the three covenant oaths. In particular, God promises three things to Abraham in these verses. 
  1. First, God promises him that a nation will come from him and that this nation will be given land: “Go from your country…to the land I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation” (Gen 12:1–2a).
  2. Second, God promises Abraham that he will make his “name” great. The language here seems especially linked to “kingship” in Scripture (cf. 2 Sam. 7:6). In fact, as I will explain in a moment, there is good reason to think that such imagery is intended here. 
  3. Third, God promises that through Abraham “all the families of the earth” will be blessed—universal blessing! God chooses Abraham not to isolate him from the rest of humanity but for the rest of humanity; i.e. that through him they will all receive blessing. 
Later, the three promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12 are reinforced by three covenant oaths in Genesis 15, 17, and 22. Indeed, Heb. 6:13–15 makes clear that God, in a sense, “upgraded” his promises to Abraham to covenants oaths.

The three covenant oaths to Abraham and the biblical narrative of salvation history. Understanding these three promises/covenants is crucially important to fully understanding the rest of the narrative of the canon of Scripture. Here I have to draw upon the work of Scott Hahn, who lays this out masterfully in his brilliant study, Kinship by Covenant.[1]

1. Mosaic covenant. In Genesis 15, reinforcing the first promise (i.e., that his descendants would be a nation with their own land), God swears an oath to Abraham in which he anticipates the Exodus and the giving of the promised land to Israel: 
“Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” (Gen 15:13–15) 
2. Davidic covenant. In Genesis 17, God next strengthens the promise regarding giving Abraham a great name, explicitly promising that “kings” will come forth from him (Gen. 17:6). Of course, it is particularly in the Davidic covenant that this promise comes to fruition—God establishes a royal dynasty with one of Abraham’s descendants through David. 
3. New Covenant. Finally, in Genesis 22, after Abraham demonstrates his faithfulness by showing his willingness to sacrifice his “only beloved son”, God swears to Abraham, “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18). Ultimately, this promise points forward to the realization of the hope of the prophets, i.e., to the day when all Israel will be gathered in to the presence of God with the nations (cf. Isa. 2:2-5). 
The promise of salvation and grace. In Genesis 12, the promises made to Abraham are entirely unmerited. In other words, Abraham has done nothing to secure these blessings. Salvation is ultimately the work of grace; apart from grace we can do nothing to merit eternal life.

Abraham as a model of faith. Moreover, Abraham shows us how to respond in faith. Citing Romans 4, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Because he was “strong in his faith,” Abraham became the “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11, 18; 4:20; cf. Gen 15:5).

When God calls “Abram” and promises him future descendants he is childless (Gen. 11:30)—and old; he is 75 (12:4). Yet Abraham went out, trusting in the Lord to deliver on those promises.

Can Abraham see how the things the Lord has announced to him will come to pass? No. In fact, naturally speaking, what God has said he will do would seem impossible. And yet Abraham sets out in faith.

The epistle to the Hebrews says this about Abraham:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. 9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:8–10)
And that’s what faith is. It means, as we’ve said here before, “trust”. While faith is not contrary to reason, it certainly goes beyond it. Indeed, sometimes trusting in God may even seem irrational. How can God keep his word? Abraham doesn’t know. But he knows God has an answer to this question.

Here we have an example to follow. In dark times we may find it difficult to believe that God has a plan and that he is faithful. Yet God is always faithful. . . even though we are not. Indeed, after the fall it may have seemed like redemption was hopeless. How could the consequences of the fall ever be undone?

God had a plan. Likewise, he has a plan for each of our lives. Even if we can’t see how, God will keep his word.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
R/ (22) Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you. Upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you. See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you. Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R/ Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you. 
In the responsorial psalm, the psalmist underscores the themes of the first reading: we place our trust in God.

God’s word is “trustworthy”. It is the Lord who delivers us and preserves us from death. Let us therefore wait on him, recognizing that his timetable may not be our timetable.

SECOND READING: 2 Timothy 1:8b–10 
Beloved: Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. 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, 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. 
In the first reading we saw that God bestowed upon Abraham his promises of salvation gratuitously—that is, not because Abraham had earned them. They were the result of the sheer graciousness of God.

Just as the promise of future blessing came unmerited, so does the initial grace of salvation. God “saved us. . . no according to our works” but according to “the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus”. This grace was something God intended to share with us before the dawn of time. As Genesis 12, in a sense, lays out the whole framework of the story of salvation, 2 Timothy makes it clear that God’s bestowal of grace in Christ was his intention “before time began”.

Here we must reiterate something Catholics believe: salvation is by grace! The initial gift of salvation is not something merited by good works. Again, to cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace. (Catechism, no 2011). 
It is true that Catholics believe that grace also renders our good works meritorious before God. According to Catholic doctrine, grace is so powerful that it transforms our works so that, by Christ living within us (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 2:12–13), Christ truly works within us. Those works of Christ which we cooperate in doing are truly also meritorious--precisely because they are the result of Christ working within us. In other words, to deny that they have salvific worth would be to deny that Christ's work is salvific because the works we do in union with him are truly his works (and ours)!

In the Catholic understanding, we are not saved by “faith alone”, though, we are saved only because of grace working within us. As the Catechism emphasizes, salvation is “pure grace”. That’s not because grace rules out human involvement. It’s because human involvement is only possible in the work of salvation by grace. (For more on this, see my article and responses in this book, where I lay out the Catholic view of the role of works and respond to non-Catholic accounts of their place in salvation.)

GOSPEL: Matt 17:1–9 
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.  
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 
The story of the Transfiguration demonstrates why we should not be afraid—God strengthens us.

Understanding the Transfiguration in context. The Transfiguration comes at an important point in the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (in Mark and Luke as well!). The scene takes place in Matthew 17 but it brings to a climax a series of events that began back in Matthew 16. 

In Matthew 16 Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do men say that the son of man is?” (Matt 16:13). The apostles report that many think that Jesus may be one of the prophets of the past who has returned, saying, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matt 16:14).

Jesus then asks the crucial question: who do you say that I am. Peter responds with the right answer.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:15-16)
Jesus goes on to tell Peter that it is only by a special revelation of God—i.e., the gift of faith—that he has been able to make this confession.
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 16:17).
Peter then is given his name: Peter, i.e., “rock”. In fact, Peter is said to be the “rock” upon which the church is built. He is also given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the authority to “bind” and “loose”.

However, after making this confession of faith of Jesus’ messiahship, Peter clearly demonstrates that he has only partially understood Jesus role. Immediately after this episode Jesus begins to speak of his coming passion and death.

Peter will hear nothing of it.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Matt 16:21–23). 

One wonders if Peter would have been willing to confess Jesus as the Messiah if he understood that Jesus would suffer and die. For Peter, this is not part of the Messiah’s mission. The Messiah does not suffer—he only triumphs.

It is interesting that Jesus only reveals this aspect of his mission to Peter after he has made his confession of faith. Notice, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus only begins to speak of his coming passion at this point in the narrative (“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must . . . suffer many things”).

That is the way faith often works. As Abraham was called to leave his home and step out in faith, so often we are called to follow the Lord not knowing where he will necessarily lead us.

Interestingly, then, the story of the Transfiguration comes after this in Matthew 17. A few things about the narrative stand out.

The Transfiguration as a Prayer Experience. The event begins with Jesus taking three of his disciples by themselves up a mountain. Why is Jesus withdrawing to a mountain? Elsewhere Jesus goes up to a mountain by himself to pray. Indeed, this is what he did after the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt 14:23). Indeed, Luke makes this understanding of Jesus’ ascent of the mount of Transfiguration explicit: “he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). I think it makes sense to think Matthew is telling us Jesus is also going up on this mountain to be alone to pray.

Allusions to the Giving of the Law at Sinai. The story of the Transfiguration contains numerous echoes of the story of God’s giving of the Law to Israel and Mt. Sinai.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He embodies--we could even say personifies--the righteousness it was intended to teach; he “fulfills” the law.

In fact, the earliest Christian interpretation of this event outside the New Testament is provided by St. Irenaeus, who links this event to God’s promise to reveal his glory to Moses. For Moses, though he spoke to God as one speaks to a friend (Num 12:8), was only able to see the back of the Lord as he passed him by (Exod. 33:20–22). Irenaeus writes,

“Two facts are thus signified: that it is impossible for man to see God; and that, through the wisdom of God, man shall see Him in the last times, in the depth of a rock, that is, in His coming as a man. And for this reason did He [the Lord] confer with him face to face on the top of a mountain, Elias being also present, as the Gospel relates, thus making good in the end the ancient promise.” (Against Heresies 4.20.9; ANF 1:490). 
We might also here note that the Lucan version of this story has Jesus specifically speaking of his exodus out of Jerusalem (Luke 9:31); i.e., Jesus is bringing about a new exodus which is linked to his passion and death.

Jesus as the Son of God. If there was any doubt about whether Jesus’ plan to suffer disqualified him from being the messiah, it is eradicated by the transfiguration of his appearance the disciples witness and the heavenly voice that confirms Peter’s confession. Peter recognized Jesus as the “son of the living God”; the voice from heaven declares: “This is my beloved son” (Matt 17:5). In addition, Jesus, Matthew tells us, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matt 17:2; RSV).

Moreover, Jesus is transformed (metamorphosis). Once again we are reminded of Moses who was also transfigured upon a mountain (cf. Exod. 34:29).

The brilliance of Jesus’ appearance evokes the description of the righteous who are raised from the dead at the end of time in Daniel 12: “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Dan 12:3). The Transfiguration is an anticipation of Jesus’ glorified resurrected body.

In fact, the last thing that occurs in Matthew 16 before the account of the Transfiguration is a speech of Jesus, which climaxes with his telling the disciples: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matt 16:28).

The Transfiguration, then, is a kind of anticipation of the coming of the kingdom.

Peter’s request. The precise meaning of Peter’s request is a bit obscure. Some have argued that by suggesting “tents” be built an allusion is being made to the Tabernacle. This imagery would fit well with the presence of the cloud—an image also often linked with the Tabernacle (cf. Exod. 33:9–10; Lev. 16:2; Deut 31:15). Perhaps Peter is attempting to “recapture” the Sinai experience of Israel. The fact that this request is ignored might suggest that such a look backwards is inappropriate—God is bringing about a greater exodus in Christ.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem suggests a different interpretation: 
“Peter, thinking perchance that the time of the kingdom of God was even now come, proposes dwellings on the mountain and says that it is fitting there should be three tabernacles. . . But he knew not, it says, what he was saying; for it was not the time of the consummation of the world, nor for the saints to take possession of he hope promised to them. . .”[2] 
The Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the glorification of believers. Above we pointed out that Jesus’ transfiguration seems to allude to the description of the righteous at the end of time. Indeed, by the fourth century, Christ’s Transfiguration was understood as foreshadowing the transformation in which believers themselves have a share in Christ. The fourth century Eastern theologian, Anastasius of Sinai, explains:
“. . . Jesus revealed to his disciples a heavenly mystery. While living among them he had spoken of the kingdom and of his second coming in glory, but to banish from their hearts any possible doubt concerning the kingdom and to confirm their faith in what lay in the future by its prefiguration in the present, he gave them . . . a wonderful vision of his glory, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven. . . Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven—I speak boldly—it is for us now to follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness, making us forever sharers in his Godhead and raising us to heights yet undreamed of.”[3] 
Moses and Elijah. Typically, the presence of Moses and Elijah is said to demonstrate that Christ brings fulfillment to the law (Moses) and prophets (Elijah). But perhaps it is important to note that in Jewish tradition these two figures were both assumed into heaven. If the Transfiguration points to the future glorification of the saints, the presence of Moses and Elijah may seem to reinforce such hopes.

Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas suggests in his commentary on Matthew that the voice from heaven specifically singles out Jesus as his “son”, clarifying that they should listen to him. In other words, Jesus is not simply another saintly figure. By suggesting that three tents be built, Thomas explains that Peter simply puts Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. The voice clarifies for Peter that Jesus is more significant than these figures—he is even greater than Moses and Elijah—he is God’s Son.

Transfiguration and Faith. The scene ends with the apostles being told by Jesus, “Do not be afraid.” In this, the Gospel reading ties together the theme of faith that runs throughout the lectionary readings.

The Transfiguration strengthens the disciples' faith, giving them a consolation and a confirmation of the truth of Jesus’ identity that will help them endure Jesus’ passion and death. Without witnessing this event, it might have seemed like Jesus’ messiahship was nullified by his passion. The Transfiguration, however, gives the disciples a glimpse of what comes after the passion—the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.

The Transfiguration thus also confirms the hope of our own glorification. Christ is “the first fruits” (cf. 1 Cor 15:20). What God has done in Christ he will do for those so united to him. 

Indeed, 2 Peter, which speaks of how believers are made to become "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4), also links the Transfiguration to idea of confirmation of the prophetic promises of God.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Pet 2:16-20)
Finally, the Transfiguration gives us confirmation of what happens every time we pray. When we climb the mountain of prayer, we are united to the divine son—and all the saints in heaven—in anticipation of our future glory. 

[1] Scott Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 101–22.

[2] Cited in W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew 8–18 (ICC; London: T & T Clark, 1991), 700.

[3] Cited from Aaron Canty, Light and Glory: The Transfiguration of Christ in Early Franciscan and Dominican Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 12.

1 comment:

Nick said...

"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty."

This is to me proof of two things:
1) It was really an Epistle of Saint Peter, maybe even written indirectly when he dictated to a writer
2) Christ is not a myth but was a real Person, and Saint Peter was an eyewitness of His Life