Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent

March 5, 2023
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, TX

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8b-10
Matthew 17:1-9

The first reading of this Sunday’s Mass presents the call of God to Abraham. At this time in his life, Abraham is seventy-five years old — a time that common sense tells us is too late to expect change from any human being. Those of us who have loved ones who have aged and entered the elder cohort of the human population or who have even themselves entered old age can attest to the wisdom of such proverbs as, “She is too set in her ways;” or also, “He is an example that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Yet, the matters of vocation and conversion are not matters of human initiative, ingenuity, or willpower.

Vocation and conversion are closely fused together in that they begin with God’s initiative in human lives, something that we call “grace.” This grace itself is the source of our freedom expressed in each of our willingness to accept this gift and all that the gift entails irrespective of our stage in life.

So even though Abraham is in his old age God calls him to leave the security of his extended family and all things familiar to go to some unknown land for God’s saving purposes. God promises to make a great nation of Abraham who is to become the father of many nations — to become our father in faith. To do this Abraham must not close the door on the past but he must let go of past patterns of complacency in behavior and thought. He must come to trust in God completely.

God asks this of Abraham because trust in God is the start of faith, it is also the start of God’s redemption and salvation of all human beings from the power of sin. One of the first things lost by humanity after the original sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden was a harmonious and trusting relationship between God and human beings. Through sin, the direct rejection of grateful and loving reliance upon God, human beings entered into darkness and alienation from God and from themselves by trying to be God instead of accepting their own unique nature and identity as created in God’s image and likeness. Human beings began to see God as an adversary and competitor who threatens their claims to autonomy and structured with an undue sense of entitlement misunderstood to be freedom — but what is in fact slavery.

Abraham comes to trust God. He is inspired to have faith in God, and he abandons everything he knows to begin again with God and without self-sufficiency. We are presented here with a fundamental aspect of Abraham’s faith: it is impossible to believe in God and at the same time to hold onto things that provide us with a false sense of security and complacency. Faith requires that we be not tied down to things of this world as if they are all that exist, but instead that we understand the things of this world as good because of their creation by God but transitory and not preferable to God Himself. This faithful disposition shows itself when we are available to serve God and others even at great inconvenience to our own important plans regarding social or familial life.  Clinging to comfortable situations and social privileges prevents us from imitating the life of Jesus and from growing in His love as His disciples.

The indispensable gift of faith is made even more clear in today’s Gospel where Peter, James, and John are given the particular grace of recognizing Jesus in His true glory through His Transfiguration. They are given the grace of seeing Jesus in His full identity as God’s Son as well as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets — surpassing in importance Moses and Elijah. Yet, instead of entering into the mystery of that grace that requires him to trust Jesus even more, Peter clings to the consolation of the exhilarating spiritual experience that he enjoys on the height of Mount Tabor. He wants to cling to the emotional high of this experience so he suggests to Jesus that he build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so the sensation of his experience will not end.

The clarity of the experience is sensible to Peter as a powerful feeling or emotion. Thus, Peter wants the comfort and elation of the religious experience more than the acceptance of the accountability of trust required for him to follow Jesus through the way of the Cross. Peter initially grasps that following Jesus has brought him this great and powerful feeling.

Yet, Jesus and His disciples are on the way to Jerusalem where He will die.  The episode of the Transfiguration is a moment the Lord takes to reveal to His disciples that His death will not be the end. He offers them this particular grace because He knows that these three will need this grace to persevere faithfully in their mission as His Apostles — a mission that will be imbued in them at Pentecost with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Transfiguration teaches His disciples and friends not to be afraid, but not to mistake the consolation of religious experience with the gift of faith that requires them to face courageously the difficulties and persecution involved in truly following Him. They must also follow Him down the mountain of Tabor with its exquisite clarity to the confusion and anguish that accompanies the Cross of Jesus. His admonition to them not to tell anyone of the Transfiguration until after the Resurrection shows that there is more to the story of discipleship than emotional highs. The Transfiguration can only be understood in light of the Resurrection and the only way to the Resurrection is through the Crucifixion.

Saint Paul, who would exemplify a life lived in Christian faith and who wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” in today’s second reading directs Timothy’s focus and our own contemporary focus on what this liturgy’s other readings teach us: “Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Faith is not measured by comfort and self-sufficiency; faith requires the burden of trusting God even amidst doubts, discouragement, and persecution.  The Church gives us the season of Lent to prepare us for the celebration of the paschal festivities of Easter that God might cleanse us of our faults of self-sufficiency and indifference. We must follow Jesus down the mountain of Transfiguration through the Crucifixion to arrive at the empty tomb of Easter.

Lent is a season for us to be nourished inwardly by God’s Word so that with our spiritual sight made pure by faith, we no longer ignore our need for God and that we grow in trust in Him. This disposition of real faith is part of the grace that God gives us to hear clearly what He calls us to do, and to embrace the willingness to do what He teaches even with great pain and inconvenience, and to place God and our neighbor first before our own plans and comforts.

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