Any modern pilgrim, who has just had the thrilling experience of reaching the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well be tempted to echo Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Peter presumably had walked up the mountain, but the experience to which he was reacting was anything but pedestrian. For what Peter, James, and John were being treated to was nothing less than an experience of God’s glory, a sneak peak into another world, so to speak, a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented by Moses and Elijah).
No wonder Peter wanted to stay there as long as possible – even to make three tents there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – as if this were it, and he had finally reached where he wanted to be. He didn’t understand that this was just the beginning – an invitation to join Jesus on his journey.
An ancient tradition dates the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, one reason why, every year, the Transfiguration Gospel is read early in Lent. In the actual gospel narrative, however, the time-reference points back six days to Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his impending passion. The unusually explicit time-reference makes it clear that the two events (in both of which Peter plays a prominent part) are connected. In both events, there is the revelation of who Jesus ultimately is and a reference forward to his impending death and resurrection. And in both Peter is the spokesman for the others, the one most intimately associated with Jesus and at the same time the one who seems somehow to miss much of the point Jesus was actually making. (The others probably also missed the point, but the story focuses on Peter.)
Paralleling Peter is the figure of Abraham, who makes his first appearance on the world stage in today’s 1st reading. Until Abraham, human history had been one sinful calamity, one tragic debacle after another – culminating in the decisive breakdown of human society and community at the Tower of Babel.
Then suddenly God intervened in human history in a new way – singling out one specific individual, and through him eventually one specially chosen nation – to be his human partner, in repairing the massive damage we have done to God’s good creation. Under the provisions of the extraordinary covenant God made with Abraham, God and Abraham – and Abraham’s descendants – will collaborate together and so become a blessing for the whole world.
Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor both of Judaism and of its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. In all three religions, Abraham is revered for his faith. Abraham’s faith summoned him - at an age when most of us are already retired – to go forth to a new land. But Abraham’s assigned destination was vague. We call Abraham our father in faith; but, if Abraham is a model of faith for us, his story also reveals what real faith really requires. Abraham’s faith was his response to the ambiguous and complicated events in his life in a way that fully reflected his deep recognition of God’s presence and action in those ambiguous and complicated events. His faith meant total trust in and reliance on God through whatever changes might be required and whatever challenges might have to be met.
Change is always challenging, which is why wise people avoid change as much as possible. I often like to quote the 2nd Viscount Falkland’s (1610-1643) famous observation: "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." Human history has more than confirmed the wisdom of that statement. Still, sometimes change is necessary, and therein lies the challenge – first to know when to change, and then to know how to change. It may mean abandoning the familiar for something frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or maybe not. Sometimes, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices to return to a lost or forgotten or abandoned older and wiser path.
We all talk at times about making necessary changes in our lives. Sometimes we may even mean it. But we are just as likely to conclude that we have too much at stake to change course. Lent is our annual opportunity to let Abraham demonstrate the power of faith to overcome our cynicism, despair, defeatism, and spiritual inertia.
That this is possible for us is, of course, all because Abraham’s greatest descendent, Jesus, fulfilled in life and death his nation’s destiny and so made Abraham’s blessing fully available to the entire world.
Even so, our temptation will always be to do the opposite and to think, like Peter, that we are there already - without having to make the journey. But the same God who first called and challenged – and blessed – Abraham also continues to invite us, through Jesus, instructing us as he instructed Peter: "This is my beloved Son … listen to him."
Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, March 8, 2020.