Sunday, March 20, 2011

Climbing the Mountain

“Lord, it is good that we are here”! [Matthew 17:4]
Any modern pilgrim, who’s had the scary experience of reaching the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well be tempted to echo Peter’s sentiments!
Peter presumably had walked up the mountain and in any case the experience to which Peter was reacting was a much more transcendent one. For what Peter, James, and John were being treated to was nothing less than an experience of the glory of God, an awesome peak into another world, and a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented by Moses and Elijah). It must have been a very exciting experience! No wonder Peter was so glad to be there! Wouldn’t we all? No wonder he wanted to stay there as long as possible – to make three tents there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah! No wonder he thought that this was it and that he’d reached where he was going! No wonder he didn’t yet understand that this was just the beginning – an invitation to join Jesus on his journey.
In contrast to Peter, today’s Mass offers us the image of Abraham’s first direct encounter with the Lord, whose very first word to Abraham was Go! [Genesis 12:1]
(Last spring and summer, when I was dealing with the stress of moving from New York to Knoxville, I occasionally tried consider what it must have been like for Abraham to be completely uprooted – at age 75!)
Today’s 1st reading from Genesis recounts that pivotal historical moment when Abraham first appeared in the world stage. Until then, human history had been one tragic calamity after another – culminating in the decisive breakdown of the human community at the Tower of Babel. Suddenly, God was intervening in history in a new way, singling out one individual – and, through him, one family and, eventually, one special nation – to be his partner, his human partner, in repairing the damage done by human beings to God’s good creation. Under the provisions of the extraordinary covenant God made with Abraham, God and Abraham – and Abraham’s descendents – will collaborate together and so become a blessing for the whole world.
Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor of Judaism and its two daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. In all three religions, Abraham is revered for his faith, a faith that summoned him (at age 75!) to go forth to a new land. But the destination was vague. We call Abraham “our father in faith.” If Abraham is a model of faith for us, he also reveals how much faith requires. What we call Abraham’s “faith” was a way of responding to the ambiguous and complicated events in his life, a way that reflected his recognition of the presence and action of God in those events. His “faith” meant a total trust, confidence, reliance on God through whatever changes and challenges might be required.
Change is always challenging. That’s why we wisely try to avoid it unless necessary. I am particularly fond of Chesterton’s line (at least I think it was Chesterton who said it): “If change is not necessary, then it is necessary not to change.” But sometimes it is necessary, and therein lies the challenge. It may mean abandoning the familiar for the frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or it may not. It may mean, rather, recovering what we’ve lost or forgotten or abandoned. Indeed, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices in order to return to an older and better path.
We all talk about making necessary changes in our lives. Sometimes we may even mean it. But we’re 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.
All this has finally and effectively been made accessible to us through Abraham’s greatest descendent, Jesus, who fulfilled in himself his nation’s destiny and made Abraham’s blessing fully available to the entire world.
Even so, the temptation will always be to do the opposite of Abraham and to think, like Peter, that we’re there already, without having to make the journey. But the God who first called Abraham continues to invite us through Jesus, saying what he said to Peter and now is saying to us: “This is my Son ... listen to him”! [Matthew 17:5]
Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 20, 2011.

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