A modern pilgrim, who has just made it to the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well 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 the glory of God, an awesome peek into another world, so to speak, a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented on the mountain by Moses and Elijah).
No wonder Peter wanted to stay there as long as possible – even to erect three shrines there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – as if this were it, and he had finally reached where he ought 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, which is one reason why, every year, this account is read early in Lent. In the actual narrative, however, the time sequence points back six days to Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his impending passion. This suggests that the two events (in both of which Peter plays a prominent part) are connected. In both, there is the revelation of who Jesus ultimately is and 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.
Paralleling Peter is the very different figure of Abraham, who makes his first appearance on the world stage in today’s 1st reading, when suddenly God intervened in human history in a new way – singling out one specific individual (and through him one particular family and eventually one specially chosen nation) – to be his human partner in repairing the damage done by human sin and so become a blessing for the whole world.
Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in all three of which Abraham is revered for his faith, that 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 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 recognized 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, and then to know how. It may mean abandoning the familiar for the frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or it may not. Sometimes, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices in order 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 is, of course, all because of Abraham’s greatest descendent, Jesus, who 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 Second Sunday of Lent, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, March 5, 2023.
Photo: Church of the Transfiguration Mount Tabor, Israel.
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