Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Second Sunday of Lent: Being Transfigured
The readings begin this Sunday with the familiar story of Abraham and the sacrifice or near sacrifice of Isaac. We have heard this story many, many times and have always focused on Abraham and his unwavering faith. It is quite a mystery how God could ask Abraham to do such a thing, to sacrifice his son. Human sacrifice and child sacrifice were abhorrent to God. The Old Testament condemns this time and again. It is one of the reasons given for the Babylonian exile. If we stay at the fringe level of the story, it is quite difficult to understand how Abraham could be told to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But, if we go deeper, then we realize that the whole point of the story was the strength of Abraham’s faith. He would trust in God no matter what was asked of him.
I’d like to change the focus from Abraham to His son, Isaac. In Genesis, it seems clear that when he went up that mountain carrying the branches for a sacrificial fire, Isaac did not know his father’s plans. As time went on, Jewish scholars saw Isaac as participating in God’s plan for mankind through his father, Abraham. By the time of the Lord, scholars taught the people that Isaac was martyr. He was willing to die if this is what it would take for the covenant God made with Abraham to take place. The teachers of Jesus’ time compared Isaac to the Jewish martyrs who died for their faith during the Maccabean revolt against the Syrians. Second Maccabees tells the story of the seven sons and the esteemed elder who would rather die than deny their faith and defile themselves. The scholars taught that like those martyrs, Isaac did not value his life over the completion of God’s plan. Later, Christians would see in Isaac’s carrying the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain a prophecy of Jesus carrying the cross up to Golgotha.
It is in this light that we can relate the story of Abraham and Isaac with the Transfiguration, today’s Gospel. On that mountain of mystery, Jesus met with Moses and Elijah. Why Moses and Elijah? Moses was the lawgiver. During the Exodus he showed the Hebrews how they could serve God. He told them they were God’s chosen people. God had a plan for them, one by which He would deliver them out of slavery and to a the place He set aside for them. The most important part of the Jewish bible, the five books of the Torah were attributed to Moses. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. He was the one who did not die but was swept into heaven. He would come again when the time was right for God to complete his plan for mankind. The time had come on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
Jesus was there on that mountain. He was ready and willing to sacrifice himself for His Father’s plan to become a reality. He would die for the good of all. His sacrifice would lead to the glory of the Kingdom of God. His life, obscure in the eyes of the world, and His death, which the world would view as dishonorable, freed others, freed us, to live and die in grace.
What does all this mean to us? It means that as followers of Christ we also must offer ourselves up for the good of others. When Jesus said that we cannot be His followers unless we were ready to take up our crosses, He was not using symbolic imagery. He meant it. As Christians, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for others.
That means that we have to reject the world’s diabolical egocentricity. Egocentricity is putting ourselves first before all others, the “It’s all about number one, me.” That is the way of the world. It is diabolical because the devil is determined to fight God’s plan for us by using us against ourselves. The story of the Fall demonstrates this. The devil led Adam and Eve into ruin by getting them to put themselves before God. “Eat this and you will be gods.” Their sin is continually repeated as the forces of evil win battle after battle with every person who chooses selfishness over love.
Putting others first, being charitable, is therefore not just a good thing to do, it Is the necessary way of life for those who are called to eternal life. When parents put their children before themselves, they are not just being good parents, they are being great Christians. When husbands and wives put their spouses before themselves, they are not just being good husbands and wives, they are being great Christians. When we make time to help that elderly neighbor, we are not just being a good neighbor, we are being a great Christian. When we go to that hospital even though it is so difficult to see someone we love suffering, we are not just doing a good thing, we are being great Christians. When we have compassion on those that society is attacking or marginalizing knowing that many of our so-called friends will look down on us for associating with these people, we are being great Christians. When we sacrifice our wants for the needs of others, we are not just doing a wonderful thing; we are making the presence of Christ real in the world. We are participating in God’s plan for mankind.
Something wonderful happens when we step out of ourselves and give ourselves to others. We receive more than we give. We have all realized that whenever we are truly charitable we feel a huge joy, a joy so real that we are convinced that what we did was insignificant to what we received. And we are correct. In those moments of joy we become one with the Lord. We are transfigured with Him. We become people completely different because we are happier, infinitely happier.
Just as the Transfiguration of the Lord was a touch of heaven and a foreshadowing of the glory to come, our own transfigurations are a touch of heaven and a tangible prediction of the eternal joy to come.
Lent is a time for us to take a close look at ourselves and consider what we have to do to conquer selfishness and sin in our own lives. The various exercises of Lent help us to dive deeper into our commitment to the Lord. Lent helps us to take those steps we need to be bound to God’s plan.
We pray today for the grace to be part of the plan, part of the sacrifice, and part of the Glory.