Sunday February 24, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Week of Lent
Reading I (Genesis 12:1-4a ) Reading II (2 Timothy 1:8b-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 17:1-9)
In the Gospel reading today, the Church gives to us the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Every year, on the 6th of August, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration so the natural question is - Why do we have this reading on the second week of Lent? Every year, actually, we have the reading of the Transfiguration from different Gospels, but every year, on the second week of Lent, we have this reading. The purpose for that is because as Our Lord was preparing for His Passion, it was in that context that He was transfigured. As He was preparing to save the world through His death, Moses and Elijah appeared to Him, the cloud overshadowed them, and the voice of the Father was heard by the apostles.
It was there to strengthen our Lord - but more than that - it was there to strengthen His disciples. Our Lord knew exactly why He was here and what He was supposed to be doing; it was the disciples who did not understand. And so, as they were drawing near to what, at first, would have seemed like the scandal of the Cross - the horrible events that would take place in Jerusalem in just a few weeks in advance of where they were - they were not ready for that. In appearing to them in this manner, Our Lord showed to them a prefiguration of what the Resurrection would be.
He showed to them that God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead, because Moses and Elijah had appeared. The apostles knew the tradition that had been passed down - in fact, you can find it in the Letter of Saint Jude in the New Testament: that Satan and Saint Michael were fighting over the body of Moses - so there was no question that Moses had died. Elijah, of course, was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot - so he had not died. The question of whether or not Elijah would be able to appear would be one thing because he lived. But there was no question in anybody's mind that Moses had died; yet here he was conversing with Jesus. And so, we have Jesus in a transfigured state; we have one who had never died; and we have one who is clearly alive, but had died. The apostles, in being able to behold this, were able to see that there was life beyond death, that there was something beyond this world that was entirely glorious.
Some of the Jewish people had believed in that; some had not. In fact, it was the Sadducees who had not believed in the resurrection of the dead at all. The Sadducees were the priests, so what was being taught to the people very often was simply that there was an afterlife in a place called Sheol, the abode of the dead - the netherworld, as it would be understood. The apostles needed to be able to understand that what was going to happen to their Master was not the end, but, in fact, it was the very purpose for His coming into this world and it was going to be the beginning of a redeemed humanity. But, even with this, they did not understand until afterward. Jesus told them to tell no one of the vision until after He had risen from the dead. But because they could not understand what that meant, they did not even have a context, at this point, for the vision until after Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Then, and only then, did they understand what it was that He meant.
But as we proceed, now, toward Easter, and prior to Easter, of course, the Passion Week, and as we are now into the second week of our penances that we are offering to God, our human nature becomes very weak. We begin to wonder if we ought to be continuing in these penances; after all, five more weeks seem like an eternity for some of us. We begin to waffle and waver in our commitment to be able to carry out our Lenten observance. And so, the Church places this reading before us to be able to show to us that on the other side of our penance there is light, there is a newness of life, and that if we can continue in our observance and carry through with the Passion of Christ, we will experience a resurrection that will be glorious indeed. What we are doing now is uniting ourselves with Our Lord as He moves ever steadily towards His Cross, and we are being asked to take up our cross and to walk with Him on that path to Calvary. The Church, like Jesus, places before His disciples, in our lack of understanding, the glory of the Resurrection, the glory of new life, the promise that there is something that is well beyond what we have today.
As we look back, a week and a half ago, at the various sins that we might have been involved in, and as now we have struggled just to keep standing up because the temptations that assail us can be very strong - perhaps we have even fallen once or twice, or even a few more times, in the observance of what we have offered to God and we are beginning to despair - the Church places this reading of great hope before us to be able to say: "Continue on. Get back up. If you have fallen under the Cross, be like Jesus and continue to walk toward Calvary. Look toward the Resurrection. Look toward the newness of life. Look toward the freedom that will be yours when this sin no longer has this hold upon you. Do not just simply look at the sin; do not just look at your human weakness; look at the strength of Jesus Christ." That is what the Church is asking of us.
She puts in front of us also this reading from the Second Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy, which tells us to bear our share of the hardships which are required by the Gospel. If we are going to be united with Jesus as His disciples, and indeed as members of His Mystical Body, we must be united with Him in His suffering; the Gospel requires it. There are too many Christian people who believe in the "Gospel of Health and Wealth". That is, "Believe in Jesus and everything is going to be given to you. Everything is going to be easy - no more suffering. You are going to have money coming out of your ears! God wants everything wonderful for you!" Then we look at the Cross and say, "Is that really true?" Jesus reminds us that if we are going to be His followers, we must take up our cross and follow Him. He did not live a gospel of health and wealth. He lived a Gospel of suffering, a Gospel of self-denial, but a Gospel which points beyond the Cross to the Resurrection.
The Cross is the central point of humanity, the central point of human history; without it there is no Resurrection. It is like the turnstile: We have to come up to the Cross and go through it in order to get to the other side. There is no getting to the other side without it. So as we continue in our observance, we recognize that by sharing in the Cross we will be greatly blessed. God promised to Abram, 3500 years ago, that all the nations of the world would be blessed in him. And now, one of the sons of Abraham, Jesus Christ, has indeed brought that blessing to each and every one of us. But we must be like Abram, then, and we must leave what we have known. We must leave our past and our kinsfolk, if you will - all the sins that we have been accustomed to - and we must go to a land that the Lord is showing to us: a land that we do not know yet, but it is promised to us - a land of freedom, a land of great blessing, a land of grace without those sins that we have been so involved with in the past.
We go back, then, to the Gospel, and we look at that cloud that overshadows Our Lord and His disciples and the fear the disciples have as they move forward. Not unlike our fear as we look forward and say, "Lord, I do want to be rid of these sins but I'm afraid. I don't know what life is going to be like without them. I donít know if I'm strong enough to do this. I donít know if I'm going to be able to carry through." But the voice of the Father said simply: "This is My Beloved Son; listen to Him." And what did Jesus tell His disciples? "Do not be afraid." There is nothing to fear. Put the past behind and look forward. Even though what we have to look forward to is the Cross, we look beyond the Cross and we have the glory of the Resurrection that is presented to us today to fill us with hope and to give us strength and courage as we follow the Lord up the path to Calvary.
There is nothing to fear because Our Lord has already walked the path. We know what is on the other side. We do not fear the Cross, and so we have the courage of Our Lord to say, "Father, if this cup could pass me byÖ but Your Will be done and not mine." We must accept our share of the Cross, of the hardships which the Gospel entails. We must go to Calvary with Our Lord. But we do not need to fear because He has already shown us the way: It does not end on Calvary - it ends in the Resurrection. It is a promise which is made to us. It is a guarantee which we do not doubt. We know what is on the other side because Our Lord has already done it. And now He asks us to follow Him, follow Him up the way to Calvary, follow Him to be nailed to His Cross, but follow Him to eternal glory in the Resurrection.
But it starts now by recognizing that being faithful to Our Lord in our Lenten observance is going to bring about a transfiguration, even now in this life before we get to the Resurrection - a transfiguration from death to life, a transfiguration from sin to grace, a transfiguration from living merely our human worldly existence to living in a divine existence in the realm of grace and light. To go from darkness to light is what we are being offered, and it is where we are being invited. As we look forward, then, to Holy Week, as we struggle with our own weakness, as we struggle with our own lack of understanding and what can only be described as the scandal of the Cross - the scandal of our own sin, the scandal of our own failure to follow Our Lord and Master - the Church places before us the Transfiguration to give us great hope, to give us confidence. Listen to the voice of Jesus as He continues to encourage us along the way and speaks to us and says, "Do not be afraid."
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.