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Second Sunday Of Lent, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger

Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36 

Abraham, still going by the name Abram at this point in time, is a man so highly favored, so close to God, that he is called “Friend of God,” Isaiah 41:8. But he is also a man with a problem. Thus far he had been perfectly obedient to the Lord by leaving his home and his clan “for the land that the Lord would show him.” In Genesis 12:7 the Lord had promised, “To your descend-ants I will give this land,” but as yet he had no descendants. His wife Sarah was sterile. He became very rich, but what is that if there is no one to inherit those riches? Now the Lord tells him his descendants will be “as numerous as the stars.” It is difficult to accept that when a man has no children The author of the story adds Abram’s acceptance of this promise by a statement which almost two millennia later became the basis of St. Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith rather than by doing good works, “The Lord credited it (his faith or trust) as an act of righteousness,” (a correct relationship to God).

This pact or treaty symbolized by Abram’s acceptance is a covenant. Covenants had to be ratified, often with a meal, which is sometimes called “an exchange of salt.” The ratification of this covenant is a strange ritual that forms the second part of this Sunday’s first reading. The sacrifice of animals is involved, a heifer, a nanny goat, a three year old ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon. The animals were cut into halves and placed across from each other leaving a space for covenanters to walk between them. Abraham falls into a trance. Sunset brings on darkness. Things get weird! A smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the animals. This is the sealing of the covenant between the Creator of the universe and Abram. The terms of the coven-ant are restated, “To your descendants I will give this land.” The “land” reaches from Egypt to the Euphrates, corresponding to the extent of David’s kingdom about eight centuries later. The meaning of the torch and the firepot passing between the parts of the sacrificed animals: God was saying, “If I do not live up to this agreement, you can cut me in half.” A serious business indeed!

The Responsorial Psalm, 27, picks up on the themes of Abrams’s faith and a promised land, in the words, “I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living.” The people respond, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The second reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He begins with characteristic chutzpah (extreme self-confidence), “Be imitators of me, and imitate those who take me as their role model.” He calls his critics “enemies of the cross of Christ.” It gets worse. “Their God is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame. Their minds occupied with earthly things.” What brought on this barrage of Paul’s invective? He had taught his Gentile converts that the kosher food laws do not apply to them and that male circumcision was not required of them. The “truth squad” of his former colleagues seem to have followed him around “correcting” what to them was Paul’s false teaching. As to the food laws, “Their God is their stomach.” Relating to circumcision, “Their glory is in their shame,” a peculiar way of referring to a male circumcised reproductive organ. Paul proclaims his and his converts’ superiority over those whose minds are occupied with earthly things, “but our citizenship is in heaven, etc.”

The gospel reading is always one of three versions of Jesus’ transfiguration. This year: Luke’s version. To transfigure means to change in appearance. The Big Three of the apostolic group, Simon Peter, John, and James are with Jesus. Luke reproduces Mark’s version of the transfiguration with some notable changes. The first change: only in Luke’s gospel is Jesus described as praying. Luke emphasizes prayer throughout his gospel and Acts of Apostles. Therefore in Luke’s version Jesus goes up the mountain for that purpose — to pray. For good measure Luke alone adds, “and while he was praying.” Luke avoids Mark’s (and Matthew’s) use of the Greek verb expressing metamorphosis, perhaps because of connotations of its use in classical Greek literature to express heathen gods transforming themselves to walk among humans. Instead Luke writes, “The appearance of his face was changed.” Luke was well-acquainted with pagan Greek literature. Moses and Elijah appear in all versions. Before giving their names, Luke alone writes, “Two men spoke with him.” In this way he identifies them with the two men “in dazzling apparel” at the empty tomb of Jesus, and the “two men in white robes” at the ascension of Jesus.  In Luke only do they appear “in glory.” They converse with Jesus in all three versions, but Luke puts content to their conversation, “They were speaking about his Exodus which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The Exodus is his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.

By connecting the two men with the resurrection/ascension, and their appearance “in glory,” Luke proclaims the transfiguration a preview of the resurrection/ascension. Simon Peter is spokesperson in all three versions, but Mark notes that Peter was not quite in control, “He did not know what he was saying.” This does not please Luke. He gives this excuse, “They (the three) were heavy with sleep and just awakened.” Luke alone adds, “They saw him (Jesus) in glory, as he had said about Moses and Elijah. Luke’s emphasis seems to be that the death of Jesus will result in glory.The presence of the two men in glory, Moses representing the Torah, Elijah representing the Prophets, reveal that what is about to happen to Jesus in his Exodus is in harmony with Torah and Prophets — the two main divisions of the Old Testament. The voice from the cloud, (clouds are a symbol of God’s presence), solemnly approves of the Exodus about to take place by claiming Jesus as Son of God. Not only Son of God, but (in Luke only), “My Chosen One,” a reference to the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42, upon whom God “put his Spirit,” and who “will not fail.”