Dear brothers and sisters in Christ in the Archdiocese, and all tuning in for this message for the second week of Lent, warm greetings.
Thankfully, our polar vortex is behind us now. The word Lent comes from the old English word ‘Lenten’, which means Spring. In this province Spring comes slowly, and that serves as a good metaphor for Lent, and the slow transformation of ourselves into people of the Kingdom. In the early church, the desert fathers and mothers went to live in the wilderness in order to open themselves completely to the transformative grace of God in their lives. They called the desert the furnace of transformation. That’s also a good image for Lent.
We view Lent, among other things, as a time of sacrifice, and we prayerfully ponder what we are going to give up for Lent. That is good and right, but the readings from the second Sunday of Lent put the whole question of sacrifice into a larger framework. And they also give us a window into the transformation that God desires for us.
The first reading for this coming Sunday, from the book of Genesis, tells the story of Abraham bringing Isaac up the mountain, where he has been asked to sacrifice his son. A few chapters earlier in the Book of Genesis, we hear the beautiful account of God bringing Abraham outside at night and asking him to look up at the sky and count the stars if he can – which of course he can’t – and then says, so shall your descendants be. Abraham’s wife Sarah was without child. When the whole thing seemed pretty much hopeless, Abraham being 100 years old and Sarah 90, Sarah bore a child. And they called him Isaac, which means laughter, because they were so taken by surprise. So Isaac was not only Sarah and Abraham’s beloved child, he was also the visible sign, the testimony that God’s promise would hold true. There would be no descendants without Isaac.
Of course God intervenes, Isaac is saved, and Abraham is praised for his trust, and God provides an offering for the sacrifice. The story in its origins was probably intended to show, among other things, that the God of Abraham did not desire the child sacrifice practiced by some neighbouring religions. I once had the opportunity to hear an inter-faith discussion about this passage, as it is of great importance to Jews and Muslims as well as to Christians. The different schools of interpretation of this story make for a fascinating conversation.
But for us on this second Sunday of Lent, the Abraham and Isaac story is linked to two other readings. In today’s Gospel, we hear Mark’s account of the transfiguration. Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem, and he has been telling them that he is going to be put to death, and that he will rise again. They are bewildered and frightened. Then he takes three of them, Peter, James and John, up the mountain. Like the first reading, it’s on the mountain that something new is being revealed about God. For a brief moment, the disciples see Jesus in dazzling light, speaking with the great prophets of the past, Moses and Elijah. Here is the one they have been following, now seen as the fulfillment of their deepest hopes. They hear the voice of God saying ‘this is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Peter wants to hold on to the experience, wants to build tents for them, wants it to last. It doesn’t last. But it gives them a glimpse of what is to come, and perhaps the strength to live through the passion and crucifixion of Jesus without losing all hope.
In the second reading, one of the most important passages of the entire New Testament, St Paul, with the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in mind, and above all with the death and resurrection of Christ in mind, writes to the Romans and asks rhetorically, if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? Paul will go on to offer us two great litanies to communicate how nothing can get in the way of God’s love for us revealed in Jesus Christ.
Let’s go back to where we started to the question of sacrifice, and the matter of our transformation. In the history of religion, there are numerous stories of people offering sacrifices to God that bring reconciliation and God’s blessing. But the Christian vision is different. God is the key actor. On the cross, God is the one who offers God’s own self, in the person of Jesus, to heal the broken relationship. As we pray at Mass, Christ became “the Priest, the Altar and the Lamb of sacrifice.” It’s not ultimately about what we sacrifice in order to win God’s pleasure, it’s about embracing the wonderful gift of God’s own self, and being transformed by that.
The transformation that the season promises is a paschal transformation. God draws us into his dying and rising, and invites us to live in the freedom of those who in turn can spend ourselves at the service of others, because we are loved by a boundless unimaginable love.
Friends, please join me in praying the Peace Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, who grasped at a very deep level the change that God desires for us:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in self-forgetting that we find,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we are raised to eternal life.