By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Second Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 15-18; Response: Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Second Reading: Romans 8:31b-34; Gospel: Mark 9:2-10
Last Sunday’s gospel narrated the temptation of Jesus. In the first reading of this Sunday we have the temptation of Abraham. Our translation calls Abraham’s ordeal a ‘test.’ Every temptation is a test. What was the test? Even before Abraham had a son by his wife Sarah, God promised that he would make him a great nation. See Genesis 12:2. That requires descendants and demands faith. Abraham’s faith in that promise was test No. 1. In Genesis 15, still no son, but God promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. That was test No. 2. Time moved on. Sarah was still childless, though Abraham had a son, with Sarah’s permission by Sarah’s slave Hagar. The son’s name was Ishmael, but the promised descendants had to come through Sarah. Abraham turns 99, Sarah a young 90. God repeats the promise of descendants, that Sarah would bear a son. That was test No. 3. In none of these tests did Abraham lose faith in God’s promises. Finally, Isaac was born to the elderly couple. Isaac grows into his teen years. Test No. 4 — God wants Abraham to kill his son as a sacrifice to God. No questions from Abraham.
He makes all due preparations. As he was about to plunge his knife into his son, an angel stops him and provides a ram as a substitute for Isaac. The Lord speaks,“Because you did not withhold your son, your only son, I will multiply your descendants as the stars and grains of sand.”
An unrealistic story not true to life. It is a teaching story like so many stories in both Old and New Testaments. It instructs readers and hearers in the necessity of faith in God beyond human understanding. Such stories are not totally dissimilar to some of Jesus’ impossible sayings. For example, having faith as tiny as a mustard seed, yet being able to will the uprooting of a mulberry tree, and commanding it to plant itself in the sea, Luke 1:6. One of many teaching tools in the Scriptures is exaggeration. That applies to Abraham’s tests. The story also functions as a counter to horrible crimes in ancient Israel and other Near East societies — the sacrifice of children. See 2 Kings 3:27; 16:3; 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5. The story legitimizes the substitution of animals as sacrifices to God, perhaps also to legitimize the whole system of animal sacrifices, which endured until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. The system is still alive in the annual slaying of the Passover Lamb. Jesus’ promise in today’s gospel of his resurrection from the dead corresponds to Isaac’s virtual resurrection from the dead. The Fathers of the Church saw Isaac as a prototype of Christ carrying the wood (of the cross) as Isaac carried the wood for his father’s sacrifice – both doing so in obedience. Another connection between Isaac and Jesus is seen in these words, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love . . ..” Compare John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Psalm 116 exhibits a not-so-obvious response to our first reading. One might see a connection in the words, “I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” or “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” The people respond, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” The second reading, from St. Paul to the Romans, has a clearer connection with the first reading, “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 . . . .” The connection between the second reading and today’s gospel is in these words of Paul, “Jesus who died, or rather was raised.” The transfiguration of Jesus is a preview of his resurrection. The ending of the gospel implies this, “He charged them not to tell what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
The gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Lent is Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus. Besides the versions of Matthew and Luke, there is a reference to the transfiguration in the 2nd Letter of Peter 1:16-17. “Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain, and was transfigured before them.” Transfiguration is a change in appearance. His clothes became shining white. Moses and Elijah also appear in conversation with Jesus. Simon Peter, not knowing how to react but never at a loss for words, connects the episode with the Fall harvest feast called ‘Feast of Tents.’ He suggests to Jesus that they build three tents, one for each of the transfigured. Or perhaps Mark intends a connection with the Old Testament Tent of Meeting, where God in glory was thought to dwell among the Israelites in the wilderness. A cloud overshadowed them, a sign of God’s presence in the Old Testament. A voice: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” End of vision. The bewildered disciples look around. No one was left but Jesus. As they come down the mountain Jesus forbids them to mention the vision to anyone until he had risen from the dead. By this addition Mark connects the transfiguration with the resurrection. He had connected the transfiguration with Jesus’ return in glory in the opening sentence of the episode, “There are some standing here who will not die until they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”
Catechetical instruction is derived from the context into which Mark places the transfiguration. Before this episode he placed Jesus’ prediction of his arrest, execution, and resurrection. This was followed by a collection of Jesus’ sayings about the necessity of following him even to death. Mark is writing to the Christians of Rome. Many were survivors of the persecution suffered during the time of the emperor Nero. They had lost families and friends — all martyred.
By placing the transfiguration right after Jesus speaks of suffering, death and resurrection, Mark gives this Christian community a symbol of hope. But the gospel speaks not only to Christians of Mark’s time but also to us. That we need a symbol of hope after a week of the rigors of Lent is hardly a valid suggestion. The rigors of Lent have become mostly a memory for elders and for the young — a history. None of us, however, escapes suffering. The difficulties people encounter in their daily lives are Lent enough for many. Through the transfiguration, Mark tells us to believe and hope that there is a better future; if not in this life, then in the next.