Second Sunday of Lent, Year A



Second Sunday of Lent, Year A

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a; Response: Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Second Reading: 2 Timothy 8b-10; Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Genesis is the first of five books (scrolls) called Torah, a Hebrew noun meaning instruction, law, as in The Law of Moses. The Greek name for this collection is translated into English as Pentateuch. This Greek noun, at least in word origin, means five containers, a reference to the five tubes or cases in which the scrolls were individually stored. Eventually, the Greek name was understood as the five scrolls themselves. The English title of the first scroll is Genesis. The title is derived from a Greek word meaning origin, a reference to the origins of creatures and of the people or nation of Israel. The Hebrew title of a book (scroll) is usually the first word or words of the Hebrew text. That word in Genesis is compounded of a preposition and noun transliterated into English as Buh-raasheeth, and is translated into three English words, “In the beginning.”

The first 11 chapters of Genesis may be called pre-historical. Chapter 12 brings us closer to history in the story of Abram, later called Abraham. The first reading begins with God’s call to Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” Where was the land of Abram’s family? It was Ur of the Chaldeans, today part of southern Iraq. Abram’s father’s name was Terah. According to Genesis 11:31, Terah and family intended to move to Canaan but stopped in Haran, today part of southeast Turkey, and settled there. It was there that Abram got his call to move south, “to a land that I will show you.” That land was Canaan, later known as Palestine. The Lord did not demand blind obedience. He gave Abram motivation. “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” Who could refuse an offer like that? As if this were not enough, the Lord pledges himself not only to bless but to curse. “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” The cursing astounds us; but recall the Lord already cursing earlier, in Genesis 3:14-19. The Lord’s enticements conclude, “All communities of the earth will find blessing in you.” Abram had heard enough. He “went as the Lord directed him.”

Psalm 32, at least in the people’s response, directly responds to the first reading. “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you.” Abram placed his trust in God’s directive to leave home and kindred. We are asked to place our trust in God who is trustworthy, loves justice and right, and fills the whole earth with his kindness. The second reading is an excerpt from the Second Letter of St. Paul to his much younger friend and disciple Timothy. The context: Paul reminded Timothy of the gift God bestowed on him through Paul’s “laying on of hands.” Timothy needs to “fan that gift into a flame.” That gift did not bestow shyness, but rather power, love and self-control. Paul asks Timothy not to be ashamed of his (Paul’s) imprisonment. The rest of our reading is catechetical instruction. God calls us to a holy life – not because we earned it, but to fit into God’s plan. That plan has been made known through Jesus Christ.

The second Sunday of Lent always presents us with one of the three gospel versions (Matthew, Mark, Luke) of the transfiguration of Jesus. There is also a reference to the transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-18. This is the year of Matthew. Matthew has, before him or in his memory, Mark’s version. The only significant change he makes in Mark’s version is a deletion of a description of Peter indicating that he did not know what he was saying because they (the three disciples) were frightened. It is Matthew’s and Luke’s custom to improve Mark’s frequent negative portrayal of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus takes with him onto the mountain Peter, James and John as witnesses to his appearance in glory. Why these three? Jesus had already established Simon Peter as the chief of the 12, so he would be an appropriate choice. Jesus had a special love for James and John, his younger first cousins on his mother’s side. Later in the gospel, he will take these three to be close to him during his agony in the garden. To have seen him in glory at the transfiguration should have prepared them to see him also in degradation. Didn’t work! They fell asleep. During the transfiguration, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” The disciples witnessed Moses and Elijah appearing and conversing with Jesus. Why these two? During their lives, both had experienced a close encounter with God – a kind of transfiguration. The two main divisions of the Old Testament are the Torah and the Prophets. Moses was thought to have authored the Torah. Elijah represents all the prophets. Early Christian theology claimed that both Torah and Prophets foretold Jesus and the events of his life. Moses and Elijah witness to this belief.

Peter is spokesman for the 12. He suggests that they build three booths for the three appearing in glory. Perhaps an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Booths or Tents, a time of great celebration. According to the prophet Zechariah (14:5, 16-21), the Feast of Booths became associated with “the day when the Lord God will come and all his holy ones with him.” Contrary to Peter’s hopes, the glory of the Transfiguration was very fleeting. No booths were built. Glory faded into everyday existence. Glory would return, but only after suffering and death. A more important witness comes onto the scene. A bright cloud, a symbol of the Divine Presence, overshadows them. From the cloud Jesus’ heavenly Father bears witness, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Those last three words are very important. They occur first in Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses told the Israelites that God will raise up a prophet like himself (Moses), and adds, “Listen to him!” We know from Acts 3:20-22 that early Christianity understood those words as spoken about Jesus. To what specifically must they listen? In Matthew’s arrangement of material, just before the transfiguration, Jesus had foretold his suffering, death and resurrection. Peter, the spokesman for the 12, had rejected this. The Father himself intervenes: “Listen to him!”