by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior ot he men’s branch of the Idente missionaries.
New York/Paris, February 28, 2021. ª Second Sunday of Lent.
Book of Genesis 22: 1-2.9a.10-13.15-18; Romans 8: 31b-34; Saint Mark 9: 2-10.
The mountain, for Abraham as well as for the apostles, represents a place and a moment of having a new perspective, an occasion to discover surprising realities that we did not expect. It is a time in which the intimacy with God is particularly deep. It is an experience of union of the soul with God, the one in which the person feels identified with His thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
Surprise is at the heart of the First Reading and today’s Gospel and St. Paul reacts with joy when he considers the divine plan of salvation crying out with joy: If God is with us, who shall be against us?” The love of our Father is surprising and almost unfathomable and cannot be cancelled by any sin; there is no infidelity of the man that is stronger than this love.
As Pope Francis pointed out several times, our God is a God of surprises. He surprises us sometimes with miracles and unexplained happenings in our lives. Yet, the greatest way He surprises us is by inviting us, with all our sins and failures, to become one of His disciples, one of His intimate friends, and then calling us to participate in His divine mission to become fishers of men, to reach out to the entire world with His divine love and salvation.
A surprise in our spiritual life does not have to be as spectacular as the event on Mount Tabor. But it always deserves special attention, because it is not meant simply to thrill us, but to strengthen our faith, hope and charity.
It has often been said that the disciples were abruptly deprived of the joy of spending more time with Christ on the mountain, but in reality the meaning of the Transfiguration is precisely the opposite: they had received a new vision, a confirmation of their mission, and now was the joyful moment to put into action all the gifts received, inaugurating new forms of faith, hope and love.
Let us remember that the theological virtues are so called because they have God as their immediate object. In fact, the cloud, the light and the shadow are images used in the Old Testament to indicate the presence of God.
The disciples, on Mount Tabor, had a clearer vision of the presence of God in Jesus, they received an impulse and an encouragement in their will and…as a consequence, they were empowered to bring people closer to God Himself: it was time to come down from the Mountain. The same thing happens to us and that is why the moments that follow our transfiguration experiences are called ecstatic: we are pushed to get closer to others, to give them the Good News that we are not alone and furthermore that, despite our fragility, God makes us capable of serving at all times.
In fact, WE ALL have multiple experiences of being transfigured, of living moments in which the divine response to our faith, hope or charity manifests itself in an unexpected and overflowing way. A simple way to describe what happens to us in such cases is: I had the impression that I was not the one making the effort to be faithful, strong or charitable. That is the effect of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are increments of our incomplete virtue.
I do not have to make much effort to recall cases that I have witnessed, in various parts of the world, where the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in a person have been so powerful and so surprising that they have left an indelible mark on him (and on me as well), which is generally difficult to explain.
For example, a person enters one of our parishes, where I did not expect to find myself at that moment, and asks to go to confession. He begins by saying that he did not know if the church would be open or if there were confessions. He goes on to admit that he does not know why he had come in and that he had not been to church since he was a child. He confesses some crimes for which he had been in jail and others that he never told anyone. I know for a fact that he is forever changed.
I will always thank Providence for having been allowed to share those moments of happiness and authentic transfiguration with that person. My own personal experience, although naturally limited, is that these ecstatic experiences, where faith, hope and charity “soar”, take place when forgiveness is received or given. This happened to those who executed St. Stephen, to St. Paul himself at his conversion, to St. Peter when he was received after his denial, to many of the faithful who go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation… to you and to me, when in our inner self we recognize a fault and we propose to confess it in the right place, certain that we will receive relief and forgiveness.
In today’s First Reading, we are narrated a request made by God to Abraham. In fact, it was none other than an incomplete idea, arising in the mind of the patriarch, with regard to the will of the Lord.
The burning sacrifice of a child, in those ancient times, was a widespread practice. It was practiced by the Moabites. When they were in desperate situations, they sacrificed the firstborn to their god Chemosh. The Ammonites were offering their children to Molech. The Jewish kings Ahaz and Manasseh did the same. But the Israelites abandoned the human sacrifices (Mic 6:7). Other peoples continued to do so much longer. Indeed, the story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son and how God prevented him from doing so is an implicit disapproval of a primitive practice of human sacrifice.
Let us look at an example where, through surprise, the faith and hope of a saint lead him to live an unexpected form of charity.
St Manuel Gonzalez (1877 – 1940) was ordained in 1901. His first assignment was to preach in a little village of Seville (Spain). He went there, riding on a donkey and full of enthusiasm. But, when he arrived at the church, he was shocked to see how much the Blessed Sacrament had been neglected.
That shock changed his life.”I went straight to the Tabernacle.”He explained later: “There, on my knees, before that pile of shreds and dirt, my faith saw a Jesus so quiet, so patient, looking at me… It seemed to me that, after looking around with His gaze at that wilderness of souls, He stared at me, sad and pleading…a look that reflected everything sad in the Gospel: the sadness of having no place to be born in Bethlehem, to rest His head, the crumbs for which poor Lazarus was begging, the sadness of His betrayal, denial, of abandonment by everyone… [There] “I saw a new occupation that was being prepared for my priesthood: to become the priest of a town that did not want Jesus Christ, so that I may love Him in the name of all the people; to use my priesthood to take care of Jesus Christ in the needs that His life in the tabernacle demanded, feeding it with my love, warming it with my presence, entertaining Him with my conversation, protecting Him from abandonment and ingratitude...”
That poor, abandoned Tabernacle taught the young priest more about the Love of Jesus than his years of theological study. It marked his entire life from that moment. Manuel founded the Disciples of Saint John and the Eucharistic Missionaries of Nazareth and the Children of Reparation. He dedicated himself until his death to spreading devotion to the Eucharist, proclaiming these words which he would go on to choose for his epitaph: Jesus is here! He is here! Do not abandon Him!
This sense of newness, of surprise, of profound change in our way of being, through the theological virtues, is the testimony our neighbor needs. All of us are far from perfect, but the changes that the Holy Spirit produces in us are the most powerful signs for souls to find God.
Yes, we must and we can be transfigured in Christ and become another Christ. We need to encounter Him in a special way as the apostles did at Mount Tabor. Without a Christ-experience encounter, our faith in Christ would be weak because it is based only on hear-say information and testimonies.
Indeed, St Peter wrote: It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; we had seen his majesty for ourselves. We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have confirmation of what was said in prophecies (2Pt 1-16-19).
The narrative of the First Reading and Abraham’s obedience announce to us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (Jn 3:16) and invites us to respond to his love by becoming, in turn, a gift for the brothers.
Jesus wanted to convey a very important teaching, therefore, he withdraws with the apostles to an isolated place, to avoid being heard by those who might misunderstand.
The transfiguration was a spiritual experience in which Jesus tried to convince his disciples that only those who give their lives for the sake of love fully realize it.
One cannot get into the kingdom of God through shortcuts as Peter would have wanted to do. It is necessary for every disciple to boldly assume the provision of the Master, and agree to give life. Perhaps the experience of the mountain was not enough to make the three disciples assimilate this truth. That is why God commands the astonished disciples to keep listening to Jesus.
This explains why the disciples were told not to tell anyone what they saw until after the resurrection, it was simply because the power of the resurrection cannot be known or experienced without the prior need of carrying our cross and embracing the sufferings of life. To disclose the Transfiguration before the death and resurrection of Jesus would be a spirituality that promotes an easy life, a life of comfort without suffering.
Only the light of Easter and the experiences with the Risen Lord will open wide their eyes. When others see us as people of faith, not because we are successful but because we remain faithful and confident in sufferings, they will see the glory of God in our goodness, weaknesses and sinfulness.
That is why at the beginning of Lent we are offered the example of Abraham’s faith, which is by no means “blind”, but obedient. He recognizes that God desires something and that is enough. He was willing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son whom he loved so dearly, which ironically was also the reward for his faith and obedience. But the reward he received was precisely to be the father of many nations, an offspring such as no one could hope for.