Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of lent – Year B – February 25, 2018
EVEN GOD LIKES TO RECEIVE GIFTS
It is always difficult and delicate choosing a gift, not only because it requires knowledge of the desires, expectations, and sometimes even the bizarre tastes of the person to whom it is offered, but, above all, because, at least on a subconscious level, it is felt that with the gift, a part of ourselves is delivered.
The most appreciated gifts are not expensive. Those that show the greatest involvement of the giver are precious. For the birthday of his wife, Clara, virtuoso pianist, Robert Schumann composed the famous Dream and accompanied it with a dedication: "The song is not suited to your skills, but expresses all my love." It was the heart that, through music, Robert handed over to the bride.
To the loved one we are willing to deliver what we hold most dear. Abraham loved the Lord to the point of thinking to give him his only begotten son, the son he loved more than his life.
Christmas is the feast of gift. We exchange gifts because we understand 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. "This is how we have known what love is; he gave his life for us. We, too, ought to give our life for our brothers and sisters" (1 Jn 3:16).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"The Lord expects of me a gift: the gift of my life to the brothers"
How is it possible that God asked a man to sacrifice his child? It is the question that arises after reading this story.
The terms God said, God spoke ... that frequently occur in the Bible, are not to be taken literally. The Lord never had his voice audibly heard. This does not mean that he has not really talked. He did, and in many ways he left his message imprinted in creation, illuminated Moses, inspired the prophets and continues to suggest to every person, in the depths of consciousness, the journey of life.
What we read today comes as a request made by God to Abraham. In fact, it was none other than a wrong idea, arising in the mind of the patriarch, with regard to the will of the Lord.
For us, it is inconceivable that a parent can imagine a God who demands, as proof of loyalty, the burning sacrifice of a child. Yet, in those ancient times, this was a widespread practice. It was practiced not only by the Moabites. When they were in desperate situations, they sacrificed the first-born to their god Chemosh (2 K 3:26-27). The Ammonites were offering their children to Molech (Lev 18:21). The Jewish kings Ahaz (2 K 16:3) and Manasseh (2 K 21:6) did the same. The valley of Gehenna was cursed because it was the place where the children had been slain (2 K 23:10).
Taught by the prophets, the Israelites abandoned early the human sacrifices (Mic 6:7), but other peoples continued to do so much longer.
In a world where this practice was considered normal, it is understandable that, perhaps during a disaster, Abraham had thought, or a false prophet has suggested, to sacrifice to God the most beloved son.
Clarified what may have been the origin of the story, let's grasp the message.
The first lesson, the most obvious and immediate, is that the God of Israel rejects as an abominable crime, the sacrifice of children. It's always been a feature of the idols to claim human sacrifice. The God of Israel, however, stopping the arm of Abraham who was about to strike his son, has shown to be the Lord who loves life (Wis 11:26), the one who "gives life to everyone" (Acts 17: 25) and does not want the death of anyone (Ezk 18:32).
Any attempt on life, even those perpetrated against a criminal, can never be passed as an act of love for God and his righteousness. The death, every form of death, is never in harmony with his will. If a religion imposes degrading practices, creates anxieties and fears, deprives the joy of living, liberty, and poses obstacles to the freedom and full development of the human person does not render worship the true God but to an idol.
The central message of the story is, however another one and is related to the loyalty of Abraham. He thought, erroneously, but in good faith, that God demanded from him the child. Well, the patriarch expressed his willingness also to this sacrifice.
He had always blindly believed in the Lord. He left his homeland, renounced the security of his house and the protection which came from the family and from the tribe to which he belonged (Gen 12:1), cut the connection with the past, sure that God would fulfill his promise, would give him a land, a blessing and, above all, numerous descendants.
Even when it seemed to him that God contradicted himself, even in the face of the apparent absurdity of life, Abraham unwaveringly maintained his faith. At one point it seemed to him that God wanted to deprive him of everything, of the past (land and his father's house) of the future (the posterity), and yet, even in that tragic situation, he continued to believe in the Lord's faithfulness. He passed every test.
At the beginning of Lent, his faith is put forward as a model to anyone who intends to offer one’s own life in the hands of the Lord.
Like Abraham, every believer will hear God's promises of happiness, prosperity and peace, but also will experience delusions, and will face hard times. He will be expected to hold fast to the faith in situations that seem absurd. He should always nourish the belief that God does not disappoint.
The story ends with a new and solemn reminder of the promises of the Lord (vv. 15-18). After the test, the promises are repeated to Abraham, to infuse new courage and increase his faith.
Abraham died "without having received what was promise, but they had looked ahead and had rejoiced in it from afar" (Heb 11:13). Like him, the true believer trusts in the Lord, even when the expectation of the fulfillment of his promises extends beyond all limits and even when appearances seem to prove otherwise.
In the middle of his letter, Paul, after having considered the plan that God intends to carry out, that is, the salvation of all people, cannot help but cry out all his joy: "If God is with us, who shall be against us?" (v. 31b). He then goes on to imagine that sinners are brought before the tribunal of God, to support the process for their actions. They know they are guilty, but, having arrived at the place of judgment, here's the surprise: no one shows up to accuse them and no court stands up to condemn them.
God, the only one who could stand as a witness, is instead the one who defends them. How can he accuse them, after having loved them to the point of giving up his only begotten Son (vv. 32-33)?
Jesus, in turn, cannot pronounce a judgment against sinners: they were his best friends and he sacrificed his life for them (v. 34).
This brief reading contains an indisputable statement: the love of the Father is final and gratuitous and cannot be cancelled by any sin; there is no infidelity of the man that is stronger than this love.
Every year on the second Sunday of Lent, we are offered the subject of Jesus’ transfiguration. The message of this passage is not immediately clear and easy to grasp because it is transmitted with a symbolic language and images that require an explanation.
The scene is set in a secluded place, on a high mountain where Jesus led three of his disciples (v. 2). They will be witnesses of his agony in Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). Mark stresses the fact that they were alone.
Jesus acts as the rabbis who, when they wanted to reveal a secret or convey a very important teaching, used to retreat with the disciples in an isolated place, away from prying ears, to avoid being heard by those who were not able to understand or might misunderstand.
Also on Sinai the word of God was not directly addressed to all the people. Moses went up to God, for the first time alone (Ex 19: 2f.). Then he took with him three remarkable persons: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (Ex 24:1). The place of the manifestations of the Lord was not accessible to all. They were required necessary dispositions and great sanctity to approach the Lord.
The fact that Jesus reserved His revelation to some disciples and that he eventually told them not to disclose it (vv. 9-10) indicates they were given a share of a very significant experience but still too high to be implemented by all.
The revelation was made on a high mountain (v. 2) that the Christian tradition has identified with Tabor, the mountain covered with pines, oaks and terebinth, that crops up, isolated in the middle of the extensive plain of Esdraelon. Since ancient times, on its top was an altar where sacrifices were offered to the pagan gods. Today the site invites to meditation, reflection, prayer and pilgrims who visit it feel almost naturally inclined to raise their gaze and thought to God.
No matter how evocative this experience can be, it should be noted that the gospel text does not speak of Tabor, but of a high mountain. This expression has clear biblical references. The manifestations of the Lord and the great encounter of man with God in the Bible are located on the mountain. Moses (Ex 24:15ff) and Elijah (1 K 19:8), the same characters that appear during the transfiguration, have received their revelations on the mountain. More than a physical place, the mountain is the time in which the intimacy with God reaches its climax. It is that sublime experience that the mystics call union of the soul with God, the one in which the person, almost dissolving in his Lord, feels identified with his thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
Jesus leaves the plains where men often follow principles that are contrary to those of God and leads a few disciples to the top. He wants to move them away from the thoughts and beliefs of men to introduce them in the innermost thoughts of the Father, in His inscrutable designs on the messiah. Luke is even more explicit when he refers the theme of Jesus' conversation with Moses and Elijah. He says that these, who appeared in their glory, spoke with him of the gift of life that Jesus was going to do (Lk 9:31). This is the shocking revelation that some of the disciples, not all, will one day receive from heaven.
The white clothes (v. 3) outwardly manifest the identity of Jesus. The color white was the symbol of God's world; it was a sign of celebration and joy. It was said that in the kingdom of God, the elect would wear white robes which "send sparks like rays of the sun." In Revelation the image is resumed: the elect in heaven appear to the seer "clothed in white" (Rev 7:13).
Moses and Elijah (v. 4) are two famous characters in the history of Israel. The first is the mediator which God used to free his people and to give them the Torah, the Law. He is introduced into the scene of the Transfiguration to testify that Jesus is the prophet Moses announced when, before dying, he promised to the Israelites, "The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like myself from among the people, from your brothers, to whom you shall listen"(Dt 18:15).
The invitation to listen him, which is at the end of the story (v. 7), confirms it. Elijah, in turn, is the first of the prophets who had been taken to heaven (2 K 2:11-12). It was thought that he would return before the coming of the Messiah. In the scene of the Transfiguration, he also enters as witness. He declares, on behalf of all the prophets, that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
The tents too (v. 5) that Peter wants to build have a symbolic meaning.
At the end of each year, at the end of the harvest season, the Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated in Israel. It lasted an entire week. Booths were built to commemorate the years in the wilderness, to call to mind the works done by the Lord in the past. This feast, however, was also an invitation to look toward the future. The prophet Zechariah had announced that at the coming of the Messiah, all the nations of the earth would be gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate together the Feast of the Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19). Referring to this oracle, the rabbis described the time of the Messiah as a perennial "feast of boths." Asking to build three tents, Peter refers to this symbolic meaning of the booths. He believes that now is the time of God's kingdom, the time for rest and perennial celebration promised by the prophets. He did not understand the true meaning of the scene he is witnessing. He continues to cultivate the illusion that it is possible to enter the kingdom of God without going through the gift of life. Mark tells us: "He did not know what to say; they were overcome with awe" (v. 6).
Fear does not mean fear in the face of danger. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine the disciples contemporarily ecstatic with joy (v. 5) and upset by terror (v. 6). When the Bible speaks of fear in front of a manifestation of of the Lord it refers to marvel, wonder that captures anyone who enters in contact with the God’s world.
The cloud and the shadow are images very common in the Old Testament. They are used to indicate the presence of God. The Lord appears to Moses in a "dense cloud" (Ex 19:9). A cloud accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex 40:34 -39) and covers the tent where Moses met the Lord (Ex 33:9 -11). It is the sign of God's presence.
At the end of the scene of the transfiguration, from the cloud came a voice: it is the interpretation that God gives to the whole scene (v. 7).
After explaining the various symbols, let us try to make a summary of the message that the extraordinary experience of the three disciples wants to communicate to us.
The account of the Transfiguration takes exactly the center of the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning, the disciples asked the question about the identity of Jesus (Mk 1:27; 4:41; 6:2-3) and, to a certain extent, they also began to realize that he was the Messiah. However, they were still confused. They shared the prevailing opinion among the people that the Messiah would be a king able to establish, in a miraculous and immediate way, the kingdom of God on earth.
This belief emerges from the words of Peter, who wants to put up three tents. He believes that the kingdom of God has come. To be participants it is not necessary to pass through death.
In a particularly significant moment of their lives, the three privileged disciples were introduced by Jesus into God's thoughts. They have enjoyed an enlightenment that made them understand the true identity of the Master and the goal of his journey. He would not be the awaited glorious king but a messiah opposed, persecuted and killed. However, his ultimate fate would not have been the tomb, but the fullness of life.
The transfiguration was an extraordinary spiritual experience in which Jesus tried to convince them 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. Was the experience of the mountain enough to make the three disciples assimilate this truth?
The concluding remark of the Evangelist: "They kept this to themselves, although they discussed with one another what ‘to rise from the dead’ could mean.” This leaves us to understand that they were stunned, not convinced, of the revelation received.
It is clear that they failed to understand that Jesus was going to give life. God was revealing all his glory, all his love for man. Only the light of Easter and the experiences with the Risen Lord will open wide their eyes.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: