Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of Lent – March 17, 2019 – Year C
The Mysterious Reasons of the Heart
To fall for someone in popular language is synonymous with falling in love. The momentum of love does not deny the rational, but goes beyond it, ranges over new horizons, soars towards a world of unexpected emotions.
Faith is a conscious decision. Jesus reminds those who wish to become his disciples: “Do you build a house without first sitting down to count the cost, to see whether you have enough to complete it?” (Lk 14:28). But it is also a complete and unconditional trust in God, a hovering towards him and therefore requires a detachment from this world and its logic. It is losing one’s head.
Francis of Assisi who, during the crusade, helplessly presents himself to the sultan is mocked and taken for mad by the crusaders. He was not crazy; he followed a different logic. He was in love with Christ and really believed in the Gospel.
In the language of the Old Testament losing the head is rendered with the image of the half-sleep or dream. During Adam’s sleep the woman is created (Gen 2:21); When the torpor falls on Abraham, the Lord comes to make a deal with him (today’s fFirst Reading); on the Mount of Transfiguration the three disciples contemplate the glory of the Lord when they are caught by sleep (today’s Gospel). It almost seems that the weakening or blunting of a person’s faculties is a prerequisite to the revelations and intervention of God. It is true: only he who loses his head for Christ can believe that dying for love leads to life.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“To the Lord, I have committed my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
The dream of all desert nomads is to own a land where no water is extracted from wells, but falls from the sky; a land where the regular and abundant rainfalls permit to cultivate wheat fields, vineyards and fruit trees; a land where people settle permanently, along with their families and live in peace, “sitting in peace and freedom under a fig tree or a vine of his own” (Mic 4:4).
Abraham is one of these nomads. He started from a far country. For years he moved from place to place like a traveler without destiny. He is old and childless. His life seems poised to end in failure. But one day he receives the revelation of the Lord who promises what he always wanted, but never been able to get: a land (vv. 7,19) and numerous descendants as the stars of heaven (v. 5).
Why has God taken the initiative to make these promises to Abraham? Why to him and not to others? Was he perhaps the best of the men on earth? The rabbis of Jesus’ time—they were convinced that the Lord grants favors only to those who deserve them—argued that Abraham had attracted the blessings of God because he practiced mercy and justice.
It’s a gratuitous assumption. The Bible does not mention any good work of Abraham and presents the call and the promises as a free gift from God. Abraham had one posterior but not an antecedent merit: “he believed the Lord who because of this, held him to be an upright man” (v. 6).
It is the first time in the Bible that says a man had faith in God. The verb that we translate believe, in Hebrew, means to rest on a solid foundation, stable, safe. It does not indicate an intellectual adhesion to some dogma, but an unconditional trust granted to a person. An expressive image may be that of the bride: when she states that “she believes in her husband,” she means that she blindly trusts him, puts in him all her hopes, entrusts him her future and her own life.
Abraham heard God’s voice and abandoned himself in his arms, gave him the credit, sure that he would not be betrayed. This faith “credited him to be an upright man” (v. 6). It is an important statement, also echoed by Paul (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6). It means that God considered Abraham righteous, not because he saw him perform virtuous and meritorious deeds, but because he has established a right relationship with the Lord: he trusted his word, his promise, remained firm even when appearances could cause him to think otherwise.
The reading describes the Lord’s answer to this faith: after making his promise, God performs a ritual to approve it. Among Mesopotamia’s ancient peoples solemn pacts were concluded with a solemn ceremony: an animal (a cow, a goat, or a sheep) is taken and quartered. Then, those who engaged in the oath of allegiance passed among the pieces of meat pronouncing this formula: “If I betray the covenant that I will be torn to pieces like this animal.”
In the second part of the reading (vv. 9-17) God strengthens his words making this rite of alliance. Everything happens in a mysterious vision. Having made the promise, the Lord instructs Abraham to kill the animals and dispose of meat on either side of a path; then, like a flame of fire, he passes through the victims.
Note well: only God makes the gesture of the covenant, Abraham does not pass between the meat of the animals. The promise of God is absolutely unconditional, he does not claim anything in return. He knows he cannot ask for anything because the sons of the patriarch will often be incredulous and unfaithful. During the exodus, they will even think that the Lord led them to the desert to kill them (Num 14:1-9).
The promises of God to man are always free. The prophets present God as the faithful husband always and in every case, even when the wife cheats on him (Is 54:5-10). His love does not give up in the face of any treason.
When we hear of the “enemies of Christ,” perhaps we think of atheists, the fanatical cults’ members, who behave dissolutely. In the passage of Paul’s letter that we read today, the enemies of Christ are identified with a group of Christians in the community of Philippi. They—the apostle says—“their belly is their God and they feel proud of what should be their shame. They only think of earthly things” (v. 19).
What is their sin? The expression reminds us of sensuality, the unbridled pursuit of the pleasures of food and sex. In fact, Paul is probably referring to the error of those who reduce faith to the observance of traditional practices such as circumcision, abstaining from certain foods, fasting, and exhausting privation. It is—as Paul points out sarcastically—about behaviors that have some reference … to the belly.
At this point, we wonder whether to be “friends of the cross of Christ” we must suffer, mortify ourselves, make sacrifices, and give up all that is pleasing. To mortify means to let oneself die and we want to live, not to die. Death, whatever aspect it assumes appears to us as an evil. But not everything that to us seems life is really life.
The friends of the cross of Christ are called to give up only what is not life. Paul states that this is the only wise choice: “Our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20) and the transfiguration of our lowly body awaits us. Faithful to the biblical thought, the apostle does not speak of the annihilation of the body—as reported by Greek philosophy—but a metamorphosis of the whole person that becomes compliant to the glorious body of Christ.
Therefore those who turn their eyes to this land as if it were a permanent home and make the “belly” their God are wrong. In this world, man is a foreigner, is a nomad, like Abraham.
This passage is sometimes interpreted as a brief preview of the experience of paradise, granted by Jesus to a group of friends to prepare them to endure the ordeal of his passion and death.
One should always be very cautious when approaching a text of the Gospel because that which, at first glance, seems to be a chronicle of facts, at a closer look, it often reveals itself a text of theology drawn up according to the canons of biblical language. The account of the Transfiguration of Jesus reported almost identically by Mark and Matthew, is an example.
Today, we will focus on some significant particular aspects that are found only in Luke’s version. This evangelist alone specifies the reason why Jesus goes up the mountain: he goes to pray (v. 28). Jesus usually spends much time in prayer. He did not know since the beginning how his life would be; he does not know what destiny was waiting for him; he gradually discovered it through the enlightenment he received during prayer.
It is in one of these intense spiritual moments that Jesus becomes aware that he is called to save people not through triumph but through defeat. Halfway through his Gospel, Luke starts to reveal the first signs of failure: the crowd, at first enthusiastic, abandon Jesus, someone takes him as a celebrity and a subversive; his enemies plot to kill him. It is understandable that he now asks himself the way that the Father wants him to tread. For this “he goes up the mountain to pray.”
During prayer, the aspect of his face changes (v. 29) not as the other evangelist narrate. Luke does not speak of transfiguration, but of a change of the aspect of his face. This splendor is the sign of the glory that wraps one who is united to God. Even the face of Moses became brilliant when he entered into dialog with the Lord (Ex 34:29-35).
Every authentic encounter with God leaves some visible traces on the face of the person. After the celebration of the Word lived intensely, we return to our houses more joyful, more serene, better, smiling and willing to be tolerant, understanding, and generous. Even our faces are relaxed and seem to emit light.
The light on Jesus’ face indicates that, during prayer, he understood and owned the Father’s plan. He understood that his sacrifice would not be complete with defeat but in the glory of the resurrection. During this spiritual experience of Jesus two characters: Moses and Elijah (vv. 30-31) appear. They are symbols of the Law and the Prophets; they represent all the Old Testament. All holy books of Israel have the purpose of leading to a dialog with Jesus; they are oriented toward him. Without Jesus the Old Testament is incomprehensible, but also Jesus, without the Old Testament, remains a mystery. On Easter day, to make his disciples understand the meaning of his death and resurrection, he will recourse to the Old Testament: “Then starting with Moses, and going through the prophets, he explained to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27).
Mark and Matthew, too, introduce Moses and Elijah, but only Luke records the theme of their dialog with Jesus: they spoke of his exodus that is of his passage from this world to the Father. Here is where the light that revealed to him his mission came from: from the Word of God contained in the Old Testament. It is there that he discovered that the Messiah was not destined to triumph but to defeat, that he must suffer much, be humiliated and rejected by people, as is said of the servant of the Lord (Is 53).
The three disciples: Peter, James, and John understand nothing of what was happening (vv. 32-33). They were sleepy. It is difficult to think—even if one had done it—of a need to doze off because climbing up the mountain was tiresome and it seems that the scene happens during nighttime (v. 37).
Let us take note of a particular: in moments of recalling the passion and death of Jesus, these three disciples are always taken by sleep. In the garden of Olives, they sleep (Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:45). It’s strange that in crucial moments their eyes are always heavy.
Biblical authors often used sleep in a symbolic sense. Paul, for example, writes to the Romans: “This is the time to awake … the night is almost over and the day is at hand” (Rom 13:11-12). With this pressing reminder he likes to shake the Christians from spiritual torpor; he invites them to open the mind to understand and assimilate the moral proposal of the Gospel. In the passage, sleep indicates the inability of the disciples to understand and to accept that the Messiah of God must pass through death in order to enter into his glory. When Jesus performed prodigies, when the crowd acclaims him, the three apostles were all awake. But when he starts talking about the gift of life, the necessity to occupy the last place, to become servants, they do not like to understand, slowly they close their eyes and they start to sleep … to continue to dream of applauses and triumphs.
The three tents are the most difficult detail to explain (as for the rest the evangelist notes that not even Peter understood exactly what he was talking about).
Who builds a tent wants to fix his abode in a place and not to move any longer; at least for a time. Jesus instead is always on the go. He must fulfill an “exodus”—today’s Gospel says—and the disciples are invited to follow him. The three tents perhaps indicate the desire of Peter to stay put in order to perpetuate the experienced joy in a moment of intense prayers with the Master.
To understand better we can refer to our experience: after a long dialog with the Lord, we do not like to return to our daily life. The concrete problems and the dramas that we have to confront cause us fear. We know that the listening to the Word of God is not all. We cannot pass our whole life in the church or in retreat houses. It is necessary to get out to encounter and serve the brothers and sisters, to help those who suffer, to be close to anyone who needs love. After having discovered in prayer the way to go, we need to put ourselves on the way with Jesus who goes up to Jerusalem to offer life.
The cloud (v. 34), especially when it goes down from the top of the mountain indicates—according to the biblical language—the invisible presence of God. Above all, in Exodus, the call to the cloud is very frequent. Moses enters in the cloud that covers the mountain (Ex 24:15-18), the cloud goes down on the tent of meeting and Moses cannot enter because in it the Lord is present (Ex 40:34-35).
Peter, James, and John were therefore introduced in the world of God and there they had an illumination that made them understand the way of the Teacher: the conflict with the religious power, the persecution, passion, and death. They become aware that their own destiny will be the same and they are afraid. From this cloud, a voice comes out (v. 35). It is God’s interpretation of all that will happen to Jesus. For people, it will be a defeat, for the Father “the elect,” the faithful servant of whom he favors.
Who follows his footsteps is pleasing to God. Listen to him—the voice from heaven says—even when he seems to propose very difficult paths, narrow roads, paradoxical and humanly absurd choices.
At the end of the episode (v. 36), Jesus is there alone. Moses and Elijah disappear. This particular shows the function of the Old Testament: to bring to Jesus, to make people understand Jesus. In the end, the eyes must remain focused on him.
It is not easy to believe in the revelation of Jesus and to accept his proposal of life. It is not easy to follow him in his “exodus.” To trust him is very risky. It is true that he promises a glorious future, but that which man experiences here and now is rejection, the free gift of oneself. The seed thrown on the ground is destined to produce many fruits, but today, what awaits it is death. When and how will this “wisdom of God” so contrary to the logic of man be assimilated?
The answer comes from the annotation, apparently superfluous, with which today’s Gospel begins. The episode of the “transfiguration” is placed by Luke, eight days after that, Jesus dramatically announced his passion, death, and resurrection, eight days after that, he proclaimed the conditions for one who wishes to follow him: “renounce yourself and take up your cross every day” (Lk 9:22-27).
The eighth day for the Christians has a very precise meaning. It is the day after the Sabbath, the day of the Lord, that in which the community meets to listen to the Word and the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:13). Here is what Luke means with the call to the eighth day: every Sunday the disciples who gather to celebrate the Eucharist go up the mountain; they see the face of the transfigured Lord, that is the Risen One; they verify in faith that his “exodus” is not concluded with death and they hear again the voice from heaven that directs them the invitation: Listen to him!
Peter, James, and John coming down from the mountain, “kept this to themselves at the time, telling no one of anything they had seen” (v. 36). They could not speak of what they did not understand: the exodus of Jesus was not yet fulfilled. We today, coming out of our churches, instead can announce to all what faith made us discover: who gives life for love enters in the glory of God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading