Friday, February 26, 2021

Into the Fire

Second Sunday of Lent 2021: Gospel: Mk 9:2-10

 Did you ever pick up a shovel as a child and set out for the flower bed to dig a hole down to China?

 When I was six years old, it was first-grade lore that you could.  Some of us tried, but as far as I know, no one ever made it.  Just as well!  If we could have dug down far enough, we would have reached not China but fire.  As we learned in later science classes, earth’s core is molten stuff called magma, not a healthy place to visit.

 But during Lent, we are in fact called to dig down into the core of our life to the fire that burns there.

 In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, read at Mass on the Second Sunday of Lent every year, Jesus invited Peter, James and John to climb a high mountain with him. There he “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3).  This transfiguration revealed the fire that burned within him.  It was an overwhelming experience for the three disciples who would have known the story of the Exodus from the synagogue.  Before them on the  mountain,  where Jesus burned with light in the company of Moses and Elijah, they could not have escaped the memory of Mount Sinai, where both of these prophets met God. The God of the Exodus spoke to Moses in fire.  This same God led the people through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land in the form of a pillar of fiery cloud, often called God’s glory.  And the voice from just such a cloud spoke to the terrified disciples, calling Jesus “my beloved son” and telling them to listen to him.  The disciples could have finished the sentence, had they not been so befuddled with awe and fear, “as Moses listened on Mount Sinai.” Then, “[s]uddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8).  But they would never see him in the same way again.

Why are we reading this story during Lent?  First of all, it is grounded in the story of the Exodus,  the context in which much of Lent is situated.  The book is read almost daily in the Office of Readings.  A number of the passages read at Mass quote portions of the Law revealed to Moses on Sinai by the God of fire, and the gospel readings urge us to obey its prescriptions about how to treat other people of all sorts.  And the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus, the story that sets off the journey from Egypt into the desert, opens the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, thus plunging us into the paschal mystery spread out before us on Thursday, Good Friday, and in the magnificent readings of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. 

 Secondly, we read the story of the transfiguration early in Lent because it points us toward the season's goal.  Jesus burns always with God’s presence, but the presence is veiled through much of his public life, though the stories of his ministry hint at it often for those baffled followers not able yet to see it.    For example,  we read of those possessed by the one whose aim is always to twist and derail  God’s creation as he had done in conversation with the first human beings in Eden (Genesis 3) and tried to do again in conversation with Jesus in the desert. Jesus set these possessed ones free and brought them back to themselves and their families. Similarly, he healed lepers condemned to isolation by the Law revealed on Sinai and reunited them with their communities.  Again, he provided bread in abundance to the crowds, heirs to those who gathered God’s gift of manna day after day for forty years in the desert.  

On Good Friday, darkness took over the earth, but on Easter Sunday, Jesus, the fiery Sun of Justice broke through the darkness to deliver all peoples from ultimate death.  That is where our Lenten journey is taking us through all our penitential efforts to prune away what holds us back and keeps is down beneath the thumb of sin and death.  So the Second Sunday of Lent makes the promise that leads us from this present "valley of darkness,” whatever form that takes in our lives, into the presence of the Risen Christ who embodies God’s fiery glory in human flesh.

 We think of Advent as the season of hope, but Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan offered a different perspective in his book The Road of Hope: “Keep going forward on the Road of Hope….St. Paul knew that ‘imprisonment and afflictions await me’ (Acts 2:23) and Jesus himself foresaw that the road to Jerusalem would lead to his great Passion (see Matthew 16:21). Yet both continued onwards.”  Jesus traveled knowingly toward suffering and death, but he assured the bereaved Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  St. Paul followed Jesus’ path years later, trusting that whatever he suffered was worth it because it would bring him to the risen Lord who had appeared to him on the Damascus Road  as “a light from the sky, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13).  Both Jesus and Paul traveled in obedient hope toward the light beyond the approaching darkness of their deaths. And we are called to do the same through Lent to Easter, when the Crucified of Good Friday will appear to us in the flame of the Paschal Candle.  So Lent, too, is a season when hope fuels us to travel on, to Easter and beyond.

 As our Lenten prayer and pruning leads us deeper and deeper into our own reality, we need not wait for Easter to discover that at the deepest heart of our being we find Christ, “in whom [we] live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This is the crucified and risen Christ in whose inner being burns the holy Fire of the Exodus journey seen by three disciples at the Transfiguration.  He is the glory of God into whose living flesh we have been baptized, or maybe at Easter.

 So let us take up the spiritual picks and shovels that will uncover who we really are in Christ, and let us travel on through Lent in hope until we reach that Fire!


Note:  Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) was a  remarkable man. A native of Vietnam, he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Saigon six days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese Army.  He was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam in a re-education camp for 13 years, nine in solitary confinement (Wikipedia).  While there, he did not spend his time and energy brooding on his own suffering but instead found every way he could to scribble messages to his people on whatever scraps of paper he could get. The messages are not complaints, though complaints would certainly have been justified.  They are calls to hope.  They were eventually compiled into the book, The Road to Hope: A Gospel from Prison.  The most recent edition was published in 2013 by Wellspring. Pope Benedict XVI said of the book: “During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”  The late Cardinal’s cause for beatification was officially opened in 2007.

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga


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