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2ND SUNDAY OF LENT (Cycle A)

Readings:
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
2 Timothy 1:8b-10
Matthew 17:1-9

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: God's Call and Our Response

All Christians are called to a vocation whether it is in teaching Scripture, a ministry of prayer, a ministry of working with the poor, or accepting the call to the priesthood or the religious life.  We need to remember that this call, which is basic to all Christians, is the call to a new existence.  Today's First Reading deals with the call of Abraham.  Abraham's call and our own implies three elements covered in our readings:

  1. It is God's choice and not our own: Not according to our works but according to his own design (the Second Reading).
  2. It is a mission which could entail leaving our comfort zone and facing hardships (the First and Second Readings).
  3. It involves God's promised blessing for obedience to His call.  In Abraham's case, it was a three-part promise of a nation/kingdom, numerous descendants, and a worldwide blessing (the First Reading).  In the case of all Christians, the blessing consists of life and immortality (the Second Reading) and one day seeing Jesus in His glory like the Apostles who witnessed the Transfiguration (the Gospel Reading).

The key word in the Responsorial Psalm is the Hebrew word hesed.  It is a word that expresses the blessing of a special love relationship between God and His people based on the bond of a covenant.  Biblical covenants are agreements between God and His chosen people in which God promises His divine protection and the people promise their exclusive loyalty to God.  Biblical covenants also form a unique family bond between God the Divine Father and His covenant people who are His obedient children. 

The story of the Transfiguration in the Gospel Reading provides a hoped for blessing for all professing Christians in Christ's family of the Church.  It is the vision that all of us who accept Jesus' call to discipleship will witness either at the end of our earthly lives or if He comes before we die when we will see Him in His transfigured glory at the time of His Second Coming.  It is the hope of this vision that should give us the confidence to cry out: "Come, Lord, Your servant is waiting!"

The First Reading Genesis 12:1-4a ~ The Call of Abraham
1 The LORD said to Abram: "Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you.  2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.  All the communities of the earth shall find a blessing in you."  4a Abram went as the LORD directed him.

At this point in God's relationship with Abram, God had not changed his name to "Abraham."  A change in a name usually reflects a change of destiny in Scripture.  These verses begin the great saga of Abraham and his unique relationship with the God he and his descendants came to know as both Yahweh and El Shaddai (cf. Gen 15:2; 17:1).  God's call to Abram and his promises: Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you.  2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing sounds wonderful on this side of salvation history.  However, in the times in which Abram lived, to set out for an unknown land without the protection of one's extended family was a test of faith which we cannot appreciate.

If Abram accepts his divine call, God makes three promises that will become part of a threefold covenant with Abraham:

  1. God will give Abram a nation/kingdom.
  2. God will make Abram's name great.
  3. He will be a blessing to the world.

In the second blessing in verse 2b, to make Abram's "name great," is God's promise to Abram of a living history through his descendants who will carry and remember his name.

Within verses 2-3, there are seven elements associated with Abram's call, applying the symbolic number of completeness to the blessing:

  1.  I will make you a great nation,
  2.  I will bless you
  3. I will make your name great,
  4. You will be a blessing! 
  5. I will bless those who bless you,
  6. I will curse those who curse you,
  7. All the communities of the earth will find a blessing in you. 

In Abram's call, God returns to His original plan before Adam's Fall from grace which was to bless all humanity (Gen 1:28; repeated in 9:1).  Abram, like Noah, becomes a new Adam and the father of a new humanity (CCC 59, 762).

During Abram's lifetime, he did not receive any of these promises.  Some blessings were partially fulfilled in the Israelites who called Abraham their ancestral father and took possession of the land of Canaan/the Kingdom of Israel.  However, Abram's descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled the three-fold promises:

  1. The Kingdom of the Church
  2. The untold millions of the children of God: past, present, and future.
  3. The worldwide blessing of the Gospel of salvation.

St. Paul wrote: There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And simply by being Christ's, you are that progeny of Abraham, the heirs named in the promise (Gal 3:28-29).

Responsorial Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22 ~ Trust in the Lord
The response is: "Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you."

4 Upright is the word of the LORD, and all his works are trustworthy.  5 He loves justice and right; of the kindness [faithful covenant love = hesed] of the LORD the earth is full.
Response:
18 See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him, upon those who hope for his kindness [hesed], 19 to deliver them from death and preserve them in spite of famine.  20 Our soul waits for the LORD, who is our help and our shield. 
Response:
22 May your kindness [hesed], O LORD, be upon us who have put our hope in you.
Response:
[...] = literal translation IBHE, vol. II, page 1412-1413.

The key word is this passage is the Hebrew word hesed.  It is a word that expresses a special love relationship between God and his people based on the bond of a covenant.  Biblical covenants are agreements between God and His chosen people in which God promises His divine protection, and the people promise their exclusive loyalty to God.  Biblical covenants also form a unique family bond between God the divine Father and His covenant people who are His children.  Verses 4-5 focus attention on God the Creator and His works of righteousness as He reveals Himself to the faithful in the fullness of His covenant love.   In verses 18-20, the psalmist expresses awe of God's providence over mankind, especially those who fear offending God and have hope in God's faithful covenant love.  It is God's love that sustains them when they experience temporal hardships and even death.  In verse 22, the psalmist concludes by petitioning God for his covenant love to always be with His people who have put their hope and faith in Him alone.

When Christians read this psalm, they praise the Lord for the revelation of Himself through the Divine Word, Jesus Christ, and our bond of love with Him in the New Covenant.  It is through His Word that God the Creator made all things and through which He sustains all things (Col 1:15-17).

The Second Reading 2 Timothy 1:8b-10 ~ Be Prepared to Embrace Suffering for the Sake of the Gospel
8b Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.  9 He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10 but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.

St. Paul's second letter to St. Timothy is believed to be his last letter written from his prison cell in Rome before his martyrdom in c. 67 AD.  It is, therefore, regarded as St. Paul's spiritual "last testament."  In verse 8, Paul urges Timothy not to be ashamed of giving his testimony of Christ nor of Paul's suffering that came as a result of proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation.  He urges Timothy to embrace suffering for the sake of the Gospel, and he presents the theological basis for Timothy and all Christians to confront difficulties with courage in presenting the Gospel.  The fact is that we have been called by God who revealed Himself as our Savor (verse 9), and the salvation God brings is manifested in the Incarnation of Christ (verse 10).  Paul identifies four essential aspects of salvation:

  1. God has already accomplished His plan of salvation for everyone.
  2. It is God who calls all mankind to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  3. The salvation He offers us through the Gospel is purely a gift that we cannot earn on our own (cf. Tit 3:5; Eph 2:8-9).
  4. God's plan is an eternal plan (cf. Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:11).

The reference to "before time began" in verse 9 is literally "from the times of the ages" and is an expression referring to eternity.  In other words, Paul writes that the Gospel of salvation has always been God's divine plan from the very beginning of Creation.  The reference to "the appearance of our Savior" in verse 10 refers to the Incarnation (cf. Tit 2:11; 3:4) and includes Jesus' entire work of redemption which will reach its climax when Jesus returns in glory (1 Thes 6:16-18; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8).  Jesus' work of redemption has two effects:

  1. Victory over death (both physical and spiritual).
  2. The gift of eternal life.

These gifts make our earthly suffering for the Gospel of salvation a small price to pay compared to our reward.

The Gospel of Matthew 17:1-9 ~ The Transfiguration
1 Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.  4 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here.  If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  5 While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid."  8 And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.  9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

The disciples and Apostles must have been frightened and discouraged after Jesus' prediction of His death in Matthew 16:21-23.  To give them a vision to grasp in their darkest hour when the prediction of His death is fulfilled, Jesus took three Apostles, Peter, James, and John, up a "high mountain" where He allowed them to witness a manifestation of His glory.  Their vision will confirm that Jesus is the Son of God and that He will come in glory when all has been fulfilled.  These three Apostles will also be taken apart from the others when Jesus faces His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  

It is significant that Jesus "took them up a high mountain.  Mighty works/revelations of God often took place on mountains, including the Theophany of God on Mt. Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount (Gen 22:2, 11; Ex 19:16-20; 1 Kng 18:19-39; 19:11-18; 1 Chr 21:15-17; 2 Chr 3:1; and Mt 5:1-2).  As the "new Moses," Jesus ascends the mountain not to find a revelation of God but to give a revelation of God the Son to three of His Apostles.  There are two traditions identifying the mountain.  One tradition names Mt. Hermon at Caesarea Philippi, but the more popular tradition names Mt. Tabor, an isolated mountain about six days journey from Caesarea Philippi and west of the Sea of Galilee in the northeast portion of the Plain of Esdraelon that rises to a height of 1,843 feet.  Christians have celebrated Mt. Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration since the 4th century AD.

Matthew 17:2-3 ~  And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. 
In Greek, the word "transfigured" is metamorphoo.  The description of Jesus in His glory recalls Moses' radiant face when he was in the presence of God (Ex 34:29-35).  Jesus' radiant appearance and His white garment also recall Daniel's vision of the "man" (probably the pre-Incarnate Christ) dressed in linen with a belt of fine gold around his waist, whose "body was like chrysolite, his face shone like lightening, his eyes were like fiery torches, his arms and feet looked like burnished bronze, and his voice sounded like the roar of a multitude (Dan 10:5-6; compare to the description of the glorified Jesus in Rev 1:12-15).  In the Transfiguration, Jesus is greeted by Moses and Elijah; it is a vision that is proof of the immortality of the soul.  In the Old Testament, Moses was the Exodus liberator who ratified the Sinai Covenant and communicated God's Law to His chosen people.  Elijah was God's prophet who served as God's representative to the disobedient Old Covenant people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  Together they represent the Law and the Prophets, and, therefore, the sum of divine revelation in the Old Testament.

The disciples and Apostles knew Jesus in His human form.  However, in the encounter on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus revealed Himself in His divine glory to the hierarchy of His Church, Simon-Peter and the brothers James and John Zebedee, in the presence of the Old Covenant law-giver and liberator Moses and the prophet Elijah.  In the epiphany on the Mount of Transfiguration, the three Apostles witnessed the coming together of the Old and New Covenants with Christ as the beginning and the end of divine revelation.  Moses and Elijah embodied the law and the prophets of the old Israel, and Peter, James, and John embodied the hierarchy of the new Israel, the New Covenant Church of the people of Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  It was a vision of the supernatural the Apostles needed to strengthen themselves and their brother Apostles and disciples in the covenant ordeal they were to face in the final year of Jesus' ministry. 

Matthew 17:4 ~  Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here.  If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
John's Gospel does not mention the Transfiguration.  St. John rarely repeats what the Synoptic Gospels sufficiently covered.  However, he does mention in the second year of Jesus' ministry that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the pilgrim feast of Sukkoth, known in English as the Feast of Booths, also called "Shelters" or "Tabernacles" (Jn 7:1-2, 10).  According to the Law, it was a feast every man of the covenant must attend (Dt 16:16; 2 Chr 8:13).  The covenant obligations for the festival are in Lev 23:33-43.  In verse 42, God commanded: During this week every native Israelite among you shall dwell in booths, that your descendants may realize that, when I led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, I made them dwell in booths, I, the LORD am your God."

If it was indeed near the time for the pilgrim feast of Booths, Peter's suggestion about making booths/tents on the mountain is reasonable.  If this is the case, Peter realized that the Old Covenant order is no longer binding, and it is not necessary to go to the Jerusalem Temple to worship God when they can worship God the Son on the mountain.  If this is why Peter made the suggestion about building booths, then the event of the Transfiguration took place near the time of the festival of Booths.

Matthew 17:5 ~ While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." 
The Greek word for the shadow of the cloud cast over them is episkiazo.  It is the same word found in the account of the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation (Lk 1:35), and the same word that is used in the Greek translation of Exodus when God's Spirit overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 40:34).  A cloud is a frequent vehicle for God's presence in Scripture (Ex 16:10; 19:9; 24:15-16; 33:9 and 2 Mac 2:8).  The Divine Voice is the same voice heard at Jesus' baptism (Mt 3:17).

The pronouncement of the Divine Voice, "this is my beloved Son," is confirmation of Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God which he gave a few days earlier in Matthew 16:16, and the words "listen to Him" are a rebuke of Peter's refusal to listen to Jesus' prediction of His coming Passion in Matthew 16:22-23.  The command of the Divine Voice of God from heaven, "Listen to Him," is not only a rebuke of Peter but also a confirmation that Jesus is the prophet like Moses that God promised the people in Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  That prophecy ends with a promise and a warning: I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command.  If any man will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it (Dt 18:18-19).

Matthew 17:6-8 ~  When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid."  8 And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. 
Like the children of Israel who heard the voice of God in the Theophany at Sinai (Ex 20:18), and like the prophet Daniel experiencing his vision of the divine (Dan 9:15-18; 10:7-9), fear fills the three Apostles, and they fall to the ground.  Jesus immediately comforts them, as Daniel was comforted by the "man dressed in linen with a belt of fine gold with burning eyes" who told him not to be afraid and who was perhaps the pre-Incarnate Christ (Dan 10:10-12).  When the Apostles raised their eyes, they saw that Jesus' appearance returned to as He was before the transfiguration experience.

Matthew 17:9 ~  As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." 
Coming down from the mountain, Jesus commands the disciples again not to make known what they have discovered about Jesus' true identity ( Mt 16:20 ).  The Transfiguration of the Christ presents the Apostles and the reader with the full mystery of Jesus' true identity.  The miraculous transformation of the human Jesus into the glorified Divine Son puts the coming Passion and death of Jesus into perspective for the Apostles.  The experience gives them the assurance that Jesus' suffering and death will end in the triumph of His glorious Resurrection on the third day, as He has tried to tell them earlier ( Mt 16:21 ). 

The story of the Transfiguration provides hope for all professing Christians.  It is the vision that all of us who accept Jesus' call to discipleship will witness either at the end of our earthly lives or if He comes before we die, when we will see Him in all His transfigured glory at the time of His Second Coming.  It is the hope of this vision that should give us the confidence to cry out: "Come, Lord, Your servant is waiting!"

Catechism References:

Genesis 12:1-4a (CCC 145); 12:1 (CCC 59), 12:2 (CCC 762, 1669), 12:3 (CCC 706, 2676); 12:4 (CCC 2570)

2 Timothy 1:8 (CCC 2471, 2506); 1:9-10 (CCC 257, 1021)

Matthew 17:1-9 (CCC 554); 17:5 (CCC 444).

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017