Second Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2018
Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
In nearly fifteen years of being a priest, I’ve had to preach a homily almost every day. (Sometimes I have to give two or more different homilies in one day if I’m celebrating a wedding or a funeral or another liturgy.) To prepare a homily, one doesn’t just need to study scripture, but one must spend time with the Word of God, listening for God’s voice in prayer with the scripture. When is it that I’ve heard the voice of the Lord most clearly and most distinctly? When is it that I’ve recognized the presence of the Lord and become most aware of God speaking to me when I hear or read the scriptures? It is not when everything is calm and peaceful in life, but in fact when I’ve been most shaken by my circumstances and most unsure of myself. Scripture speaks to me most when I am most in need – when I am most aware of my limitations. It is then that I’m most open – that I’m really seeking, asking, and praying – when the questions that matter most in life are most alive in my heart. For example, as I mentioned before in different homilies, I began to discern my vocation and discovered God calling me to the priesthood when I began to pray intensely for my dying grandfather. The moment I knew God was calling me to the priesthood came just days after my grandfather’s funeral. It is when we struggle or grapple with the mystery of life and death, when we are confronted by our own mortality and the fact that we are not in control of our life, that we can begin to hear God’s voice. It is in those moments that we realize our ultimate dependence on Another and know we need to follow. I don’t know the way, so I begin to listen for direction. Many of us remember how churches were full right after 9-11. Prayer vigils spontaneously follow almost every tragedy because in those circumstances all we can do is pray and wait for the Lord. It is in the face of such events that we are most aware of our need for God.
It is for this same reason why we find in the biblical narratives the major encounters with God taking place on mountain tops. It is not simply because mountain tops are closer to the heavens, physically speaking, but because climbing a mountain can be a very precarious experience. The views are often spectacular at the top, but there is also a keen awareness at the top that one is closer to death. One is more vulnerable and exposed on the mountain. One misstep, and that could be it. It is very common to be scared of heights or to get an uneasy feeling when near the edge of a high cliff or lookout. A couple of summers ago when I went hiking in Switzerland, we went on several “cliff walks” in which we traversed walkways built onto the side of cliffs thousands of feet up. The walkways had open grates or glass flooring. You knew you were safe, but it was a scary experience. On the heights, we are out of our comfort zone, away from solid ground. Perhaps it doesn’t happen much anymore, but I remember a time when flying in an airplane, just about everybody on the plane would clap when the plane touched down and you knew you had landed safely.
God puts Abraham to the test on a mountain top. It is not a place of Abraham’s choosing, but on a height that the Lord points out to him. God presents himself to Abraham in a way that is confusing and that in fact seems like a contradiction. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac – the son through which God said the promise of countless descendants would come. God presents himself as a mystery beyond human understanding. The sacrifice that he asks of Abraham is not so much his son but the sacrifice of his own will to that of God. Will I follow the Lord and obey his command when I can’t see clearly which way to go – when I can’t figure this out? Usually, when we think of sacrifices – like what I’m going to give up for Lent – we think of things and choose things that we are pretty sure we can do. I’ll give up desserts or alcohol or Facebook. But the real sacrifice comes when we accept what God proposes, when we don’t hold ourselves back but follow the Lord in what seems impossible to us. Peter, James, and John have a similar experience when they witness the Transfiguration of Jesus. The three disciples are led by Jesus up a high mountain. What they experience is beyond human understanding. Peter knows it is good, but human words can’t capture the experience. They were terrified because to come into the presence of God is to become aware of one’s insignificance in the face of his great majesty.
From the time of the Exodus, God manifested his glory and revealed his presence to his people through the visible sign of a cloud. The cloud that overshadowed the tent of meeting signified that God had made his dwelling there. The implication of the cloud in the event of the Transfiguration casting a shadow over Jesus and the disciples is that now Jesus and his disciples united to him have become the new dwelling place of God’s presence in the world. A cloud is a symbol of the mystery of God. A cloud both reveals and conceals – God is present, but his presence is veiled. God dwells among us, but we can’t see him with merely human eyes. It is by staying in this cloudy place, when not able to see clearly, when not having black and white answers, that we are open to hearing the voice of the Lord and recognizing the presence of Jesus in our midst. So what is the sacrifice that the Lord is asking of us this Lent? We hear in Psalm 40, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.” The Lord leads us up the mountain, to at times a dizzying place, so that we can hear his voice and come to know who he really is. Saying “yes” to the cross is the sacrifice he desires. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The Transfiguration follows the first prediction of the Passion and the conditions for discipleship that Jesus lays out for the disciples. The transfiguration gives the disciples a preview of what God has destined for them if they listen and follow Jesus – a share in his future glory. God provides what we need for the sacrifice in his Son handed over for us. Our circumstances are not against us because God is for us. May the difficult circumstances we face make us more aware of our need for God, so that we will hear the voice of the Lord and walk with him in the land of the living.