March 4 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-9:10 Note: The Lectionary gives 2 alternative readings for the gospel today – Mark 8:31-9:1 (Jesus predicts his death), or Mark 9:2-9 (The Transfiguration). I'm combining the two in these notes.
Theme: I'm going with "A Matter of Fact", for all sorts of reasons that will (I hope) become clear as you read on. An alternative could be "A Matter of Faith", which, in the context of these reading, amounts to much the same thing. In essence, we're about experiencing the mystery of the Divine Presence and believing in the truth of that experience.
Introduction. The Feast of the Transfiguration is marked on 6 August, and it is often left for that date rather than using this story on this Second Sunday in Lent. But there is good reason for having it here: it enables us to put it alongside last week's reading on the Lord's baptism and his temptation in the desert. Thus we have the two experiences of "the voice from heaven", the first addressed to the Lord himself and affirming his divine and beloved state, and the second addressed to the disciples confirming for them the true identity of Jesus and calling upon them to listen to him. Immediately before this passage about the Transfiguration two important things have happened as recorded in Mark's gospel. First, Peter has made his famous confession of Jesus' identity ("You are the Christ"), and Jesus has started to speak of his forthcoming death and resurrection. These two events and the Transfiguration together mark the turning-point of the whole gospel narrative, as the disclosure of Jesus' divinity becomes more and more into focus.
The other two readings also focus on an encounter with the Divine, and the response of faith required to it. It is worth taking some time to read through the whole of the Abraham saga from chapter 12 through to chapter 18 and notice the series of encounters that Abram/Abraham has, all identified in the text with the recurring phrase "The Lord appeared to Abram". On each such occasion the promises made to him are, in worldly terms, utter nonsense; yet on each occasion Abram was able to summon up enough faith to believe that with the Lord God all things are possible. St Paul rather over-states Abram's unconditional faith – he had his questions from time to time – and his legitimate heir, Isaac, is given that name because it means "he laughs", reminding Abraham that Sarah was not the only one to laugh at the very thought that they could have a child between them at their stage of life! Nevertheless, Abraham believed God enough to hang in there and see the first stage of God's astonishing promises come to pass.
Background: Mark's gospel can be said to be the least embarrassing of the four to people of the scientific age. There is no birth narrative to raise awkward questions about virgin births; there is no Ascension to challenge the laws of physics; and, at least in its original form, there was no resurrection narrative. Mark does mention the Lord's baptism, but very briefly. Were it not for this story of the Transfiguration all we would have to contend with in debate with our sceptical friends would be the miracle stories. But the Transfiguration is there in all its glory.
That it can be troublesome to some was brought home to me some years ago in a Bible study group of priests who used to meet regularly in the Diocese of Wellington to discuss the readings set for the coming Sunday. When we had this story coming up, one of our members expressed bewilderment as to why Mark put it in, when the gospel narrative was moving along so well until this point. What purpose did Mark have in mind for suddenly inserting such a fanciful story? This priest was genuinely amazed when the rest of us advanced the alternative theory that Mark had put this story in because it actually happened in much the way he describes. Indeed, there is an argument for saying that Mark would have no other reason for inserting this story: why would he invent such a story if it wasn't true?
Interestingly, we don't seem to have the same concerns about stories in the Old Testament. That may be because, in our hearts of hearts, we don't feel the same need to "believe" the Old Testament as we do the New Testament. But can we really make sense of the New Testament without the background of the Old? What is Paul talking about in today's lesson from Romans if we are not to believe the truth of the Abraham saga? If Abraham is a mythic figure, what are we to make of the arguments between the Pharisees and Jesus about "our father Abraham", and who is and who is not a true descendant of his? [See John 8:31-41.]
Above all, we must keep in mind that we are in the Season of Lent, a time of spiritual preparation and cleansing. There is one connection for us between last week's gospel passage and this week's passages. Jesus is baptised, and faces the temptations that confront all of us through our human nature and basic instincts. He overcomes those temptations so fully that he is completely purified, an inner state of wholeness that manifests itself through the pure light that pours out of him in the Transfiguration. Lent also gives us the context for joining today's two passages together. Peter has just identified Jesus as the Messiah: Jesus responds by looking forward to his death and resurrection. Peter objects, because he has in mind human concerns rather than the things of God. The Transfiguration shows us the divine as well as the human nature of Christ.
Here is a passage from Thomas Merton to help us think some more about transfiguration:
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness that is untouched by sin or illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no programme for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Genesis. The saga of Abraham is told in chapters 12-25. The narrative is given a chronological framework with a series of references to his age at various points in the story; for example, he is 75 when he is called to leave Haran, 86 when his illegitimate son Ishmael is born to the slave woman, Hagar, and 99 in today's story. Each episode begins with the simple statement "The Lord appeared to Abraham". Notice how simple that phrase is, until we think about it. God "appears" to Abraham! We are used to the books of the prophets where we are often told that "the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah" or whoever; but here we have the Lord God "appearing". In most instances no attempt is made to amplify that, much less address our obvious question, what did he look like? The important point is that over a period of 25 years or so God would "appear" to Abraham and make and confirm some astonishing promises to him. Some of these promises came true in his lifetime, and these were amazing enough; but as we now look back through three to four millennia we can see the extraordinary way in which the story of those promises and their fulfilment has played out. Today all Moslems, Jews and Christians honour Abraham as their ancestor in the faith; whole nations revere him: a man too old to sire a son has became indeed the source of many peoples.
Taking It Personally.
· Circumcision was originally intended as a mark of identity as a Jew. What marks you out as a Christian?
· Do you want to be marked out as a Christian?
· How do you recognise other people as Christians?
Romans. Paul is tackling the issue of compliance with the Law as the way to God's favour. He points out that Abraham pre-dates the giving of the Law, so that if righteousness comes from observance of the Law, Abraham could not have been righteousness. Yet righteousness was "credited" to Abraham, a complicated legal term, which still turns up in our commercial and taxation law in the form of "Imputation". It is not exactly a fiction – treating someone "as if" they had something they did not in fact have. It is more like awarding someone fly-buys because they purchased something else. In Abraham's case, he was "deemed" to be righteous because of his great faith. Against all hope, reason and commonsense Abraham believed God would give him a son and heir, even though in the worldly sense it was pure fantasy. And St Paul makes an interesting leap in verses 24 and 25. We too are deemed righteous if we believe in Jesus' death and resurrection.
Taking It Personally.
· Ponder the promises made to Abraham in chapters 12-18. Remind yourself of the age and physical health of Abraham and Sarah. Ponder the absurdity of the promises as they must have sounded at the time. Now finish the sentence that begins, "And yet..."
· Does the resurrection seem any more or less probable to you than the birth of a child to a couple in their dotage?
· Can you recall an occasion in your own life when something happened against all the odds? Did you detect the hand of God in that outcome at the time? Do you now?
Mark. Immediately after Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ he gets into an argument with him. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, but Peter does not seem to hear the second half of that. He hears only that Jesus will be abused by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be executed. Peter "rebukes" Jesus: this is the same term used to address an evil spirit during exorcism. The presumption of Peter here is astounding! In turn, Jesus "exorcises" Peter. Peter's problem is that he is thinking in worldly terms: even though he claims to have recognised Jesus to be the Messiah, he still sees Jesus in purely human terms. So Jesus spells out the consequences of following him: followers must die to self and rise to new life in him. Then comes the Transfiguration. Again, notice how matter-of-fact the account of this extraordinary mystical encounter is. It's a nice touch that Peter still cannot keep his mouth shut, even though he has no idea what to say! He feels he ought to do something useful, but again he is operating in the wrong "mode".
Taking It Personally.
· Jesus confronts his own mortality; spells out the cost to us of following him; and then three disciples have an out-of-this-world experience of the mystery we call God. Which of these three episodes do you find the most scary?
· Take time to contemplate your own death. What is your predominant feeling about it? What part does your faith play in this contemplation?
· Have you had an encounter with the mysterious that has been beyond words – that you could not explain, describe or record in words?
· The story of the Transfiguration is a classic one for praying with the imagination. Spend some time putting yourself in the story, perhaps alongside the three apostles. Go slowly through the story from the inside, noting your feelings as you go.
· When you've finished spend time in prayers of praise and thanksgiving.