2nd Sunday in Lent (B)
Piecing the Puzzle
Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 24:4-6,7-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Picture: cc bgottsab
Sisters and brothers, do you remember the last time you tried to assemble a jigsaw puzzle? What was it like? To be honest, I myself sometimes find it helpful to work on jigsaw puzzles. Especially when I’m on retreat. There’s something comforting about starting out with a messy jumble of disconnected pieces, and then gradually coming to see how each piece joins with the others to form a single picture. It’s not just a pleasant diversion. I find that the process of assembling the puzzle actually mirrors what often happens in the retreat itself. You take the messy jumble of the different, apparently disconnected, pieces of your life to prayer, and the Lord gradually shows you how each piece joins with the others to form something meaningful.
But it’s not always easy. As you know, there’s a certain technique involved in assembling a puzzle. For example, to see if one piece matches another one, it’s usually not enough just to compare the pictures printed on them. Very often, pieces with pictures that look the same, don’t really match. And pieces that may at first look very different, actually do. In addition to comparing the pictures, you also have to look closely at the edges of each piece. You have to see if the edges of this particular piece line up with those of that other one.
I mention this because, today, our Mass readings present us with two pictures that may at first seem to have little connection with each other. They appear radically different. Completely unrelated. In the first reading, we find Abraham and Isaac on a mountain called Moriah. This is not an easy place to be. For it is on Moriah that God chooses to test Abraham. Here, Abraham is to sacrifice Isaac, his only legitimate son. Isaac, his beloved child, who was born only when Abraham was already a hundred years old. Isaac, the long-awaited heir, through whom God had promised to make Abraham’s family a great nation. It was Isaac, this precious treasure, that God was asking Abraham to sacrifice. This was what made Moriah such a terrible place.
And, of course, Moriah is not just a place in the life of Abraham. It is also a location in each of our lives as well. From time to time, things happen to us that make it necessary for us to sacrifice what we may hold most dear. Events transpire that force us to face the same difficult question with which Abraham had to struggle: Who or what do I value more? Who or what occupies the first place in my life? The precious gifts of God? Or God Himself, the Giver of all good gifts?
But, as terrible as it may be, Moriah is not the only mountain in our readings today. The gospel presents us with another. Tradition has given it the name Tabor. And Tabor appears to be a very different place from Moriah. If Moriah is the mountain of testing and struggle, Tabor is the place of consolation and glory. Here, Jesus is transfigured. His clothes become dazzlingly white. He takes on the appearance of pure light. And his heavenly Father draws near and bears witness to who he is, to Jesus’ true identity: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.
It’s very likely that we have been on this mountain before. We too have experienced something like what Jesus and the three disciples experienced. Whether it was at a group retreat, or during a quiet moment of personal prayer. While enjoying a peaceful evening at home, or while vacationing at an exotic foreign location. It’s likely that we too have experienced similar moments of joy and enthusiasm. Moments when not only did we receive assurance that we were on the right path, but also when we were blessed with the courage to persevere in walking along it. Moments that filled us with hope.
Moriah in the first reading. And Tabor in the gospel. Sacrifice and testing on the one hand. And hope and encouragement on the other. Sisters and brothers, could these two places appear any more different one from the other?
And yet, as disconnected from each other as Moriah and Tabor may seem to be, our readings offer them to us as two pieces of a single puzzle. How could this be? As with the pieces of any jigsaw, to see the connection between them, we need to consider more closely their respective edges. We need to see, for example, that although Moriah begins as a place of testing for Abraham, it ends as a location of deep consolation. Abraham’s obedience leads God to renew the promise to shower blessings upon him, and to make his descendants as many as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore.
It is not just on Moriah that we find such a reversal. At the edges of Tabor too, we find something more than what at first meets the eye. As Jesus descends the mountain with his disciples, he warns them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. As the Lord climbs down from Tabor, he speaks to his disciples about Calvary. Clearly, the Transfiguration is closely connected with the Cross. In glorifying his only begotten Son on Tabor, the Father prepares him to be given up for us on Calvary. Like the ram, in the first reading, which was sacrificed in place of Isaac, Jesus would be offered up in our place. As the second reading reminds us, God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all.
But the three disciples accompanying Jesus do not see this close connection. At this point in the story, they are able to see only one piece of the puzzle. They do not know what rising from the dead means. They fail to realise that the hope and encouragement they are given on Tabor is meant for a very particular purpose. The disciples are permitted to witness Jesus’ glory, and to hear the Father’s voice, so that they might be given the strength and courage to accompany their Master to Calvary. The Transfiguration is for the Cross. And, in failing to connect these two pieces of the puzzle, the disciples deprive themselves of the precious spiritual resources that they will need for the road ahead.
Unfortunately, sisters and brothers, what is true of the disciples is also often true of us as well. Even though we may all experience both moments of testing as well as moments of hope, we somehow neglect to connect the two. We fail to channel the energy gained in our times of Transfiguration towards addressing the needs we experience during our moments of trial. Times when we are most in need of encouragement and hope. Times when we may doubt God’s love for us. Or even God’s very existence. Times when we may be tempted to give up in despair.
If this is indeed true of us, then we have reason to be happy. For on this second Sunday of Lent, God is offering us a very significant gift. Today, we are offered the grace to recognise the deep connection between our trials on the one hand, and the encouragement that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord on the other. Today, we are being given the courage, even the audacity, to proclaim the words of St. Paul: with God on our side who can be against us?
Sisters and brothers, in the complex puzzle of our daily living, how is the Lord helping us to connect the pieces today?