Sunday, March 08, 2009

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)
Mountain Preparation

Readings: Genesis 22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
Picture: CC southerntabitha

Dear sisters and brothers, don’t you think that we’re really blessed to be living so close to the mountains? It’s so convenient, whenever one has the time and the inclination, simply to drive or even to hike up there. I know someone who likes to do this occasionally, on his days off. Why does he do it? Probably because something wonderful happens to us on the mountain, doesn’t it? Just being on a higher elevation exhilarates us. It feels like a load has been lifted from our shoulders, as though we have left all our cares below. Not only does it leave us feeling more carefree, but the mountaintop also gives us a different perspective on things. At ground zero, amid the many twists and turns of busy city streets, it’s often easy to lose one’s way. Up top, you get a bird’s-eye view of everything. You see more clearly the road you’ve been traveling, and where you need to go. And, of course, the mountain is also the place of inspiration and commitment. Traditionally, it’s the place where people meet and dedicate their lives to God.

And it’s not just literal mountains that bring us such benefits. We can say the same for the various highpoints in our lives as well. Think, for example, of a wedding, or a commencement ceremony, or a priestly or diaconate ordination. Whether or not we are the ones actually graduating or getting married or being ordained, don’t we often find such occasions strangely moving? Like being on a mountain, such highpoints on life’s journey somehow serve to raise us above our many mundane preoccupations. They often give us a fresh perspective on life. They help us to check our bearings. They can even be occasions for renewed inspiration and commitment.

But, as with most things, there’s another side to the story too, isn’t there? While it may be beneficial to visit a mountain from time to time, one doesn’t usually live there. The location is not without its dangers. For, as much as it can inspire, the mountain can also mislead. Although you get a bird’s eye view from up there, you also tend to miss the details. And, as they say, the devil is in the details. I’m reminded of a couple I met after Mass some weeks ago, who were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. After I had congratulated them, one of them responded by sharing with me a line she’d come across while shopping for paper napkins: If love is blind, she said, marriage is a real eye-opener! We might say the same for the ordained and religious life too.

Which brings us to our readings on this 2nd Sunday in Lent. As you know, more than simply a time to abstain from meat on Fridays, Lent is traditionally the period for catechumens to prepare to profess, and the baptized to prepare to renew, their baptismal vows at Easter. And our Mass readings have been helping us to do this by leading us to different locations. As you may recall, last week, we were ushered into the desert, to witness and to join in Jesus’ struggle with the devil. Today, we are being taken up to the mountains. And I say mountains, because we are invited to climb not one but two of them – Tabor, the mount of Transfiguration, and Moriah, the summit of Sacrifice.

In the midst of often busy and messy lives at ground zero it’s far too easy to forget the commitment that we made at our baptism. When the going is good, we may tend towards dissolution, just as we may easily get disillusioned when the going is too tough. In the face of such dangers, especially in this Lenten time, our readings offer us an opportunity to regain our bearings, to refresh our perspective, by joining Jesus, along with Peter and James and John, on top of Tabor. But to understand what is happening in this story, we need first to recall its biblical context. In the three gospels where it appears, the Transfiguration is sandwiched between Jesus’ predictions of his own impending death and rising from the dead. Seen against this background, the goal of the Transfiguration becomes clear. It is meant to help prepare and strengthen Jesus, as well as his closest disciples, for the challenges that lie ahead. The uplifting experience on the mountaintop is meant to provide sustenance for the difficult journey on the plain below. Jesus’ glorification is inseparable from his approaching sacrifice, which is the likely subject of his conversation with Moses and Elijah. And it is by following Jesus on his journey even into the jaws of defeat, that the disciples will also come to share in his eventual triumph. This is the profound insight that the Transfiguration offers us. This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.

But the experience proves too much for the disciples, as it often does for us as well. For it is true for us as much as it is for Peter, that at the various highpoints of our lives, we often allow the brilliance of the moment to blind us to its true significance. We may think only of our yearning for glory without considering the need for sacrifice. We may seek only to remain at the top without heeding the call to first descend below. We may think only of ourselves, and those within our immediate circle, without sparing a thought for others further beyond. An occasion like a wedding or a commencement, an ordination or even a baptism, becomes simply an eagerly awaited opportunity to enjoy the excitement of self-promotion, just another experience that we try to prolong and to preserve by taking as many photographs as possible.

Isn’t this why our readings invite us also to accompany Abraham and Isaac on their painful yet determined climb up Moriah? For on this uphill road, as much as at its end, we gain a deeper insight into the significance of Tabor. Here we are reminded that the Transfiguration is more of a path than a destination, that Tabor is really a preparation for Calvary and beyond. Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up… Don’t these words remind us of another Father and his Son? Don’t they speak to us also of God the Father’s willingness to offer up his only beloved Son, as much as it does Jesus’ obedience to the Father in emptying himself for our sakes? And if it is true of Abraham, that through his obedience all the nations of the earth shall find blessing, isn’t it all the more true of the obedience of Christ?

Sisters and brothers, on this 2nd Sunday in Lent, as we ponder these mysteries on the mountains of Moriah and Tabor, our fervent hope and prayer is that we will find ourselves lifted above the all too narrow and petty concerns that often plague and overwhelm us, that we may find the strength to rise above them, so as to prepare ourselves well to fulfill our baptismal vows by walking before the Lord in the land of the living. For as Paul tells us in the second reading: If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Sisters and brothers, what might our time on the mountains teach us today?