Commentary to the 2nd Sunday of Lent -Year B-
EVEN GOD LIKES TO RECEIVE GIFTS
Choosing a gift is always difficult and delicate not only because it requires knowledge of the desires,expectations, and sometimes even the bizarre tastes of the person to whom it is offered, but, above all, because, at least on a subconscious level, it is felt that with the gift a part of ourselves is delivered.
The most greatly appreciated gifts are not expensive. Those that show the greatest involvement of the giver are deemed the most precious. For the birthday of his wife, Clara, virtuoso pianist, Robert Schumann composed the famous Dream and accompanied it with a dedication: "The song is not suited to your skills, but expresses all my love." It was the heart that, through music, Robert handed over to his bride.
To the loved one we are willing to deliver what we hold most dear. Abraham loved the Lord to the point of thinking to give him his only begotten son, the son he loved more than his life.
Christmas is the feast of gifts. We exchange gifts because we understand that "God so loved the worldthat he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16) and invites us to respond to his love by becoming, in turn, a gift for the brothers. "This is how we have known what love is; he gave his life for us. We, too, ought to give our life for our brothers and sisters" (1 Jn 3:16).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"The Lord expects of me a gift: the gift of my life to the brothers and sisters."
First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2.9a.10-13.15-18
How is it possible that God asked a man to sacrifice his child? It is the question that arises in our hearts from reading this story.
The terms ‘God said’, ‘God spoke’ ... that frequently occur in the Bible, are not to be taken literally. The Lord never had his voice audibly heard. This does not mean that he has not really talked. He did, and in many ways, he left his message imprinted in creation, enlightened Moses, inspired the prophets and continues to suggest to every person, in the depths of our conscience, the journey of life.
What we read today comes as a request made by God to Abraham. In fact, it was none other than a wrong idea, arising in the mind of the patriarch, with regard to the will of the Lord.
For us, it is inconceivable that a parent can imagine a God who demands, as proof of loyalty, the slaying and burning sacrifice of a child. Yet, in those ancient times, this was a widespread practice. It was practiced by the Moabites; when they were in desperate situations, they sacrificed their first-born to their god Chemosh (2 K3:26-27). The Ammonites also offered their children to Molech (Lev 18:21). The Jewish kings Ahaz (2 K 16:3) and Manasseh (2 K 21:6) did the same. The valley of Gehenna was cursed because it was the place wherethe children had been slain (2 K 23:10).
Taught by the prophets, the Israelites abandoned early the human sacrifices (Mic 6:7), whereas other peoples continued to do so much longer.
In a world where this practice was considered normal, it is understandable that, perhaps during a disaster, Abraham had thought, or a false prophet has suggested, that he sacrifice to God his most beloved son.
Now that we have clarified what may have been the origin of the story, let's focus on the message.
The first lesson, the most obvious and immediate, is that the God of Israel rejects as an abominable crime the sacrifice of children. It had always been a feature of the cults of pagan idols to claim human sacrifice. The God of Israel, however, by stopping the arm of Abraham who was about to strike his son, has shown himself tobe the Lord who loves life (Wis 11:26), the one who "gives life… to everyone" (Acts 17: 25) and does not wantthe death of anyone (Ezk 18:32).
Any attempt on life, even those perpetrated against a criminal, can never be passed as an act of love forGod and his righteousness. Death, every form of death, is never in harmony with his will. Any religion that imposes degrading practices, creates anxieties and fears, deprives the joy of living and liberty, and poses obstacles to the freedom and full development of the human person, does not render worship to the true Godbut to an idol.
The central message of the story is, however another one and is related to the loyalty of Abraham. Hethought, erroneously, but in good faith, that God demanded from him his child. Well, the patriarchdemonstrated his willingness even to make this sacrifice.
He had always blindly believed in the Lord. He had left his homeland, renounced the security of his house and the protection which came from being part of the family and tribe to which he belonged (Gen 12:1). He had cut the connection with the past, sure that God would fulfill his promise, would give him a land, a blessing and, above all, numerous descendants.
Even when it seemed to him that God contradicted himself, in the face of the apparent absurdity of sacrificing a life, Abraham unwaveringly maintained his faith. At one point it seemed to him that God wanted to deprive him of everything, of the past (his land and his father's house) of the future (his posterity through Isaac), and yet, even in that tragic situation, he continued to believe in the Lord's faithfulness. He passed everytest.
At the beginning of Lent, Abraham’s faith is put forward as a model to anyone who intends to offer his or her life to the Lord.
Like Abraham, every believer will hear God's promises of happiness, prosperity, and peace, but also will experience disappointments, and will face hard times. He will be expected to hold fast to the faith in situationsthat seem absurd; he should always nourish the belief that, ultimately, God does not disappoint.
The story ends with a new and solemn reminder of the promises of the Lord (vv. 15-18). After the test, the promises are repeated to Abraham, to infuse new courage and increase his faith.
Abraham died "without having received what was promised, but (he) had looked ahead and had rejoiced in it from afar" (Heb 11:13). Like him, the true believer trusts in the Lord, even when the expectation of thefulfillment of his promises extends beyond all limits and even when appearances seem to prove otherwise.
Second Reading: Romans 8:31b-34
In the middle of this letter, Paul, after having considered the plan that God intends to carry out thesalvation of all people, cannot help but cry out all his joy: "If God is with us, who shall be against us?" (v. 31b). He then goes on to imagine that sinners are brought before the tribunal of God, to support and appeal the process for their actions. They know they are guilty, but, having arrived at the place of judgment, here's the surprise: no one shows up to accuse them and no court stands up to condemn them.
God, the only one who could stand as a witness, is instead the one who defends them. How can heaccuse them, after having loved them to the point of giving up his only begotten Son (vv. 32-33)?
Jesus, in turn, cannot pronounce a judgment against sinners: they were his best friends and he sacrificed his life for them (v. 34).
This brief reading contains an indisputable statement: the love of the Father is absolute and gratuitous and cannot be cancelled by any sin; there is no infidelity of man that is stronger than His love.
Gospel: Mark 9:2-10
Every year on the second Sunday of Lent, we are offered the subject of Jesus’ Transfiguration. The message of this passage is not immediately clear or easy to grasp because it is transmitted in symbolic language and with images that require an explanation.
The scene is set in a secluded place, on a high mountain where Jesus led three of his disciples (v. 2). They will be the same witnesses of his agony in Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). Mark stresses the fact that they were alone.
Jesus acts as the rabbis who, when they wanted to reveal a secret or convey a very important teaching, used to retreat with their disciples to an isolated place, away from prying eyes, and to avoid being heard bythose who were not able to understand or might misunderstand.
Also on Sinai, the Word of God was not directly addressed to all the people. Moses went up to God, for the first time alone (Ex 19: 2f.). Then he took with him three remarkable persons: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Ex24:1). The place of the manifestations of the Lord was not accessible to all. They were required to have the correct dispositions and proven sanctity before approaching the Lord.
The fact that Jesus reserved His revelation to some disciples and that he eventually told them not todisclose it (vv. 9-10) indicates they were given a share of a very significant experience but still too high to beshared by all.
The revelation was made on a high mountain (v. 2) that the Christian tradition has identified with Tabor, themountain covered with pines, oaks, and terebinth, that crops up, isolated in the middle of the extensive plain ofEsdraelon. Since ancient times, on its top was an altar where sacrifices were offered to the pagan gods. Today, the site invites one to meditation, reflection, and prayer, and pilgrims who visit it feel almost naturally inclined to raise their gaze and thoughts to God.
No matter how evocative this experience can be, it should be noted that the gospel text does not speak of Tabor, but of a high mountain. This expression has clear biblical references. The manifestations of the Lord and the great encounters of man with God in the Bible are located on diverse mountains. Moses (Ex 24:15ff) and Elijah (1 K 19:8), the same characters that appear during the Transfiguration have similarly received theirrevelations on a mountain. More than a physical place, the mountain is the time in which intimacy with Godreaches its climax. It is that sublime experience that the mystics call union of the soul with God, the one in which the person, almost dissolving in his Lord, feels identified with his thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.
Jesus leaves the plains where men often follow principles that are contrary to those of God and leads afew disciples to the top. He wants to move them away from the thoughts and beliefs of men to introduce themto the innermost thoughts of the Father, and His inscrutable designs for the Messiah. Luke is even more explicit when he refers to the theme of Jesus' conversation with Moses and Elijah. He says that these,appearing in their glory, “spoke with Jesus about his departure from this life”(Lk 9:31). This is the shocking revelation that three of the disciples, received from heaven.
The white clothes (v. 3) outwardly manifest the identity of Jesus. The color white was the symbol of God's world; it was a sign of celebration and joy. It was said that in the Kingdom of God, the elect would wear white robes which "send sparks like rays of the sun." In Revelation the image is repeated: the elect in heaven appearto the seer "clothed in white" (Rev 7:13).
Moses and Elijah (v. 4) are two famous characters in the history of Israel. The first is the mediator whom God used to free his people and to give them the Torah, the Law. He is introduced into the scene of the Transfiguration to testify that Jesus is the prophet Moses announced when, before dying, he promised to the Israelites, "The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like myself from among the people, from your brothers, to whom you shall listen" (Dt 18:15).The invitation—or command—from the cloud to listen to Jesus at the end of the story (Mk 9:7), confirms it.
Elijah, in turn, is the first of the prophets who had been taken to heaven (2 K 2:11-12). It was thought thathe would return before the coming of the Messiah. In the scene of the Transfiguration, he also enters as awitness; his presence declares, on behalf of all the prophets, that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
The tents too, (v. 5) that Peter wants to build, have a symbolic meaning.
At the end of each year, at the end of the harvest season, the Feast of Tabernacles (Tents)was celebrated in Israel. It lasted an entire week. Booths were built to commemorate the years in the wilderness, to call to mind the works done by the Lord in the past. This feast, however, was also an invitation to look toward the future. The prophet Zechariah had announced that at the coming of the Messiah, all the nations of the earthwould be gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate together the Feast of the Tabernacles (Zec 14:16-19). Referring to this oracle, the rabbis described the time of the Messiah as a perennial "feast of booths." By asking to build three tents, Peter refers—perhaps unwittingly—to this symbolic meaning of the booths. He believes that now is the time of God's Kingdom, the time for rest and perennial celebration promised by the prophets. He did not understand the true meaning of the scene he was witnessing. He continued to cultivatethe illusion that it is possible to enter the Kingdom of God without going through the sacrifice of life. Mark tells us: "He did not know what to say; they were overcome with awe" (v. 6).
Fear does not mean fear in the face of danger. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine the disciples simultaneouslyecstatic with joy (v. 5) and upset by terror (v. 6). When the Bible speaks of fear in front of a manifestation of the Lord it refers to marveling, awe and wonder that enraptures anyone who enters into contact with God’s world.
The cloud and the shadow are images very common in the Old Testament; they are used to indicate the presence of God. The Lord appears to Moses in a "dense cloud" (Ex 19:9); a cloud accompanied the Israelitesin the wilderness (Ex 40:34 -39) and covers the tent where Moses met the Lord (Ex 33:9 -11). It is the sign of God's presence.
At the end of the scene of the Transfiguration, “from the cloud came a voice”: it is the interpretation that God gives to the whole scene (v. 7).
Having explained the various symbols, let us try to make a summary of the message that this extraordinary experience of the three disciples communicates to us.
The account of the Transfiguration is precisely at the center of the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning, the disciples asked the question about the identity of Jesus (Mk 1:27; 4:41; 6:2-3) while, to a certain extent, they also began to realize that he was the Messiah. However, they were still confused. They shared the prevailing opinion among the people that the Messiah would be a king able to establish, in a miraculous and immediate way, the kingdom of God on earth.
This belief emerges from the words of Peter, who wants to put up three tents; he believes that theKingdom of God has come. To be participants it is not necessary to pass through death.
At a particularly significant moment of their lives, the three privileged disciples were introduced by Jesus toGod's design. They have enjoyed an enlightenment that made them understand the true identity of the Masterand the goal of his journey. He would not be the awaited conquering king but a messiah opposed, persecutedand killed. However, his ultimate fate would not be the tomb, but the fullness of life.
The Transfiguration was an extraordinary spiritual experience in which Jesus aimed to convince them that only those who give their lives for the sake of love fully realize it.
One cannot get into the Kingdom of God through shortcuts as Peter appears to want to do. It is necessary for every disciple to boldly assume the condition of the Master, and thus to agree to give life by laying down one’s life. Was the experience of the mountain enough to make the three disciples assimilate this truth?
The concluding remark of the evangelist is: "They kept this to themselves, although they discussed with one another what ‘to rise from the dead’ could mean.” And this leaves us to understand that they were stunned, and did not yet comprehend the revelation they had received.
It is clear they failed to understand that Jesus was going to have to give his life. On the mountain, God was revealing all his glory, all his love for man; but only the light of Easter and their experiences with the Risen Lord will finally open wide their eyes.