Sunday, March 1, 2015

Listening to the Son

This past week I began teaching a Lenten series at a local parish. While the 6-week program is ostensibly a study of the Ten Commandments, the series is really about how we—as believers—engage difficult moral issues. So, I suppose, it could be called “Moral Theology 101.” But, when all is said and done, the classes really come back to the basic theme of discipleship: how are we living out the faith we profess in our daily lives?

We began our time together by reflecting on the importance of the season of Lent and how Lent is really a model for the Christian life because (when it is celebrated properly) Lent is always leading us somewhere—to the Cross and Empty Tomb. This is the season when we reflect on the quality of our discipleship and work on developing those virtues and habits that will enrich our faith and commitment so that, on Easter Sunday, we will be truer, holier disciples than we were on Ash Wednesday. Ideally, that forward momentum will continue through the Easter Season and beyond.

For some in the class, this wasn’t anything new. For others, this idea of Lent being something bigger than the “40 days” was a real revelation. And, as we discussed how prayer, fasting/self-denial, and almsgiving were about freedom and the hallmarks of every day discipleship, I think a lot of things fell into place for these folks… I can gratefully say that those “Aha!” moments are why I do what I do. Those conversations are very much on my mind as we celebrate this Second Sunday of Lent.

The three Readings proclaimed at Mass on this Sunday all focus on the Mystery of Jesus’ Divine Sonship: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7) and “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?” (Romans 8:31b-32). In these texts (along with the highly symbolic account of the sacrifice of Abraham), we are given an important reminder of Whom it is that we have committed our lives to.  

In his Message for Lent, Pope Francis wrote:
God is not indifferent to our world; he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation. In the Incarnation, in the earthly life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the gate between God and man, between heaven and earth, opens once for all.  The Church is like the hand holding open this gate, thanks to her proclamation of God’s word, her celebration of the sacraments, and her witness of the faith which works through love (cf. Galatians 5:6). But the world tends to withdraw into itself and shut the door through which God comes into the world and the world comes to him… God’s people, then, need [interior renewal], lest we become indifferent and withdraw into ourselves.

The Transfiguration from the Church of Our Lady
in Bruges, Belgium by Gerard David (d. 1523)
The Transfiguration of Jesus (retold in today’s Gospel) has often been understood as the great revelation to Peter, James, and John of Jesus’ divine glory, hidden beneath the veil of his humanity. By allowing this glimpse of the fullness of Christ’s glory, God was empowering them to face the coming days of passion and death with faith and trust in God’s ultimate power. And this is a good and worthy interpretation. However, I recently came upon another perspective on the Transfiguration that I think is especially worth considering in these Lenten days: the Transfiguration wasn’t so much about giving the three Apostles a glimpse of heavenly glory as it was an invitation to see what heaven on earth can be like for those who choose to believe in the transformation power of Christ. 

For many of us, Lent can be reduced to a sort of spiritual “self-help” program. We aren’t really focused on conversion and often shy away from those resources that will foster a true spirit of repentance and that celebrate our freedom as God’s children (an open engagement of Scripture, frequent celebrations of the sacraments [including the Anointing of the Sick, the forgotten sacrament] and the support and challenge of other faithful Christians). Lent can see us doing lots of “work” but showing little benefit from our efforts.  In his wonderful book The Prodigal Father, Angelo Scarano writes:
We “mature Christians” know exactly what is and is not sin, and are quite willing to “better ourselves,” and know all about the mistakes we make and certainly want to correct them. “Spinning the wheels” without getting anywhere despite our best efforts provide us, however, with an important lesson in humility, teaching us that we cannot manage on our own and that we need a push from someone else. We need the courage to say, “Lord, show me my mistakes and what their roots are, but let it be you who helps me change.”
Recognizing our motivations and needs are important steps in conversion. And our willingness to ask ourselves—and God—difficult questions is essential for becoming the kind of disciples we are called to be. The Season of Lent also challenges us to really ask ourselves if we are listening to what it is we are being called to and called for. These are privileged days, but as John W. Martens observes, "the God who showed [the Apostles] a vision of heavenly glory and spoke to them out of the glory was the same God who spoke to them when Jesus said that he would suffer and die. When you listen to God, you do not get to pick the 'good stuff,' the words that appeal to you: God asks that you listen always." But, Martens continues, "Trials, tests, and suffering are not the end of the story... The end of the story is God's glory, but it requires hearing God's voice in the midst of trials, suffering, pain, and loss, even when it seems to be God's voice commanding the suffering.  Be patient and listen again, for the voice of God desires only our blessing."

A prayer for the Second Sunday of Lent +
O God, who have commanded us
to listen to your beloved Son,
be pleased, we pray,
to nourish us inwardly by your word,
that, with spiritual sight made pure,
we may rejoice to behold your glory.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

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