Second Sunday of Lent First Reading: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 Responsorial: Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14 Second Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1 Gospel Passage: Luke 9:28b-36
When reading the Bible, there are times when cultural differences present a challenge for our understanding and interpretation. For example, the biblical books are filled with instances of mystical religious experiences such as dreams, trances, and visions. While these phenomena remain common in most human cultures, they have become very rare in contemporary western culture – a culture which tends to place great value on the rational and conceptual and distrust the mystical. In our society, skeptics dismiss the biblical accounts of mystical experience as fanciful or imaginary. Believers are more likely to trust the biblical record, but often see such kinds of experiences as things of the past.
If we want to understand the readings for this Sunday, we will have to acknowledge that in most of history, and in almost every human culture, altered states of consciousness and mystical experiences are a normal part of religious experience. It appears that God wishes to speak to us in every way possible, in every language and by every means - if God can speak to our conscious state, then why not to the unconscious as well?
In the first reading, God speaks marvelous words to an old man with a barren wife, promising Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars. While Abraham places his trust in the Lord, his puzzlement indicates that the message remains overwhelming. God then instructs Abraham to prepare a confirmation of their relationship. The setup would have been typical of many agreements in that day and culture. Animals are sacrificed and a fire passes between the split carcasses, the implied meaning being: “if I should break my commitment, may I become as these animals are…” But God goes beyond the convention of the day by bringing Abraham to a mystical experience of the divine presence. In a trance, and surrounded by a “deep, terrifying darkness,” Abraham hears the voice of the Lord and the covenant relationship is confirmed.
The passage from the ninth chapter of Luke also speaks of a mystical experience. In this transfiguration scene, the voice of the Lord confirms Jesus’ unique identity as the Beloved Son. That identity receives further confirmation in the presence of Moses and Elijah who represent the witness of the law and the prophets. There is also a hint of the destiny of Jesus to suffer and die as we learn that the disciples are asleep, calling to mind their doing likewise in the garden, and we learn that Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah of His coming “exodus” in Jerusalem. The use of the term “exodus” and the miraculous transformation that overtakes Jesus reassure us about the nature of the coming terrible events. They will take place for a saving purpose and will bring about a remarkable transformation for the world. Even so, the disciples feel fear during this mystical experience, echoing the response of Abraham and others when confronted by the awesome presence of God.
In the passage from the letter to the Philippians, Paul must address a very different and more mundane matter. It appears that other preachers have followed Paul in Philippi, and they have tried to convince the Christians there that they are not fully Christian unless they observe the ritual observances of the Mosaic law. They must be circumcised and keep Jewish food customs and prohibitions. Paul speaks very strongly in response. To reintroduce such customs, or to impose them upon Gentiles, would be a rejection of the saving power of Christ. Paul rejects their teaching and urges his Philippians to stand firm in the gospel that proclaims a new way of living possible to those who live transformed by the grace of Christ. It is Christ Who saves and transforms, not the traditions or actions of the people or these false teachers.
Our Lenten traditions require actions on our part, but they are not an end in themselves, they do not save. They are meant to bring us into relationship with the One Who is our only hope. As we seek to deepen that all important relationship, we might consider the possibility that the Lord speaks to us in many and varied ways. It may be difficult in our culture to move beyond the rational and conceptual, but not impossible. When we gather for Mass, pray the rosary, or move among the stations, the prayers and devotions are meant to move us beyond mere words to an experience of the mystical presence of God. That powerful presence can overwhelm and frighten us - for to stand before God is risk losing ourselves in the infinite. But it is there at the edge of the abyss that a face of One like us appears in the cloud, the face of the Beloved Son – the face of our hope and salvation.