Friday, March 06, 2009

Homily 2nd Sun Lent Year B

It's been a while since I've posted because my last few homilies have been from notes I prepared rather than a full text. That's gone better than I thought. But I decided to type one up for this Sunday's readings anyway: The 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B. Let me know what you think or how I can improve. If I were to deliver this one, I think I would still try to do it from some notes on the text.

After listening to our readings today, it is interesting to ponder the fact that we have all already ascended a “holy mountain,” so to speak. In coming to Mass today, we all drove to Highview, up the hill of Outer Loop, to our parish. And we are called by our readings to go higher. But, when I see how fierce the wind is up here, how the shingles of the school and rectory seem to constantly be blowing off, I’m reminded that this is about as far up as I want to go! But, my brothers and sisters, we must go higher for at the mountaintop is where we will meet our Father, learn of his constant help, and be given the hope and strength that will sustain us in the valleys below. So, as one of my favorite saints, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, used to say, “Verso l’alto!” Too the top!

The first mountain we ascend together today is Mount Moriah. Here we behold a scandalous episode indeed! How could God ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?! This doesn’t seem like the God we know, the God who has said that burnt offerings from us he would refuse. Our sacrifice, he has told us, must be a contrite spirit for a humbled and contrite heart he will not spurn. And besides, Abraham’s son Isaac is the key to the covenant that God made with Abraham. God promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah, despite their old age, would become fertile and would bear a son, Isaac. And it was through Isaac that Abraham would be the father of many nations, of peoples as numerous as the stars. These are the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, a people set apart to be an example to all mankind that God alone is our God and we are his children. From the people of Israel, our elder brothers and sisters, we have inherited this covenant and Abraham is our father in faith. For him to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son, would dissolve all of this.

Abraham was aware of what was at stake but his faith in the Lord was rock-solid. He no doubt trusted that God would find a way to keep his promise. Abraham’s only concern was fidelity to God’s command: to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, his beloved son. He will pass this test of faith. So Abraham ascends the mountain with his only son, carrying the wood and knife for the sacrifice, and builds an altar on which to accomplish it. He then places his son on the wood and as he takes the knife to slaughter him an angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand. He assures Abraham that his intention, his devotion, his obedience, his willingness to do even this is as good as if he had done it. Then the Lord provides a ram, caught by its horns in the thicket, to take Isaac’s place.

But what is the Holy Spirit trying to teach us by putting before us such a chilling account? I believe it is this: that even in the midst of unthinkable sacrifice, when our circumstances in life make demands on us that seem unbearable, God is always by our side, watching and waiting to help us and to bless us abundantly. But, we must be obedient to him, trust him, and have unwavering faith in him. Unlike Abraham, we may not be called to make heroic acts of faith in God. But, like Abraham, it is not what we accomplish that matters. God judges not the results of our works but the intention of our hearts. In our hearts he sees our devotion. When we suffer injury and illness with a heart of patience and humility, he is there. When we spend long, agonizing hours at the bedside of a dying loved one with a heart of commitment and love, he is there. When we say farewell to our sons and daughters going off to war with hearts of trust and generosity, he is there. Finally, when we strive during Lent to uproot our vices and sins so that our hearts are open and free, he will bless us abundantly and give us not descendants but graces as numerous as the stars.

But, our faith tells us that our lesson on Mount Moriah is not the end of the story. Our second reading points us to the second mountain we must climb today: Mount Calvary. Abraham’s witness prepares us for the ascent, for here God the Father himself, as St. Paul tells us, “did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all.” Here too we behold an Only Son, a Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, ascending a mountain of sacrifice to God, submitting to his Father’s will, carrying the wood along the Way. He too was placed on the wood, but for him the nails and the knife of the soldier’s lance were not held back. For him there was no ram caught in a thicket. He himself was the ram, suspended from the thicket of the cross, to take the place not of one, but of all mankind.

Faced with this parallel, St. Paul asks us, “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? From His Sacrifice Jesus was raised and now sits at the right hand of God, interceding for us. Even on Mount Calvary we are again assured of God’s constant love and help. We must never doubt the lengths that God has gone and will go to help and save us. No scene in our lives – not even divorce, separation, abuse, violence, abortion, sin or death – is darker than the scene the only beloved Son of the Father has already entered and overcome.

At this point, let’s step back a moment. We are in the season of Lent and have encountered Mount Moriah and Mount Calvary, the scenes of great sacrifice. Let us not think that the fruits of these encounters: hope, consolation, and divine assistance are only things that we squeeze out of suffering like blood from a turnip! God’s blessings do not require that we perform mental gymnastics or fool ourselves in order to find them in the midst of suffering. They are as real as the suffering is if we want them to be. But because they come from God they have the upper-hand and transform our suffering from destructive force to purifying fire that prepares us for the glory that God intends for us.

This lesson we learn as we ascend our third and final mountain today: Mount Tabor. Here we find Jesus with his three favorite apostles: Peter, James, and John. Six days before this episode, Jesus taught them that he must soon suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes; be killed; and after three days rise again. Furthermore, “If any man would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This was unthinkable to Peter who took Jesus to be the Messiah the Jews expected, one who would triumphantly defeat all their foes so they would never have to suffer again. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and die?

Jesus rebuked him for thinking this way but out of his great love and generosity takes him along with James and John to Mount Tabor to strengthen them. James and John too, must have been scandalized by Jesus’ prediction and distraught that Jesus rebuked Peter, their leader, so strongly. But, on the seventh day, he showed them and us that God never abandons us even in our deepest despair. He appeared transfigured before them, along with Elijah and Moses, and his garments were glistening and intensely white. He allowed his glory to shine forth, the glory that is rightfully his as the Divine Son of God, the glory he set aside in order to be like us. This he did in order to encourage his apostles and us to follow the difficult way that leads to our own glorification.

When our Mass is finished today we will be sent to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We will descend the mountains of Moriah, Calvary, and Tabor and return to the valleys of our everyday lives, our schools, our homes, our workplaces. We will return to our Lenten penances and sacrifices, to our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, to our Stations of the Cross. We may even be returning to much suffering and pain. But let us not forget the mountains we have climbed today and what we witnessed at the top of each one. Let us return with renewed hope and strength, reminded of God’s constant help and presence. The God who stayed Abraham’s hand and provided for him on Mount Moriah is the same God who provides for us. The God who loved us so much that he allowed his only Son to die on Mount Calvary on behalf of all mankind, is the same God who loves us today. The God who strengthened the apostles by allowing them to behold the glory of his Divine Son, is the same God who strengthens us. Let us be faithful and obedient to Him with the hope that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18) at our coming Easter.

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