Thursday, March 08, 2012

Homily 2nd Sun Lent Year B–Mountain-Top Experiences

mt taborLast weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a program called Engaged Encounter at Mt. St. Francis in southern Indiana.  Engaged Encounter is a weekend retreat for young engaged couples in the area to come together and focus on preparing well for a holy Catholic marriage.  I led the retreat along with one married couple in their 30’s and another in their 40’s.  We gave several talks that weekend intended to open up communication at a deep level on topics that they may not have considered.

One of the talks we gave was on how to accurately interpret highs and lows in marriage.  Some let the good times distract them from real problems that need to be addressed.  A more mature approach is to let these times built you up so that you are sustained through the rough times.  On the other hand, some let the bad times cause them to doubt the covenant they entered into rather than approaching them as opportunities for purification that can make the relationship even stronger.

Our readings today have given us three profound highs – or mountain top experiences – that we all can use to sustain us in the valleys of our own lives.  The Holy Spirit gathers us and leads us up these mountains together.

The first mountain we ascend together today is Mount Moriah from the first reading. 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.  So Abraham ascends the mountain with Isaac, with his only son carrying the wood for the sacrifice, and builds an altar on which to accomplish it. He then places his son on the wood and as he takes his knife to slaughter Isaac, 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, only that we act with a pure heart. God judges not the results of our works but the intention of our hearts. In our hearts he sees our devotion. So, for example, 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 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.

Our second reading points us to the second mountain we must climb today: Mount Calvary. 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?” Even on Mount Calvary we are again assured of God’s constant love and help, for He was raised and not sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. 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, sin or death – no scene is darker than the scene the only beloved Son of the Father has already entered and overcome.

Finally now, we climb our third and final mountain, Mount Tabor of our Gospel reading. Here we find Jesus with his three favorite apostles: Peter, James, and John, his inner circle. 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, how could the long-awaited Messiah suffer and die? Jesus rebuked Peter for thinking this way but out of his great love and generosity takes him along with James and John, on the seventh day, to Mount Tabor to strengthen them. There, he showed them and us that God never abandons us even in our deepest despair or confusion. 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, glorifying the Lord by your life.” 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 and good works. 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. The God who stayed Abraham’s hand and provided for him on Mount Moriah is the same God who provides for us today. 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 today. 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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