It was another week for grieving as images of gun violence taking more innocent lives again claimed our national attention. And once again the national discussion has become mired in factionalism and evasion. The potentially grim story of Abraham almost murdering his son Isaac as a human sacrifice calls us to account in its own way. What is a child’s life worth?
And what are we to make of a God who orders his faithful follower, who has obeyed his command to give up everything to pursue a new life far from the comforts of his home, seeking an ever-receding promise in a faraway, hostile land, this faithful disciple who has been blessed with a child of promise in his old age, now to murder this child in an act of savage worship? What are we to make of a God preached as a God of Love who, we are solemnly assured, did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us, even, as Paul adds elsewhere, while we were yet sinners?
For Abraham, we reassure ourselves, it was only a test, the greatest and the last of a series of tests. God knew that Abraham would stay his hand at the last moment. He would listen to the angel voice, substituting a hapless ram for the child of promise. But what kind of test was that? Or did Abraham really intend to kill his son, obedient to the voice in his head, even hoping against hope, as St Paul reassures us? If so, what kind of father had God chosen to become the ancestor of the Holy People?
On this second Sunday of Lent, many Christians stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most astounding manifestations of
God’s gracious presence in all of scripture. It is joined with deliberate intent to the story of Abraham and Isaac. The link is a fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, celebrating God’s unquenchable love for humanity, a love that did not spare even his own Son. That little phrase may disturb us slightly, but we move on, eager to remain, like the disciples on the mountain of transformation, basking in the light of divine election.
And what has all this to do with Lent? Each of the synoptic gospels places the Transfiguration here, just before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, where the wheels of judicial murder are already turning. Is this event the culmination of his public ministry, a glorious endorsement of his earthly life, accompanied by an echo of the great voice heard at his baptism and lit from beyond by the approaching dawn of Easter? Or is it the prelude to the Passion, a reminder that just beyond the cross and grave lies triumph, a moment of splendor provided by God, or at least the evangelists, to steady us – and Jesus himself – for the terrible ordeal which is about to begin? Perhaps it is both.
It’s probably easier to dismiss the whole episode in the modern scholarly fashion as an editorial device which could have no foundation in fact, for it is, as even the disciples seem quick to observe, simply too good to be true. But having not read the scholars, the evangelists seem to think it belongs there, precisely as a prelude to the approaching passion and death of the Messiah. Like Isaac, Jesus is to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. But unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He it is who will suffer death in our stead. Significantly, one of the verses omitted from today’s reading from Genesis informs us that when Isaac questioned his father about the lack of a sacrificial victim, the old man said, “God will himself provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus dies at the very hour in which the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.
Jesus takes his chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. This is not merely hidden divinity suddenly breaking through the folds of Jesus’ old clothes. True, for a moment, his garments become glistening white, more radiant than any detergent could get them, despite what you might see on television. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, whom (scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps, they do. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking “about his departure, his Passover, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his impending death.
A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen for what? In each case, the account is prefaced and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection. Jesus cautions them to remain quiet about the experience, and they do. It seems they are too dense to comprehend what Jesus might mean by “rising from the dead.”
But matters are not so simple, and neither were the disciples. The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds and glory and heavenly voices that terrify their hearers. And the ancient figures who were most identified with the mountain appearances of God were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who sought refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appeared to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great saints of the Ancient Covenant, whose deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but will return before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus stands between them now has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the eschatological prophet, the promised one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
It puzzles the disciples. How can the Prophet of the End Times, he who will be raised up like Moses of old, appear before Elijah returns to announce his coming? And Jesus will tell them, Elijah has come. [Mark 9:12-13.] And he went his way, as I will go my way. And you will go yours. In each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].
And this is why these readings appear on the second Sunday of Lent. As the master goes his way, so the disciples must follow. Luke will explain it further in terms of a day yet to come on which Jesus will tell other disciples “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?” [Luke 24:6] But that is getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the breakthrough of God’s reign.
There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the senseless death of children. In the Death of Jesus, faith tells us, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed.
Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of Jesus and transform our lives. As goes the master, so must go his disciples.
When I was a lot younger than my college students today, the US TV viewing public sat in their living rooms enthralled for 177 episodes of a half-hour espionage thriller called “I Led Three Lives,” about a real-life double-agent of the FBI named Herbert Philbrick. He wrote a factual autobiography with the same name published in 1952, which I and thousands of other Americans happily devoured. The TV program ran for three years between 1953 and 1956. By today’s standards, that would be considered a phenomenon.
In any case, it was about Russian Communists trying (and succeeding) to infiltrate the United States on practically every level, something really and avidly investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee until its decline in the late 1950s, and especially by the Senate investigations associated with and often led by the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who subsequently lent his name to the frenzied “witch-hunts” of later times.
The Philbrick story factually and serially ended with a sensational trial in 1949 that resulted in the conviction of eleven Americans accused of acting to overthrow the government. Undercover agent Herb Philbrick was a surprise witness whose testimony, with that of several other double-agents, sealed the fate of the defendants.
Flash forward to the Angelina Jolie thriller, Salt (2010) and the riveting TV drama series The Americans, starting in 2013 and still running. Stimulating spy stuff, full of bad Russians bent on inflicting mortal damage to the USA. And now… oops? The Mueller Indictments seem to be a return to the past — Russian agents actively recruiting and “duping” Americans in an attempt to bring down the Republic… or at least make it really miserable, apparently with notable success.
Did the KGB and its successors learn something from all that TV and film coverage of past decades? Or did Americans fail to? In any case, we have the repeated assurance from the highest levels of government that “There was no collusion. Absolutely no collusion.” Rest easy. It’s all make believe. Fake news. Or maybe not.
These days, our attention is more likely to be focused on the flu than on leprosy or, more properly, Hansen’s Disease. Although yesterday I did ask a friend who was heading to Hawai’i for a short vacation whether he intended to visit Molokai Island. You’ll recall it as the site of the once-infamous leper colony and now also a shrine to the memory of St. Damien de Vreuster, who devoted his life to caring for the inmates there. (My friend said “no,’ by the way. Not many people select Molokai for a holiday visit.)
Many years ago, when strolling through Leuven on my own, I happened upon the church where the tomb of Fr. Damien is now enshrined in the crypt. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. His canonization in 2009 was a truly memorable occasion for a number of reasons.
It seemed appropriate to mention all that because two of today’s three readings focus on leprosy, which may
seem odd. But in fact, it is not the disease that the readings call our attention to, but those who suffer from it and especially our attitude toward them, which especially calls to mind the witness of Fr. Damien.
Many skin conditions called leprosy in the ancient world were not Hansen’s disease. They were known to be very contagious and lacked many of its symptoms, such as disfigurement, blindness, and loss of pain sensation. “The term could also be used for mildew on a person’s clothes, possessions or living quarters.” https://www.cdc.gov/features/world-leprosy-day/index.html
Today, Hansen’s Disease is relatively rare, although it still occurs with alarming frequency in hotter, wetter parts of the world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “an estimated 2 to 3 million people are living with Hansen’s disease-related disabilities globally. The number of new cases reported to the World Health Organization in 2016 was more than 200,000. Close to 19,000 children were diagnosed that year, more than 50 a day. Two-thirds of all new cases are diagnosed in India, which remains home to a third of the world’s poor, a group disproportionately affected by the disease.
The disease is caused by a bacterial infection. It is only mildly contagious and rarely fatal. It can be controlled with antibiotics and other treatments. But in the ancient world, leprosy was a terrifying disease, one which was believed to result because of some spiritual failing. There was no cure short of a miracle.
Lepers were expected to keep away from people so as not to cause offense or problems regarding ritual purity. If they failed to do this, they could be driven away with rocks and sticks — and you can imagine how frequently this was done, especially when lepers came into the city to beg. That’s what it means to be an outcast.
The treatment of lepers in the ancient world may seem cruel in the extreme. But in many respects, the treatment of those suffering from this dread condition was surprisingly humane. They were in some respects sacred persons, protected by divine law from being killed on sight. Areas were set aside for them to live. Actually, we do worse with regard to people in our own times who have disfiguring diseases. Not just AIDS, but any disease that is regarded as personally threatening, such as cancer. We prefer to hide away people with mental diseases or other conditions that render them difficult to care for or merely unpleasant to look at. Achieving a truly just and humane civilization still has a ways to go.
We don’t call people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease “lepers” anymore because of the disgrace that made the term a catch-all phrase for anyone who is socially repugnant. But there are still “lepers” among us today, and they occupy the real focus of the readings today. We are presented with a serious conflict: as those who profess to follow Jesus, how are we to treat people who frighten us or seem to threaten us?
In it here that the second reading is important. St. Paul tells us “do not give anyone offense, whether Jew, pagan, or Christian” — something in itself we could think long and hard about, as anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination increase here and abroad. The word Paul uses here is stronger, actually, than what we mean by “offense” — it means “to chop at someone, to cut them down, to attack them.”
Paul has been explaining to the Christians at Corinth that although they are free to eat the food that was sacrificed in the pagan temples and later sold in the market, if doing that would scandalize Jews or Christians who were sensitive to the possibility of idolatry, they were not to do it. They were not to hurt someone’s conscience.
Significantly, Paul’s warning concerns worship, much as the treatment of lepers in ancient Israel concerned worship. Lepers were specifically banned from the Temple. Even to touch a leper’s clothes made a Jew ritually unclean, unable even to enter the Temple or perform religious duties. And this brings us to Mark’s account of the Jesus and the leper, which follows directly after the story of his curing the man afflicted by an evil spirit which we heard last week.
Jesus not only allows the man to approach him, he actually touches him — which immediately made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Law. But like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke’s gospel, his desperate attempt to reach Jesus results in his being healed. Their faith opened the way for the grace of God to heal them. But here, they seem to violate the norm that St. Paul endorses — not to give offense to anyone. Both the leper and the unfortunate woman gave plenty of offense.
What must have amazed Jesus’ disciples and outraged his enemies, is that he took no notice. He saw only their need, and recognized only their faith. Not to be offended is at least as important as not giving offense. Not when we are dealing with those desperate in their need for help and assistance.
True healing comes from faith and grace — the graciousness of God who is the creator of all, the savior of all, the healer of all. And we would do well to remember that God is particularly attentive to those who suffer oppression, discouragement, and outright persecution — the poor, the neglected, the forsaken. It is not those who profess to be well who need a doctor, Jesus said, but those who know they are ill. It is our need and hope that give us title to the mercy and grace of God.
When we are able to welcome and assist those the world despises, to recognize in them our sisters and brothers, then we will have seen the kingdom of God. Then we will experience our own healing, and the healing of our nation and the world.
In Christian ages past today was known as Sexagesima Sunday, and still is by Lutherans, Anglicans, and old-time Catholics. It’s the season before Easter, which is now just eight weeks (57 days) ahead, and only a week and a half before Ash Wednesday. Carnival time by the old reckoning, and to tell the truth, pretty much what is going on in Washington and Minneapolis for very different reasons. (Where is Sr. Jean Kenny now that we need her? Her Super Bowl predictions were far better than those of Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications about the remaining days of winter!)
Even though the name has changed in the Catholic calendar, there is still a shift in the tone of the readings selected for today.
Carnival is coming to an end. In the Book of Job, one of the true masterpieces of world literature, the central figure appeals to us as a man of faith and heroic patience, true to God despite all that the Adversary could do to weaken his trust. But Job was also a complainer. It may be said in his defense that he had cause to be.
If we didn’t know the background, today’s first reading might be called the Prayer of a Chronic Depressive. Day drags into night, night drags on sleeplessly into day. And yet, it all passes so quickly. We wake up one bleak morning and find ourselves poor, lonely, old, stiff, sore, and probably not feeling well at all. It just ain’t fair. Job is even the butt of criticism and disparagement by his wife, friends, and neighbors. And yet, he remains true, a model of fidelity in the face of poverty, illness, age, neglect, and misjudgment. You might say that old Job is the patron saint not so much of whiners and malcontents, but of the elderly poor in most of the world.
For them and for many people, life on earth is a drudgery…. “Man… is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages… months of misery… troubled nights….” The contrast with Paul’s self-description could hardly be more complete. Like Job, Paul suffered a lot for his trust in God, and even he complains a bit: “I am under compulsion and have no choice….” Elsewhere, he details his sufferings, miseries, woes, and hardships. They were considerable, too. In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he itemizes his griefs (2 Cor 11:24-28) – but not here.
Paul was not a whiner. He says simply, “my only recompense … is that I offer the good news free of charge.” But I did this to myself, he adds. “I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible.” Paul’s slavery is a labor of love — patient, kind, persistent. God’s slave, he offers his drudgery as a ransom for others.
Next we come to the image of Jesus himself, the servant of the servants of God. That is the title the popes began to use of themselves increasingly starting back in the sixth century. But Jesus had no Swiss Guard, no secretaries, no staff, no chamberlains, or press secretaries. In any case, we tend to read these accounts of Jesus’ early ministry with an eye to the content — Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, curing the sick and expelling demons… all of which seems to have been granted even by those who did not believe in him. But here we are also invited as with Job and Paul to read between the lines. It’s not about the what, or even the how, but the why.
Like Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Jesus was one of those people who couldn’t say no. The portrait Mark paints here is of a man who was tired from his exertions, but unable to refuse help to those who came to him. He didn’t seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel so much as they sought him out. The whole town gathered outside the door, and he cured them, probably well into the night. And he arose early, stealing off into the desert for some alone time to pray and gather his strength. And the disciples came scrambling after him, tracking him down with the townsfolk practically at their heels. Jesus’ response is to go on to the next village and the next and the next, announcing the kingdom of God and driving back the darkness.
One of the adages of the modern world, perhaps not without reason at times, is that we should learn to say no. “Yes” comes to the fore too easily. And yet, it is exactly his “yes” that drove Paul to uncommon lengths to preach the gospel, fretting over his little churches like a mother hen in a raging storm. It was his “yes” that wore Jesus to the bone curing, healing the possessed, and preaching.
In that Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” [2 Cor 1:18 – 20].
In Christ, it is always Yes. Jesus is God’s “yes” to us, and he is our “yes” to God. In him God heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds, and sustains the lonely. And if that is to happen today, if the Kingdom is to be preached, the darkness driven back inch by inch, God and Jesus will be making some stiff demands on all of us. Let us pray that our response, like Job’s, like Paul’s, like Jesus, will always be “Yes, Amen,” to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.