For anyone attuned to the news channels or, more urgently, witnesses, it was another terrible week. Amid the lesser daily disasters that punctuate our mortal existence, the plane crash in Ethiopia and then the horrific mass shooting in New Zealand struck like dark lightning. Inevitably, people ask “How can a good and loving God allow such things to happen? And if god knew it was going to happen, why didn’t God warn people so they could get out of harm’s way? Does God even care?
Other than the occasional ravages of nature, the most violent episodes in New Zealand’s recent history were arguably the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings. It is a peaceful as well as beautiful country, one famed for its allergy to nuclear weapons and street violence. All that changed on Friday, when two unsuspecting congregations of devout Muslims at prayer were horribly attacked with high capacity assault weapons. Men, women, and children were systematically but indiscriminately shot. The death toll now numbers 50, and will likely rise.
Even when peace seems close at hand the world can quickly turn cruel and heartless. Simmering hatred of people of different race, religion, culture, sexuality, or class still too easily veers into discrimination, persecution, and eventually deadly assault. While the actual incidence of such violence over the past fifty years seems to have declined worldwide according to many observers, the sad history of human hatefulness is very long and very bloody. And resilient. This second Sunday of Lent we have reason to probe our hearts and examine our lives, knowing that such wretchedness can find a dark hiding place in any of us.
The first reading tells us of the covenant God made with Abraham – a kind of contract executed in the ancient style amid split animal
carcasses and to the accompaniment of some pretty eerie effects. The Lord God, who had called Abram, as he was first named, out of the depths of what we now call Iraq, down near Basra, and then down from the border of what we now call Syria, had a plan. And Abraham, as he was now to be named, was a part of that plan. A big part. It would be through his posterity that the great promise would be fulfilled, a promise that went as far beyond Abraham’s imagination as the stars exceeded his field of vision.
On a really good night, far from city lights and especially in the desert or high in the mountains, you can see about 5,000 stars. I can well imagine that Abraham saw about that many out in the desert near the Dead Sea. But the fulfillment of God’s promise would be much greater than having posterity even as numerous as the sand grains on the shore. Abraham had no idea of what lay in store.
St. Paul gives us a hint in the mysterious words of the Epistle to the Philippians about how our bodies will be transformed according to the pattern of Christ’s glorified body in the fulfillment of the promise begun so long ago. But it’s a promise that goes far, far beyond the physical transformation of our arthritic, creaking, aching, sagging, shaky, sick, and sometimes mortally injured physical selves. God is about transforming the universe, world by world in a sense. And we are all part of that promise and that plan.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, an event found in the synoptic gospels and placed strategically just before the passion narratives, points us in that direction, but it also takes us back and deeper into the mystery of God’s presence in the midst of catastrophe and suffering. The Ancient Covenant had been enacted in darkness and at night. Now the Light of Glory shines through and from Jesus between living human witnesses that enacts a new covenant promise. And the identity of these witnesses is important – Moses and Elijah, not merely figures of the Law and the Prophets, but messengers, evangelists who presage the Messianic Reign of God. More important than that, as we learn in Luke’s gospel, it is what they are discussing with Jesus. They appeared in glory and spoke of what Luke calls Jesus’ ‘departure,’ [Luke 9:31]. The word Luke uses here in Greek is very important: “exodus.” Jesus is about to fulfill the ancient covenant and lead humanity into a land of promise beyond all expectation. But he would do this by emptying himself, and here is the connection with the Epistle to the Philippians. Jesus was about to suffer and die and so enter into his glory. The cross was waiting for him in Jerusalem.
The disciples had no inkling of what this was all about and they wouldn’t awaken from their dogmatic slumber until after Jesus had risen from the dead. It’s hard for us to fathom, too. Even Jesus seemed to feel abandoned on the cross – he called out to God not to forsake him. And God did not forsake him. God was there in the suffering, death, and rising. God was always there. God always is. God did not spare Jesus from the passion, but redeemed the world through it. His glory is the glory of the Cross.
And so when we get jittery in the face of terrible disasters and horrific accidents, the seeming indifference of nature to our wants and needs, and even the barbarities human beings afflict upon one another, we should not have to ask where God is in all this. Because God is right there. Always has been, always will be. Our task, like that of the dim-witted apostles, is to open our eyes and learn to recognize the loving and healing presence of God in all things and all things in the presence of God. The promise has not been broken. But we still harbor the capacity to interfere, to delay, to defy that promise when we submit to the darkness that finds a niche within our hearts where it can fester and eventually erupt.
And that is one reason why it is still important to look within and confront the darkness. It is why Lent still has its place. With the help of God’s grace, we can and will overcome the dark.