Feb 20, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent: "See things differently"

"This is my chosen Son; listen to him"

Gen 15: 1-12, 17-18
Phil 3: 17-4:1
Lk 9: 28b - 36

O God, who have commanded us
to listen to your beloved Son, 
be pleased, we pray, 
to nourish us inwardly by your word,
that, with spiritual sight made pure,
we may rejoice to behold your glory.

(Collect of Mass)

There is no doubt that today’s movie production has become all about special effects.  You sometimes wonder, where’s the story? It’s all explosions, dazzling light or unbelievable visuals. You walk out wondering, “How did they do that?”  

Whether its outer space battles, a turbulent ocean scene, war battle fields and conflict, vast armies, or created natural wonders and animation, movie images today have become so authentic that awards, including the coveted Oscar, are given a special category for cinematic special effects as technicians and artists make fantasy appear to be reality.

As we journey through Lent, we see in our scriptures this weekend about what special effects artists in Hollywood may salivate over. The first reading from Genesis offers a feast for the imagination as we see Abram in the desert. I can see a vast Montana night sky dotted with numerous distant stars and galaxies.  Some of the stars might streak across the darkness of distant space as we hear the voice of God speak to Abram: “Look up at the sky and count the stars.”

The most fantastic promise, however, that God makes with Abram is not so much the impressive scene of natural wonder but God’s promise that his descendants will be like the countless stars Abram can see. Now, if Abram was in his 20’s we could say that God offered something hopeful and impressive.  But the fact that Abram was long beyond child producing years, as was his wife Sarah thought to be sterile, we might say that God was simply creating some sort of special effect for Abram to make fantasy appear to be reality. Was this just an illusion of God or some spiritual symbolism?

Yet, we know that God did not confuse Abram or try to offer some visual illusion.  God calls Abram to faith – to trust that what seems impossible will indeed be made possible and true.  God called Abram to put his faith in his word and to see things as God sees them; to adopt a new hope and vision.

As we move to the Gospel, Luke brings us a scene and a similar challenge that he offered to Abram.  To see as true what one could not imagine.  The transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of his chosen three disciples, Peter, James, and John, presents a vision of cinematic potential. Just imagine the brilliant light, two angelic-like figures of Moses and Elijah, this glittering blinding light from Jesus’ face and his clothing, the cloud that overshadows and a voice that speaks?  It’s a special effect technicians dream!

Yet, it is no dream; it was some kind of revelation to fully conscious disciples who: “had been overcome by sleep.” I’ve often wondered how that was possible and if so did they wonder if they were dreaming when they beheld this strange and awesome glory?  But, Luke reminds us that these men became “fully awake” thereby reminding us this did indeed happen.

Somewhat startled from sleep, perhaps, Peter blurts out eagerly: “Master, it is good that we are here.”  And we, so many centuries beyond in our post-resurrection faith, might think, “Yes, it is Peter.  It is good that we too are here before the glory of Jesus.  But, what you see is something of the future.  Though Jesus’ divine nature is now revealed, soon you will experience tragedy and disillusionment.  The cross isn’t far away. Yet, hold on to this because such glory will come. This is neither a dream nor fantasy.  No special effects here.  But begin to see things differently.  It will be far more than what you see here.”

The ever impulsive Peter is struck silent as the other disciples are presented as speechless.  Luke tells us they “became frightened” which is not a surprise. Like the experience of Abram in the desert, Peter and the other disciples are presented with the future not as a possibility but as a promised reality.  They are challenged to begin thinking and seeing in a new and different way. That is what Lent reminds us to do as well. 

While our experiences of the faith are rarely so revealing as that mystical moment on the mountain, for Abram and the disciples it was a life altering experience.  No longer could they possibly go back to what they were or look to the future without a new hope. But the cross was not far away and through suffering they will find glory.  Isn’t it the same for us? One day we’re on the mountain in glory and the next we may find ourselves on the plain. Yet a new vision given us by Christ brings us hope.  

In our second reading from Philippians 3 Paul speaks in love to this early Christian community.  He reminds them to now see things differently than what they saw in their past lives or in the culture around them. 

We can no longer be occupied, Paul states: “with earthly things.” What we see and experience here cannot be the focus of our life or where we find our ultimate treasure. We cannot pretend to be followers of Christ, creating a sort of false religious special effect and still follow the model of unbelievers. Now, they must see things in a new light: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  God has changed the world in Christ and proposed a new vision for humanity; the meaning of life goes beyond what we see here as ultimate glory in Christ awaits us.

For Abram, Paul and his early Christian communities, for the disciples on the mountain top and for all of us this Lent, it is a season of new vision.  What we profess, the values and morals we strive to live, and how we view everything from human differences and suffering; what we hold most valuable and the meaning of death is not always what we see in the world around us. 

We are, as we often say, counter-cultural when needed. As we celebrate the holy Eucharist, like Peter we all should proclaim: “It is good that we are here” because it is unlike any other gathering. 

We come to the mountaintop of the Eucharist to meet the risen Christ in Word and Sacrament and on the faith we share with one another.  In the Mass we listen to the voice of the Father in his Son. While it may indeed not always feel like higher altitude, the liturgy has no special effects or illusions created.  Here we are called to faith and to bring the world around us a new vision and hope in Christ Jesus as we descend back on the plain of our daily lives.