Second Sunday of Lent B
Psalm 115: 10.15-19. R. Ps 114:9
March 12, 2006
Benedictines describe their life in terms of conversion. The vow of “conversion of manners” translates, in some way, Saint Benedict’s desire that “the monk’s life should at all seasons bear a Lenten character” (RB XLIX: 1). Other monastic traditions speak of the same fundamental orientation in terms of the penitent life. Saint Francis of Paola, the fifteenth century founder of the penitent Order of Minims in southern Italy, gave his brothers a watchword that today shocks and surprises us: Semper quadragesima! “Always Lent!” The intuitions of all the saints, astonishing in their diversity, spring from the same pure source of the Gospel and, in the end, converge in the same dazzling light: the Face of Christ, shining like the sun (Mt 17:2).
“Always Lent!” Does such a perspective condemn us to a life of gloom and morbid introspection? Nowhere in the Rule of Saint Benedict is there as much joy as in the chapter on Lent. Lent is about compunction, contrition and conversion; conversion flowers into joy. Today’s mystery of the Transfiguration is an invitation to conversion and to joy.
Conversion is at once a turning and a returning. Conversion is a turning toward the Face of Christ, and a returning through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. Today, in the words of the Servant of God John Paul II, we are invited to “fix our gaze on Christ’s radiant face in the mystery of the Transfiguration” (VC, 14). This is the essence of conversion. Conversion is a turning of our eyes to the unfading Beauty each of us was created to contemplate. At the deepest level, conversion means turning our faces to the Face of Christ, in response to the Word of God, so as to return through Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Our Lenten focus on the Holy Face of Christ is not something arbitrary and subjective. It comes from a sincere and humble desire to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7) today. The 2002 instruction on consecrated life, Starting Afresh from Christ, said: “The path which consecrated life is called to take up at the beginning of the new millennium is guided by the contemplation of Christ, with a gaze fixed, more than ever, on the face of the Lord” (SAFC, 23). Conversion of life begins with a conversion of focus. “Look towards him and be radiant” (Ps 33:6). This is true not only for those living in a monastery; it is true for anyone anywhere who seeks to live out what began on the day of his or her baptism.
All of this being said, Lent cannot be described, nor it can it be experienced, in terms of conversion alone. Lent is also about ascension. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Mt 20:18), says the Lord; and again, “I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (Jn 16:28). The Church, with ashes on her head, replies, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” (Ct 1:4). Only a shortsighted, narrow-minded vision of Lent fails to see it in terms of ascension to the Father, and therefore, in terms of joy. It is impossible to focus on the Face of Christ without being caught up in his ascension to the Father. One of the prefaces of Christmas sings: “As we come to know God made visible in the Word made flesh, we are swept up as well into the love of things invisible”(Christmas Preface I). Conversion to Christ and ascension to the Father, both experienced by the grace of the Holy Spirit, are what Lent is all about.
The movement of ascension was traced for us in the first reading. God called to Abraham, and Abraham, turning the ear of his heart to the Word, replied: “Here am I” (Gen 22:1). This is the movement of conversion, but it is not enough. Conversion without ascension is incomplete. The passion of God is that we should be with him even as the Son is with the Father, that we should ascend even into the secret of his own life. For this Jesus prayed on the night before he suffered: “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory” (Jn 17:24).
And so Abraham, having inclined his heart to the voice of God, takes his only son with him, sets out and goes to the land of Moriah, to offer his son in sacrifice. “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off” (Gen 22:4). Leaving behind his attendants, having laid the wood of sacrifice upon his son Isaac, and carrying with him the fire of the holocaust, Abraham ascends the mountain. Look closely at the text. What do you see there? The father, the son, the fire, and the wood. In the father, the son and the fire, we contemplate an obscure and mysterious foreshadowing of the saving Trinity. In the wood, we already see the mystery of the Cross.
The lonely high place, destined to be the scene of a bloody immolation, becomes instead, at the last moment, the scene of an epiphany of God’s saving love, “a love stronger than death” (Ct 8:6). God says to Abraham, “You have not withheld your son, your only son from me” (Gen 22: 12). If Abraham, a man, is capable of such selfless love agápe what then are we to say of Abraham’s God? Abraham on Mount Moriah is an icon of the Father’s selfless love, a love later revealed in the brightness of Mount Thabor and then in the darkness of that other lonely height called Golgotha.
In Abraham the Father bares his heart to us. God withholds nothing, and in giving us his only Son, he gives us everything. “Since God did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, how will he not give us everything else along with him?” (Rom 8:31). The grace of conversion is given us, as it was given Abraham, in view of an ascension to the very summit of sacrificial love, to joy.
The same movement is traced for us in the Gospel. In the verses immediately preceding today’s passage, Jesus called his disciples to conversion: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34): conversion. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves” (Mk 9:2): ascension. The gaze of Peter, James and John is riveted on the Face of the praying Jesus shining like the sun (Mt 17:2). Contemplating the Face of Jesus transfigured, the apostles are drawn upward after him toward the Father. Seeing Jesus pray, Peter, James and John enter into that prayer. The bright cloud envelops them too. The summit of all prayer is to be lost in the prayer of Christ to the Father, to be overshadowed by the cloud of the Spirit. Every little step of conversion we make not only in prayer, but also in every action of sacrificial love agápe is the beginning of an ascension into joy.
The very pattern of the Mass is one of conversion and ascension. Having gazed upon the Face of Christ shining in the Scriptures, we now make ready to ascend to the altar. There we will look upon his Eucharistic Face. In every Mass the altar is Abraham’s Mount Moriah; the altar is Moses’ Mount Sinai; the altar is Elijah’s Mount Carmel. The altar is Mount Thabor; it is Golgotha; and it is the mountain of Jesus’ Ascension. The altar is all of this because it is the place where for us, here and now, the Father, and the Son, and the Fire, and the Wood will be made present. Turn toward God, ascend toward God, and ascending, taste “the joy of spiritual desire” (RB 49:7).