2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: TOWARDS RESURRECTION

transfiguration
Photo from the top of Mt. Manalmon

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, we reflected on the desert as a primary symbol of the Lenten discipline. This second Sunday of Lent, we will reflect on the mountain top as the primary symbol of the goal of Lent. Today’s 2nd Sunday of Lent suggests that the end of Lent is not the suffering and death but the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is the disciplining of our mortal and sinful body and soul in order to partake of the resurrected and transfigured body and soul of Jesus.

If desert was a testing ground, mountains are sacred grounds where God often reveals himself to people, called theophanies in theological terms. In the Bible, the mountains top symbolize the presence of God, since on top of the mountain, people are “closer to God” who dwells in the heavens (as in the sky). Thus, mountains and hills represent a higher level of spiritual consciousness or awareness. Mountain symbolize the transformation that will happen to us at the end of time, a transformation that will happen when we enter into the mode of existence of the resurrected Christ.

The second Sunday of Lent clarifies for us that resurrection is the main goal of Lent. Resurrection is our ultimate way of life not passion and death.   As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people! We are children of Easter morn. We are a redeemed people, redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people.

Many liturgists refer to Lent/Eastertide as “The Great 90 Days,” in Tagalog, pagsisiyamnapo.  Lent is 40 days which is the preparation. Easter is 50 days which is the celebration of resurrection. Easter is longer than Lent because it is the celebration of the resurrection while Lent is shorter because it is just the preparation.

We cannot separate Lent from Easter, in the same way that we cannot separate Easter from Lent.  Together, they compose the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ–Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection. The word ‘Paschal’ comes from an ancient Aramaic word, pasha (Hebrew, pesah) meaning ‘Passover’.  Passover is the central event in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is the story of of Israel’s liberation by God from slavery in Egypt. On the night of the passover, the Israelites were instructed by God to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb so that when the spirit of the Lord see this, the spirit will pass over the first-born in these homes, and thus, sparing them from death. As Christians we believe that Jesus has become the true sacrificial Passover “Lamb of God” (John 1:29).  This was fulfilled through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We celebrate the promise of sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ at our Baptism.

The readings today speak about the radical transformation which God will fulfill for us.

In the first reading, from the book of Genesis, God promised to Abraham that God will transform God’s chosen people–Israel. God will bestow an abundant posterity and land to Israel. God sealed his promise through a covenant which God established with Abraham:

“To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

In the Second Reading, St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, speaks of the change of our earthly existence in the final consummation.

Our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.

The term “glorious body,” reflects an apocalyptic hope, that is, the life we hope to achieve at the end of time. According to this hope, the life of the age to come will not be merely a prolongation of this present life but an entirely new, transformed mode of existence. It will be a mode of existence that Christ entered at his resurrection.

Today’s gospel tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. In today’s gospel from Luke, we read

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.

Transfiguration Icon

The Greek word used for transfiguration is metamorphoo—this is the root of the English word, metamorphosis. We use the word metamorphosis more popularly today for the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly, likewise in the transformation of a maggot into an adult fly and the changing of a tadpole into a frog. These are some of the amazing wonders of nature that we can ever witness in our entire lives. It’s almost like a change from one creature to a totally different creature. Who would have imagine that a beautiful butterfly would come out of an ugly caterpillar? Indeed, metamorphosis is a reminder and a symbol from nature that something good can come out even from the messiest and ugliest reality of our lives. Change, even radical change is possible as nature have shown us.

This gives us the greatest hope and joy in anticipation of the transformation that will become of us and of God’s creation in the fullness of time. Jesus’ transfiguration was a foretaste of the metamorphosis that is to become of us at the end of time. This also happens to us everyday. We often have glimpses of glory: in a remarkable sunset, in the shining face of a delighted child, in the radiant joy of new parents. Like the transfiguration, these glimpses of glory encourage and strengthen us to continue the journey of life toward eternal glory.

The divine metamorphosis that occurred to the three disciples on the mountain top during the Transfiguration of the Lord will also happen to us and we will become “God-viewers.” Like them and all the Saints of the ages, God’s light will metamorphose our whole body and soul. We will achieve what is called Theosis (Deification) and shine as luminaries radiating the light of the knowledge of God. We will become partakers of the Divine Grace and communicants of God.

This is also true for our world, Jesus’ resurrection is a symbol of hope for the change that will happen in the world from injustice into integrity, from hatred into kindness and from violence into peace. This gives the utmost hope especially to those who have long been suffering and desperate. But as Jesus showed us, the only way to transfiguration and transformation is through suffering and ultimately dying to ourselves.  Change can only happen at the cost of ourselves.

All these musings call for a reorientation of Lent. Australian Redemptorist Fr. Kevin O’Shea suggests that we take a reverse journey during Lent. We begin in the end—the resurrection:

Suppose we could … do Lent backwards. Suppose, instead of Ash Wednesday, we started with Easter Sunday. Suppose we then thought what we would have liked to have done to make ourselves ready for our share in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be like a reverse Easter vigil, not for one night, but for 40 nights. Backwards.[1]

Lent begins with the profound belief that we are a redeemed people through the resurrection. This victorious reality is what we received from our baptism. Baptism endows our profound identity as a redeemed people through the resurrection of Jesus. That is why from the earliest history of the church, the church has set aside the whole 40 days of Lent as the preparation and training period of candidates for baptism, called catechumens. The catechumens are solemnly baptized at the end of the Lenten season on Easter Vigil. This worthy practice was revived by the church in recent years through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. Thus, in Lent, we re-evaluate our lives in the light of our baptismal promises and identity. Lent is an academy where once again we relearn the meaning and implications and appreciate the wonder of baptism.

Whilst rituals, penitence, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are important, they are not the primary goal of Lent. As we go through Lent each year, oftentimes, our focus is on the external rituals and acts of penitence.  In so doing, Lent becomes about us—our efforts, discipline, sacrifices and goals no longer about the victory of Jesus. When this happen the whole Lenten discipline becomes superficial, merely obligations that we have to go through but does not bring forth true change. Thus, come Easter, after all the observances in Lent, we become what we call in Tagalog, BSDU: balik sa dating ugali (back to old ways).

By returning to our victorious baptismal identity, Lent becomes a time for examining our participation in the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is pondering what “rising from the dead” means. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, that despite all our frailties and failures, our wickedness and weaknesses, God’s grace will redeem us over and over again. There is no human being, however evil or sinful, that is beyond redemption by Jesus’ resurrection. As nature have shown us, change, even radical change, is possible. This too gives us hope in a transformed world, that in the midst of too much suffering in the world around us and the seeming prevalence of evil in our world, goodness will triumph, Jesus will triumph, and we will reach our fullness and life’s fullness in God’s grace.

 


 

[1] Kevin O’ Shea, “Ash Wednesday,” cssr.org. Accessed 22/02/2018 at https://www.cssr.org.au/writings/dsp-default.cfm?loadref=2765

 

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BAPTISM OF OUR LORD: THE WORK OF CHRISTMAS BEGINS

baptism-of-jesus
Photo Courtesy of Ancient Faith Ministries

Today is the last day of the Church’s Christmas season. Jesus’ birth has now been celebrated. His public life comes next. His baptism begins it.

The end of Christmas is not just the putting down of all Christmas decorations–the Belen (Nativity Scene), Christmas tree, Christmas lights and others. The end of Christmas is not going back to our ordinary past lives as if no change happened in our lives. As we say in Filipino–balik sa dating ugali or BSDU (back to old ways).

The end of Christmas is also a beginning–the beginning of Jesus’ mission. This is what we celebrate today–the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his mission. As we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we are also invited to return to our own baptism. The end of Christmas calls us to relive our baptismal identity in our daily ordinary lives. The end of Christmas is the beginning of the work of Christmas.

The readings for today’s Baptism of the Lord talks about the meaning of baptism and mission of Jesus. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah, talks about what kind of a servant Jesus will be.

Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

The Second Reading spells out what baptismal living looks like: “reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly.” This is the rebirth to which God calls us.

In the gospel, we saw how the Baptism of Our Lord was the united action of one God, three Persons. The Father called out from heaven, “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit descended on Jesus after he was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

In reliving our baptism in the context of today’s realities, it might also be helpful to look back at the history of the sacrament of baptism.  R. Alan Streett, Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College, Dallas, Texas, in his book, Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance, examined the development of the sacrament of baptism within the context of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Roman power.

Streett claims that Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their loyalty to Christ and his kingdom. Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.[1]

When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all.  Baptism, thus, became a rite of resistance, a politically subversive act.[2]

As a sacramentum, baptism was, in Richard DeMaris’ term, a “boundary crossing ritual”. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring loyalty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.[3]

This historical context and lesson about the sacrament of baptism challenges us to relive baptism today as a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression. The sacrament of baptism calls us to radically redefine our lives in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. This is not easy; to break with the predominant culture and follow Christ is often costly.

The Baptism of Our Lord is a reminder for us of the counter-cultural witness of our baptismal identity today. At the end of this Christmas season, we have been empowered by Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us, to practise the true spirit of Christmas throughout the year. In this light, I would like to end with a litany called “The Work of Christmas” composed by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

 


 

[1] R. Alan Streett, “Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act,” The Bible and Interpretation, December, 2018. Accessed at https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/baptism-politically-subversive-act#_ftn3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.