Second Sunday of Lent B
Psalm 115: 10.15-19. R. Ps 114:9
Cathedral of the Holy Family
Eyes for the Face of Christ
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The Church has left the wastelands of the Judean desert for the heights of Mount Thabor. The liturgy invites us to fix our eyes on the Face of the Transfigured Christ, shining more brightly than the sun. This is the whole reason for today’s magnificent Entrance Antiphon: “True to my heart’s promise, I have eyes only for Thy Face,Thy Face, O Lord, do I seek. Do not hide Thy Face from me.” (Ps 26:8-9)
Conversion and Joy
Think about it. When you want to know what your friend holds in his heart, you study his face. Today the Church would have us look upon the Face of Jesus to our heart’s content to discover there all the secrets of His Heart. What do I read on the Face of the Transfigured Christ? When I gaze upon His Face I read there Love’s pressing invitation to conversion and to joy.
A Lamp Shining in A Dark Place
When a parent is expecting a child to come home in the late hours of the night . . . or in the early hours of the morning, he leaves a light on in the window or on the front porch. That light is not merely functional; it says “This is your home. We are waiting for you. You are loved.” The Eternal Father, too, has left a light burning for us: it is the radiance that shines from the Face of the Transfigured Christ. Thus, Saint Peter says: “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 P 1:19).
Lead, Kindly Light
Orient your steps in the direction of that inextinguishable Light, and you will, even though it be night, find your way home to the Father’s house. This was John Henry Cardinal Newman’s experience:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
That “kindly Light” is what Saint Paul calls: “the glory of God shining on the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Do you remember when Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5) Jesus said to Him, “I am the way . . . no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (Jn 14:7).
Turning and Returning
Love invites us to conversion. Conversion is at once a turning and a returning. Conversion is a turning toward the radiant Face of the Son, and then a returning through Him, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father’s house or, rather, to the Father’s bosom, to the Father’s heart of hearts. Only there will be truly at home, for there Love created us to be, to dwell, to live eternally. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God,” said one wanderer in the night — Saint Augustine — “and our hearts are restless until they come to rest in Thee.”
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). Only a shortsighted vision of Lent fails to see it in terms of ascension to the Father, and therefore, in terms of joy. “I am leaving the world,” says Jesus, “and going to the Father” (Jn 16:28).
Swept Up Into the Love of Things Invisible
It is impossible to focus on the Face of Jesus 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 into the joy of the Father — both experienced by the grace of the Holy Spirit — are what Lent is all about.
The First Reading traces for us the movement of ascension. God called to Abraham, and Abraham, lending 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. God’s most passionate desire is that we should be with Him even as the Son is with the Father. Jesus prayed for this 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).
The Wood of the Cross
And so Abraham, having heeded 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 — a figure of Jesus bearing the wood of the cross — 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: the Father, the Son, and the Fire of the Holy Spirit. In the wood, we already see the mystery of the Cross.
The Father’s Love
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, what then are we to say of Abraham’s God? Abraham on Mount Moriah is an icon — a human portrayal — of the Father’s selfless love, the very love revealed in the brightness of Mount Thabor and then in the darkness of that other lonely height called Golgotha.
To the Summit of Sacrificial Love
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, and to a joy that no one will take from us.
We find the same movement 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.
Ascension into Joy
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 (fasting, almsgiving, patience, pardon) — is the beginning of an ascension into joy.
To the Altar
The very pattern of the Mass is one of conversion and ascension. In the first part of the Mass we listen to the voice of Christ and gaze upon His Face shining in the Scriptures. The purpose of the homily is to make us ready to ascend to the altar. There, in the second part of the Mass, at the altar, we will look upon Our Lord’s Eucharistic Face.
There is a reason why our Catholic altars are traditionally elevated by several steps. This is not an architectural convention; it is a theological statement. Every sacred mountain in history points to the altar where Our Lord’s sacrifice is made present. 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; the altar is Golgotha; and the altar is the mountain of Jesus’ Ascension.
The Joy for Which Love Created You
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 of the Cross will be made present. Turn toward God and be converted; ascend toward God, and ascending, taste the joy for which Love created you.