Second Sunday of Lent
Readings: Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Psalm 115: 10, 15-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
28 February 2021
Breaking open the word
“God put Abraham to the test” (Gn 21:1). This bold start to our first reading today can make us squirm in our pews. We can appreciate the value of parents “testing” their children, such as checking their readiness for a new opportunity or responsibility. Yet, God requesting the sacrifice of Isaac seems unjustifiable.
Occasionally there are calls for a new English translation of the Our Father petition: “Lead us not into temptation.” But most of us grasp the intuitive sense of the prayer. God does not lead us into temptation—we do that well enough on our own! But we beg him not to let us be tempted beyond our strength, not to let us fall into temptation; indeed, to lead us out of temptation. And he has a marvellous way of doing this while still respecting our freedom so precious to him: he gives us the light of memory.
A bishop once visiting with 50 or so young sisters at our community’s motherhouse asked us each to share one thing that had helped us along our journey of discipleship and vocation. As the stories flowed, he noted two consistent themes: free food, and eucharistic adoration. The first got us in the door, but it was the second that had us coming back for more. Many of us heard God’s call in the quiet stillness of candle-lit adoration, face-to-face with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. These were the moments of light, of clarity, which we needed to remember through the dull routine of daily life and moments of genuine darkness.
Abraham, too, was given moments of light and clarity by God—memories strong enough to allow him to endure unimaginable trials. The author of the letter to the Hebrews muses that God’s promise that Abraham would have descendants through Isaac was so clear in Abraham’s mind that it gave him confidence that even if Isaac was killed, God would raise him from the dead.
The Transfiguration was to be a light-filled memory for Peter, James and John. They saw Jesus so radiant and glorious that, unlike in his resurrection appearances, there was no room for doubting his identity. While sometimes we see the outstretched arms of the transfigured Jesus as foreshadowing the crucifixion, maybe instead, Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross were meant to remind the apostles of the transfiguration—to help them remember the truths they had heard spoken in the light, even in that hour of darkness.
At a crucial moment in my own vocation discernment, an older sister taught me, “Don’t doubt in the dark what God said in the light.” Our sceptical or anxious moments are not “more realistic” than our moments of peace and trust—just the opposite. Allow the light of the transfigured Jesus to fill your soul this week. Just like a newly-wed couple embark on adventures to create memories that will be a solid foundation for their marriage through the storms of life, so too, Lent provides us with an opportunity to make memories with Jesus. May our little “deaths” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving open our eyes to the ever-surprising ways in which he desires to share with us the glory of his resurrection.
SR SUSANNA EDMUNDS OP
Reflecting on the Gospel through Art
The Transfiguration – Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1260 to c. 1318–1319)
The Transfiguration (1311). Tempera on poplar. 44 cm × 46 cm. The National Gallery, London. Public Domain.
Today’s Gospel almost seems an answer to last Sunday’s. If we were left during the week fearful of life’s challenges, then today’s comforting message is that God is with us. The human Jesus certainly must have had some charismatic persuasive power over the apostles for them to have left their jobs at their first meeting with him. But now, Peter, James and John’s trust is rewarded as they experience the very presence of God in Jesus. And the direction God gives these chosen three—and us, of course—is: “Listen to him” (Mk 9:7).
We may have thought in the past that Lent involved “giving something up” or saying lots of prayers, but I think that the thrust in these times, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council which opened up the Scriptures for us, is to do more listening. Doing violence to ourselves does not necessarily convert us. True penance is not masochism. Denial of self must have a reason. It must be love. Love is to enter into the mind of the other. That’s where the listening comes in. A closer reading of the Gospels allows God to speak to us of his love. Our prayer is simply a response to this. Prayer cannot be my doing all the talking. I could end up talking to myself.
Six weeks of close listening may bring us to the point where we can say with the prophet Jeremiah: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me: you were the stronger” (Jr 20:7).
St Mark had begun his Gospel with Jesus’ announcement: “The kingdom of God is close at hand” (Mk 1:15). We may well wonder, then, if that is true, why do we not experience its peace and joy in our own lives? If Christ our Lord has all this power, why doesn’t he change our lives, heal our diseases, remove our fears? No doubt the community for whom St Mark was writing asked him the same hard questions.
Mark’s response was not a series of easy answers, but a hard look at Jesus’ own rejection, suffering, and cruel death—the passion actually takes up half of Mark’s Gospel. Mind you, Mark does not see Jesus as deliberately seeking out suffering. Jesus is depicted instead as experiencing great fear and anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane, and praying repeatedly to his Father to “take this cup away from me” (Mk 14:36). The fact is that in announcing the Gospel, the good news of God’s love—Mark is the only evangelist to actually call his writing a “Gospel”—Christ necessarily had to meet opposition from the evil forces which still clung to control the earth. “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world” (Ep 6:12).
We don’t know why God allows the evil we experience. Poverty, sickness, death—these are facts in our lives as they were in the life of Jesus. What is crucial, St Mark is trying to tell us, is our attitude towards these things. Today’s Gospel makes it very clear that however real these things are in our lives, they are not what God has finally in store for us.
Jesus, in living his life and responding to the will of his Father, met suffering and death, yet he was destined to transcend these things, to be raised up, to be victorious. This is the meaning of the Transfiguration. Such assurance, however, did not take away Jesus’ subsequent fears and feelings, nor does it do so for us. It simply remains there as bedrock truth upon which we can rely—God will be with us, God will deliver us. Our failures, our illnesses, our fears, are not the final page of the story.
Duccio di Buoninsegna was probably born between the years 1255–1260 in the hamlet of San Donato, near Siena. Strangely, his fame as a painter goes hand-in-hand with his reputation as a boisterous citizen. We have documented evidence of the many fines imposed on him. Despite this, the city of Siena gave him one of its greatest commissions, a panel to grace the high altar of the city’s cathedral which was dedicated to Our Lady. Siena was known as the Civitas Virginis, the “City of the Virgin”.
The result was the enormous Maestà, measuring five square metres, so-called because the front features Our Lady seated in majesty with the Divine Child, surrounded by rows of saints and angels including, of course, the patrons of Siena. On the reverse are 26 scenes from Christ’s passion. The finished work was carried into the cathedral on June 9, 1311. By 1506, it had been removed from the high altar, and in the late 18th century, it was sadly sawn in half. Some fragments were sold. The Transfiguration scene is now possessed by the National Gallery in London, but the majority of the work can still be seen in the cathedral’s museum.
For its time, The Transfiguration was a rare example of this subject in Italian art, for the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) was not universally celebrated in the Western Church in Duccio’s lifetime. Christ stands at the top of a rocky mound. His clothes are shot through with gold as though his very divinity is bursting forth. He stands between Moses to the left and Elijah to the right. Both hold scrolls representing their teaching, and Christ a book of the Gospels to show that the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old. The disciples Peter, James and John are kneeling below, their hands raised up to shield their faces as they recoil in fear and awe. A large part of the body of St John has been damaged. It has been restored, but not repainted.
The transfiguration of Jesus prefigures his coming resurrection, reinforced by Duccio placing this panel next to a scene showing the raising of Lazarus, a miracle in which Christ anticipates his own conquest of death
MGR GRAHAM SCHMITZER
Sr Susanna Edmunds OP grew up participating in Holy Mass and youth groups in the Diocese of Broken Bay where she received a love for Sacred Scripture and evangelisation. While studying engineering at the University of Sydney, she discovered the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration, regular Confession and faith-filled friendships through the Catholic student society and chaplaincy. World Youth Day 2008 brought Pope Benedict XVI and several hundred thousand pilgrims to Sydney’s shores, along with many religious congregations. Supported by friends and family, Sr Susanna discerned an invitation from the Lord to belong to him with an undivided heart. She joined the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in 2010, moving to Nashville TN, USA, where the community’s motherhouse is located. After completing further studies in philosophy, theology and secondary education, Sr Susanna began teaching in 2015. She made her final profession as a religious in 2017, and since 2018 has been teaching high school religion at Trinity Catholic College in Auburn, NSW. The sisters teach at four schools across Sydney and Melbourne, as well as assisting with young adult catechesis, women’s retreats and vocation discernment.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.