Sunday Scripture: The Second Sunday in Lent (Year C)


Welcome to this, the thirty-first of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Theophany of the Son of Man on Tabor.

The top of Mt. Tabor, where the Transfiguration took place.
  • First Reading: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18.
  • Psalm 27 [26]:1, 7-9, 13-14; Response v. 1. 
  • Second Reading Phil 3:17-4:1.
  • Gospel: Luke 9:28-36.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Genesis (from the Latin Vulgate, in turn borrowed or transliterated from Greek γένεσις, meaning "origin"; Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית‎, Bereʾšyt, "In [the] beginning"), is the first book of the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaKh) and the Christian Old Testament. It is of huge importance to me, as it is the source of much controversy. Today, Atheists erroneously consider that it is a scientific manual with which Christians prescribe the blue-print of creation. Although some literalists still consider that creation happened just as the English translation of the TaNaKh recounts, this idea is broadly discounted; again, I refer you to the teaching of Dei Verbum which asks that scholars pay attention to the literary forms:
"The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another." Dei Verbum 12.
Genesis is typically Jewish in its purpose as a story to explain the origins of the world. That's not to say that Genesis is just made up nonsense; far from it! It contains some of the most important and beautiful truths of our being. This is the Jewish way of thinking about things though: if they want to understand how something works, they tell stories.

One of the major questions that confronts any reader of the Bible, and especially pertinent if you consider it to be the Word of God, has to relate to the factual authenticity of its contents. The book of Genesis offers an account of creation which many mock in today’s scientific community and may seem at best, simplistic to the uninitiated. If the whole of the Bible is inspired, how does one understand the figures and dates of the primeval age alone? What about God’s direct intervention in the affairs of men? For example, the book of Exodus itself proclaims:
“the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders…” (Deut. 26: 5-9) 
Did these miraculous events really occur the way they are documented in the Bible? In his work Reading the Old Testament, Lawrence Boadt suggests that slaves escaping into the Sinai were probably a common occurrence. He gives examples of Egyptian documents which mention attempts to stop such groups (Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p.163-165). He goes on to note that the important difference with the Exodus escape is the Divine element it held for Israel. He postulates that Egypt may not have even realised this aspect at all!

Another valuable dimension to this is given by the great Biblical Scholar, Dr. Gerhard von Rad. He describes the way that some academics only analyse the historical veracity of the Torah as “historical materialism” in his book Genesis (von Rad, G. Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1961) p.31). Designating this kind of narrative as “saga”, von Rad explains that the expectation that the saga should either contain historical fact, or else it can be described as merely a product of poetic fantasy is an extremely crass misunderstanding of its essence. It is true, however, that this scepticism has been the attitude prevalent since the 19th Century. The saga then offers a product born of a completely different kind of intellectual activity from that of history (historie), although history (Geschichte) is what it is concerned with.

What then are these narratives? How can they be concerned with fact and yet not be tied to fact by their contents? von Rad answers by stating:
“Whatever saga we examine, we find with respect to its simplest and most original purpose that it narrates an actual event that once and for all occurred in the realm of history. It is therefore to be taken quite seriously – it is to be believed. In all that follows, therefore, let us hold fast to this: by no means is a saga merely the product of poetic fantasy; rather it comprises the sum total of the living historical recollection of peoples. In it is mirrored in fact and truth the history of a people. It is the form in which a people thinks of its own history.” 
The Old Testament sagas then, are concerned with Israel itself and the realities the people of Israel found in themselves. In this way they contain a much more real history, a history with much more truth in it than a purely factual historical writing would. They contain the secret contemporary character of apparently past events. This character is more than a list of the achievements, wars, political struggles, victories and defeats experienced by a people. It takes place on another level and speaks of inner guidance working and maturing in life’s mysteries. It is a history with God.

This week: God promises Abraham a son and land. We see a return here to the theme of faith on man's part being necessary as the sole adequate response to God's word (15:6). Faith has two dimensions: trust in God's promises and obedience to His commands. Promise and command belong together as complementary dimensions of God's Word. Obedience is possible in view of the promise, and what God promises is realisable only through obedience. God's initial revelation of His plan to Abraham provides the agenda for the restoration of the exiles to the Promised Land. In the middle of the 6th Century B.C., the Jewish people of Judah in Babylon were in the same position as Abraham in the middle of the nineteenth Century B.C. Like Abraham, they had to receive God's Word as promise and respond to it with a trusting and hopeful faith. The Scriptures were revealing that the Exile did not remove them from God's plan but, in fact, put them in the shoes of their Father Abraham. The Jews in Babylon had to realise that God was calling them to a new beginning as the people of the promise.

God does not fulfil His promise straight away however. Abraham has to learn what it means to live by faith through years of testing and experience. He fails miserably by not remaining in Canaan and going to Egypt instead (12:10-20) and repeats the same folly years later (20:1-18) and this time, only God can save him. Before this, in the interim which concerns us today, God ratifies His promise in the form of an unconditional covenant (15:1-21). Eleven years after Abraham leaves his homeland, Ishmael is born to Abraham's slave Hagar (16:1-16). A full twenty-five years after his departure, when Abraham is almost one hundred years old, God establishes the covenant marked by circumcision.

God's Word to Abraham consists of a command (Leave your home and your country...") and a promise ("and I shall make you a great nation") that bears implications for all peoples ("and all clans on earth will bless themselves by you") (12:1-3). The promise has two dimensions: the provision of a land and the genesis of a people or nation. It speaks in terms of concrete realities, not abstractions and human resources cannot possibly bring these realities into existence—Abraham's wife is barren (11:30)—thus only God can accomplish the promise.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians was written by St. Paul in A.D. 54 from Ephesus while he was on his second missionary journey. It's style and theology are typically Pauline, although the letter does show a friendlier side to the Apostle which is more often hidden in his more polemical and formal writings. Philippians is referred to as one of the "captivity epistles" because Paul composed it whilst in prison (1:13). Given this fact, it is remarkably up beat in tone. The letter is almost entirely positive, with only brief warnings and almost no polemics.

This week: Paul's appeal that the Philippians should imitate him demonstrates his understanding that his witness will leave a more lasting impression than his words. He appeals to readers to follow his own life after Christ (4:9; 1 Cor 11:1). We see here the imitation of the saints in prototype. Paul attacks unidentified opponents who make him weep with their indulgence in earthly pleasures, which are leading them away from heaven. Paul uses the allegory of Roman citizenship as a dim reflection of the commonwealth they share as Christians--denizens of the heavenly Jerusalem! We see a real correlation with the Gospel in 3:21 where Paul explains how Christ's work will be completed in us when he transforms our frail and mortal bodies into glorious ones like His own (CCC 999).

The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: The Transfiguration resonates on three levels:

  • Christ reveals His glory to offset the shock of His first Passion prediction which is at 9:22. This is true in all three Synoptic accounts and the position is meaningful; the Transfiguration gives the predictions of the Passion a necessary clarification. It should be noted that it is a constant theme of the Synoptic Gospels that this clarification was not understood by the Disciples before the Resurrection. The change described in the appearance of Jesus suggests the change which is implied in the Resurrection narratives and which made it difficult for the Disciples to recognise Him.
  • The Father's voice, the chosen Son, and the cloud of the Spirit manifest the presence of the Blessed Trinity. Light and glory in the Old Testament are elements of theophany—that is, the sensible presence of the LORD.
  • The prophets Moses and Elijah testify that Jesus will fulfil the Law and the prophets of the Old Testament. 
This episode also parallels YHWH's manifestation to Moses on Mt. Sinai (CCC 554-56, 697). The Cloud is also a symbol of theophany in the Old Testament. The Transfiguration is a statement that the Son of Man even in His earthly existence is the glorious Son of Man who is recognised in His glory after His Passion and Resurrection. The theology of the Transfiguration is entirely one with the theology of Phil 2:6-11, where Paul probes the significance of Jesus' emptying of Himself, the meaning of God's taking to Himself the Human condition.


Mt Tabor & environs.

Drawing them all together...

I have stood on top of Mt. Tabor and in wonder, I found my scepticism left me and I felt full of faith and the Spirit. I was so inspired that I began to talk effusively of Moses and Elijah and the theology of what happened in that place.

Mount Tabor is the traditional location for the Transfiguration. The earliest identification of the Mount of Transfiguration as Tabor is by Origen in the 3rd century. It is also mentioned by St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome in the 4th century.The Church of the Transfiguration is located atop Mount Tabor. It is later mentioned in the 5th century Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis. It seems likely that the Apostles told others which mountain it was that the Transfiguration occurred on and thus this became part of the oral Tradition of the Apostles. I remember studying the Scriptural accounts and what stood out about this event was its irrelevance. It has no parallel in either the Old Testament or the New. It is not a doublet of the Baptism of Jesus either. The story seems so unbelievable, one is left wondering why did the Evangelists tell it—unless it is true? The incredible story is replete with images of brightness—light and glory—and yet is connected with the heart of Jesus' mission, with his life-saving death and Resurrection. Jesus has come to enter and transform our human condition so we can be like He is. St. Athanasius calls this the promise of divinisation. St. Paul tells us that we are waiting for Him who will transfigure our lowly bodies into copies of His own glorious body—what an incredible promise, full of expectation and joy.

One interesting dimension to the story is that Jesus is found alone after the wonderful sight had suddenly gone. The words are stark and lonely: the basic ordinary human situation prevails once more. The Disciples might well have wondered wether it all really happened at all. They say nothing about it until after Jesus' Resurrection from the dead. The other Gospel accounts explain that Jesus warned them about His approaching Passion. For the Disciples it must have all been so confusing. What did Jesus' words mean? How could they comprehend the mystery of the Passion?

The reality of this experience of confusion speaks to our human condition, to our own position where faith sometimes seems difficult, even lost, in the face of the apparent futility of the created order. God seems indifferent, remote, dead. The example here is of Abram, our great father in faith. It is to him and his example that we are always directed. god called him and promised him great things. He left his home to follow the LORD and undertook to believe, in spite of his age. God made His pact, or covenant of love, with him in a scene that reminds us of the Transfiguration in its divine initiative, power, and mystery. The covenant established with Abram was the beginning of God's plan of salvation that reaches its high point in the coming of His Son, the Suffering Servant. The solemnity, the mysterious sleep, all show God working mightily, and show Abram justified by his faith in God's promise to transform our lives. The Psalm expresses it all, beginning with confidence, as when our faith is strong, then, it becomes clouded with doubt as it pleads for mercy; it expresses abandonment and loss, but then gloriously reasserts its confidence, transformed by hope. We believe in our glorious destiny with the Risen Christ: "I am sure I shall see the Lord's goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Him, hold form and take heart. Hope in the Lord!"


The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor 

Mum & Margaret at the summit of Mt. Tabor

Mum & I on Mt. Tabor



Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 4/ February 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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