2nd Sunday of Lent B

See commentary on Mark 9:2-10 in Mark 9:2-13.

Homily 1 - 2006

The readings today present us with four different people who trusted: Abraham, Jesus, the Psalmist, and perhaps even Isaac. Two of them, at least, trusted the impossible, and their trust occasioned immense anguish and the surrender of all certainty: Abraham and Jesus. Abraham had had an unshakeable sense that God would give him a land of his own, descendents and a blessed world through him. The only promise of the three that looked at all likely was descendants – at least he had an unexpected son, an only son, whom he deeply loved. Yet now he was equally certain that God was asking him to kill his son as a sacrifice, to surrender his only son, and with him, further descendants - to surrender a future. (Don’t get hung up on whether God actually tested him this way: the original event is lost in the mists of antiquity. Enough to know for the sake of the story Abraham’s call to trust despite the impossible, despite the absurd.)

The Transfiguration is placed in the Gospel narrative immediately after Jesus had shared with his disciples his sense of his own fate: he would soon be removed from the scene, disposed of, killed, and because of that, his mission would end in total failure. He had shared too his sense that, if they followed him truly, they too would face the same fate.

Both Abraham and Jesus chose to face the impossible, the irrational, because they trusted God, not necessarily a God whom they understood, but a God who was mystery – a mystery they both felt they could somehow trust. Abraham had no idea how; Jesus believed in resurrection (whatever that might mean!). Both trusted God to make sense out of nonsense, to bring life out of death.

There was third one who trusted: God trusted Abraham; God trusted Jesus, trusted that each would trust him and that his hope for the world would not be betrayed.

When Jesus shared with the disciples his certainty that he would be killed and that they too would pay the price of suffering – (if they took seriously the challenge to love), the disciples virtually went into psychological denial – they could not come to terms with it at all. The message of the voice from the cloud was simply: "Yes, the one I love will indeed die painfully, shamefully. You – listen to what he has said".

I would expect that some of you here have suffered because you have chosen to love, perhaps to gingerly set out on the road towards forgiveness (despite the recurrence of overwhelming feelings of hatred and vindictiveness) – uncertain, wondering whether you were fools, perhaps seeing little or no immediate result, but remaining steadfast because you trusted God, because you trusted love. Perhaps yours was the response of the Psalmist today: I trusted, even when I said: I am sorely afflicted. 

A wonderful thing is that God trusts you. God’s vision - God’s hope - for the world is realised precisely by decisions like yours. Refuse them, and God’s trust is made hollow, the world does not change, redemption gets blocked. God trusted you. You responded. God’s redemptive grace continues to flow in our world.

Homily 2 - 2009

If you have been watching a serial on the TV and you miss one episode, it can sometimes be difficult to make sense of the next. The Gospels can be a bit like that. Take today's Gospel, for example. If you aren't aware of what has just been said previously, it can be difficult to see the point of what is being said  today.  

In today's story, the voice from the cloud says of Jesus (to Peter, James and John): Listen to him. Listen to what? What's he said? Sometimes we may be inclined to take the message to mean everything Jesus said. But, read in the light of the previous episode, it is referring to something much more specific, in fact, something that is really hard to listen to. Immediately before this episode, Mark wrote of Jesus telling the disciples that he was facing certain suffering and death. Peter had had trouble with that, and, in the dialogue that followed, Jesus went so far as to say to Peter: Get behind me, Satan. Perhaps Jesus was struggling with the prospect himself. Jesus then went on to add that Peter's way of thinking was human thinking, not God's way. Strong words. So, to underline the importance and the non-negotiability of the message, Mark included the episode we just read today.

There the voice from the cloud insisted that suffering and death do not disprove who Jesus is. They illustrate it: This is my son, the beloved .. the one like me, the one I love. That's hard to take on board. Instinctively, we think that suffering and a loving God don't sit well together. That is not what God says: This is the one I love .. This is my son, the one just like me! Listen to that!

In fact, in the previous episode, Jesus had gone further, and had said to the rest of the disciples: If any want to be my followers, then let them deny themselves and take up their cross ... and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. That's hard to take on board, too!

Following Jesus, living the Gospel, mean opting to love, to love people. As we grow,  if we grow, slowly we come to see that to love means to not be in control. Real love puts no conditions. Real love makes us vulnerable; it sets us us up to be exploited. In some cases, in a world that doesn't work that way, it can be dangerous. It meant the cross for Jesus. For some Christians today, it means something very similar. For us, it more likely takes the shape of the constant, sometimes discouraging, often unappreciated choice to respect the other, to listen to the other, to serve the other, and, when in our vulnerability our goodness has been exploited, to forgive the other.

That really means denying our ego, and, as Jesus put it, it can feel like losing our life. Surprisingly, to the extent that we succeed, we find ourselves experiencing personally a growing peacefulness, and unsuspected freedom, that we would like the rest of the world to share. Perhaps, it makes sense to Listen to him!

Homily 3 - 2012

Perhaps we should not take too much notice of the details of today's First Reading about young Isaac's close shave with sacrificial death. The story is one that has come out of the mists of antiquity and been told and retold around Israel's campfires until eventually taking written form many centuries later. But there is one element that is striking. The narrative refers to one voice that it simply calls god, and to another that it identifies either as the Lord or the angel of the Lord.

The voice of the one identified as god demands that Abraham kill his son Isaac in sacrifice to him. The demand sounds shocking to us; but in Abraham's day it was accepted practice in the religions of the Middle East. However, the voice of the one identified as the Lord [or the angel of the Lord] forbids the human sacrifice and substitutes an animal, a ram, for the child. And then it makes to Abraham the wonderful promise of blessing: of countless descendants and of prestige, power and wealth. 

Perhaps the story records a monumental breakthrough in humanity's evolving insight into the mystery of God: from the universal acceptance of a god tied into death and violence, [that saturated the minds of Abraham's contemporaries and that Abraham still heard in the depths of his own psyche] to a slowly dawning recognition that God may have nothing to do with death or violence but be a God of life and of blessing.

 We may be tempted to think of Abraham as somewhat primitive; yet people still wrestle with the same instincts that influenced him. How many people associate God with disasters, with sickness, suffering and death, diminishments of all kinds, seeing them as punishments or tests or trials, even piously consoling the bereaved with such thoughtless sentiments as: "God only takes the best"? I am not saying that suffering or death is easily explained – but let's get our sense of God straight. We are the ones up to our necks in violence and killing. 

 In the case of Jesus, human persons were the ones who planned and carried out the killing, not God. As Paul expressed it in today's Second Reading: In Jesus – God become human – God came among us, knowing we would kill him, yet trusting/hoping that, through the violent murder of one so obviously innocent, we would be shocked into recognising our ways of violence, realise that we are constantly up to it, and change our ways. Violence is endemic to us, not to God.

The world's violence has become second nature. Today on International Women's Day, it is good to be reminded that the victims of the world's violence are predominantly women. We see their faces on our TV screens. We take it for granted, hardly noticing it - and carry on with "business as usual".

Today’s Gospel reminds us that, with the possible exceptions of Peter, James and John after Jesus' transfiguration, the apostles were unaware of the mystery of Jesus. Wonderfully, through baptism, we have all been "Christed". Somehow, we share in the mysterious life of the now-risen Jesus, effectively transfigured. As God once said of Jesus: This is my Son, the beloved, God now says of me, of you: "You are my child, the beloved". We are largely unaware of it – unmindful of the wonder of our own dignity, and heedless of each other's. Until we are imbued with a deep sense of human dignity, we shall continue to relate to each other with hostility. 

We need to listen. We need to take time. We need to create silence. We need, all of us, to become contemplatives. Our world would be a better place.

Homily 4 - 2015

Today’s Readings can be quite challenging readings, each in its own complementary way. The first Reading, particularly, is topical in the light of the media discussions about the suffering of children in detention, and the current Victorian Royal Commission dealing with domestic violence. For me the three Readings raise the question, What is God really like? Mark’s Gospel passage that we had last week presented Jesus going around Galilee, preaching the Good News of God. At least, as far as Jesus is concerned, God is totally, and only, Good News.

But how did Abraham see God? He clearly believed that God was directing him to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice in God’s honour. And Abraham was prepared to do it! In fact, child sacrifice was common in that region in Abraham’s time, and continued to be practised there for centuries afterwards. But to see God as demanding child sacrifice is to make God a monster. Of course, we know the end of the story. God was only testing him; and an animal sacrifice would do. Does that let God off the hook?

What sort of God would demand the slaughter of animals as a way to honour him – since even animal sacrifice puts violence and cruelty deep in the heart of God? If violence and cruelty are acceptable practice for God, then they can also be good enough for us. Even the Church for a long time did not baulk at that. The Inquisition is a scandalous case in point; as were the Crusades, initiated, encouraged and blessed by Popes. And, unfortunately, Jews and Muslims, whose Scriptures also share the same account of Abraham, are no different.

There is another question worth considering. The Bible said that God was testing Abraham. Kill your own son! Only a test, a trick to test his loyalty! A lot of devout Christian people today try to make sense of suffering by believing that God is testing them. But what does that say about God? Do adults who deeply love choose sometimes to hurt each other or deliberately hurt their children to test their love? Could you genuinely love a God who physically or psychologically tortures you to test your love?

How do we make sense of today’s story? It is question of interpretation. We need to see the story of Israel as the story of a people gradually coming to know God more and more clearly under God’s patient, gentle guidance. When God first called Abraham, Abraham’s sense of God was no different from that of the rest of the people of his time and culture. It took Israel about two thousand years until one of them, Jesus of Nazareth, came on the scene; and through his life and teaching revealed once and for all what God is really like. And over the two thousand years since then we have been struggling to understand him and to take his message to heart.

The Hebrew Scriptures and the Church’s history witness to a process not unlike an old-time dance – two steps forward, one step back. Someone got a wonderful insight. Some people grasped the point. And then they all got cold feet, and went back more or less to where they were before. Till another prophet came along with a further beautiful insight – and the process continued.  We need to know how to read the Scriptures, sorting out genuine inspired insight from mere cultural baggage. It is a fascinating study whose overriding interpretative clue is “The Good News of God”.

That Abraham saw animal sacrifice a better alternative to human sacrifice was an enormous step forward for humanity. That he saw trusting faith in God as preferable to simply getting words and ritual right was another step towards the light. But every two steps forward seemed to be followed by one step back.

What is your sense of God? The best way to know someone is through the eye of love.

Homily 5 - 2018

Our cultures seem amazingly fascinated by death, by killing. Where does the fascination come from? Does it give us unconsciously the exhilarating feeling of power, of omnipotence? Or is it rather an indication of powerlessness, an all-pervading sense of despair?

It’s everywhere. It colours openness to euthanasia, abortion, to ISIS’ beheading of enemies, to terrorism, to allied involvement in the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan and now of Syria, to capital punishment and the burning issue of gun control in America. I was appalled to hear on TV on Friday night a spokesman for the gun lobby in the US saying that the answer to the unprecedented spate of mass shootings there was to arm the teachers, the good men, to shoot those he called the bad men. It sounded like a film clip from an old-time Western. Did it not occur to the gun lobbyist that there would be fewer killings if bad men and good men alike had no access to lethal weapons at all? And now Australia wants a bigger stake in the international armaments industry.

Fascination with death is not new. Four thousand years ago, Abraham was caught up in it. In his time human sacrifice, particularly child sacrifice, was acceptable practice The Scripture writers who in later centuries recorded the old stories had no problem, it seems, in conceiving of God ordering Abraham to kill and then burn the son he loved, Isaac, to prove the extent of his obedience.

In this case they said that God was only testing Abraham – God in fact would “spare his son”. But why test? and why in such an inhuman, uncaring way? Such testing assumed a primitive, brutal sense of God. Israel still had some way to go across its chequered history gradually to uncover the true face of the consistently loving, utterly non-violent God.

Abraham loved his son. After the tragedy of his being childless for eighty years or so, his sterile wife Sarah had mysteriously become pregnant. The promises that God had made about Abraham’s descendants multiplying, filling the land and becoming in time source of blessing not only for themselves but for people of “all nations”, had become possible. Abraham was ecstatic. And then, this mindless, unbelievably cruel command, “Take your son… whom you love… There you shall offer him as a burnt offering.” In any circumstances, Abraham’s faith, that somehow “God would provide”, was astonishing.

This story of Abraham and Isaac enjoys a pivotal place in the great monotheist faiths of Israel, Islam and Christianity. Both Mark in today’s Gospel and Paul in today’s Second Reading used Abraham’s love for Isaac to throw light on the love of the Father exhibited In Jesus’ death. Mark had the voice from the cloud identify Jesus as, “my Son, [whom I love].” Paul wrote, “God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up, to benefit us all” – Jewish descendants of Abraham, and Gentile converts from “all nations”.

The problem of Jesus’ suffering should always confront us. It provided the context of today’s Transfiguration, which, Mark carefully noted, happened “six days later”. Six days beforehand, Peter had confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus had responded by immediately informing his disciples that he would soon be killed. He then added that all who wanted to be his disciples would also need to be prepared to suffer. The disciples seemed to have moved into psychological denial. That is why the voice from the cloud insisted, “Listen to him”.

We all need to “listen” carefully in order to depth in the crucifixion of Jesus the extent not just of Jesus’ commitment to and consistent love for the human race that killed him. We need to depth also the love of the Father who could still surrender into human hands “the Son whom he loved”, knowing what we would do, in the hope that this confrontation with our violence would alert us at last to our paralysing fascination with death and killing, and lead us to radical change.

Homily 6 - 2021

Today’s Gospel incident followed on closely from Jesus’ announcement to the disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem “to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death.” It blew their minds. They were just coming to terms with the sense of his specialness and struggling to put words around it. Even though he added that he would “after three days .. rise again”, rather than clarify things, that served only to confuse them more.

And then we have today’s incident — Jesus’ transfiguration. After he had witnessed Jesus transfigured, Peter’s response was, “Let’s make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” [who had appeared along with Jesus]. The other disciples, James and John, said nothing. Mark’s comment on Peter and the other two, no less frightened or confused than Peter, sounds somewhat patronising, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened”.

The “voice from the cloud” would hardly have improved things — “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” Whose voice could it have been? In telling them to listen, it seemed to affirm what Jesus had so recently said about himself being killed. But if it were God’s voice [and whose else could it be?], how could God let that happen to his “Beloved Son”? The “frightened” Peter’s mind would have been exploding.

What Jesus had to say on the way down the mountain, “Say nothing to anyone until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead”, would simply have confirmed their confusion. No wonder that, among themselves, they discussed what “rising from the dead could mean”. They simply could not hold together both the obvious specialness of Jesus, their friend, and the fact that he would face being humiliatingly and cruelly killed. That would “mean”, surely, that their dreams, their hopes, were over.

Perhaps our current experience has led many of us, too, to wonder, like Peter, James and John, what does it all “mean”. Our Church, our Catholic Church, has “clay feet”. So many people have left, lost interest; and we worry what will happen when the pandemic ends. Will people come back?

The early disciples struggled to hold together Jesus’ only too obvious humanity, his weakness, his powerlessness, his embarrassing death with his equally obvious specialness, his wisdom, his wonderful attractiveness, especially his resurrection and his breath-taking forgiveness. They came in time to accept that Jesus was inseparably both a divine and an only too human reality.

Today we struggle to hold together the Church’s only too obvious humanity with its undeniable goodness and its equally undeniable sinfulness. It welcomes people such as ourselves; it is people such as ourselves. Among us are wonderfully generous, merciful, heroically loving, radically good people — saints. Others have behaved abominably, have betrayed the Christ they claimed to follow, have missed the point completely. Others again are somewhere in-between, ordinarily good and ordinarily sinful. Yet others are an inconsistent, regularly changing, mixture of all these virtues and vices.

But more than this human dimension, we believe that the Church is also the Body of Christ — it is not just a human reality, a human institution. To accept this divine reality is a pure act of faith. But that is no surprise. We know that. It makes the difference. And the effectiveness of our act of faith in the Church seems to be a reflection of the freshness and depth of our personal relationship with Jesus.

The only response that can ultimately sit with all that and hold it together is love — unconditional love.