ACTA COMMENTARY ON OUR SUNDAY LECTIONARY
Second Sunday of Lent Year B
Our Lectionary is a precious gift of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent liturgical reforms. It has begun to give Catholics some knowledge of the Bible though it is still true that, as a general observation, Catholics do not read God’s holy words, to use the phrase of Francis of Assisi.
There are, however, some deficiencies in the Lectionary. One is the habit of abbreviation, skipping whole sentences, and then ending such maimed texts with a declaration that what we have heard is truly The Word of the LORD. Another is the use of the Jerusalem Bible which was not and is not now the best English translation available. The JB soon became the New Jerusalem Bible and in November it will appear in a new edition - the RNJB, Revised New Jerusalem Bible. Frequent revisions indicate dissatisfaction and deficiencies. The same sorry story has happened in the U.S., now on a third attempt to produce a translation that can match the RSV, NRSV, and my preference, the ESV (English Standard Version). Of course, in our time we are blessed with a great variety of translations. We should pick the best for our Lectionary. And it is near time that the Catholic Church stopped producing phoney Catholic editions and joined with the Churches in producing a truly Common Lectionary. Or we might adopt the Revised Common Lectionary in NRSV. There is an ecumenical urgency in the call to the Churches to share the Word of the LORD.
A reading from the Book of Genesis 22:1-2. 9-13. 15-18
The Unbinding of Isaac
Today’s Lectionary first reading suffers from a number of abbreviations that rob the story of its dramatic intensity. The Genesis story takes twenty four verses to tell the tale. The Lectionary settles for 11 truncated sentences. The unbearable tension is built up by the literary devise of multiplying painful detail upon detail. To omit the detail is to rob the story of its drama and thereby to diminish both the horror of the story and its eternal significance. .
Rabbis have created a whole theology reflecting on the significance of the Unbinding of Isaac and their insights have led to its incorporation into Jewish daily liturgy. The divine demand that Abraham, the father of Jewish faith and ours, sacrifice (that means, “offer to God”) “your son, your only son, the one whom you love” surely too much even for God to ask.
Secondly, - and this happens in the Gospel reading as well - the beginning of the story is missed out: “And after these things …”. After what things? After the other nine tests to which Abraham has been subjected since his call. This is the tenth and final test. The Aqedat Yitzhaq (The Binding of Isaac) is not just the final test of Abraham. Jewish faith knows what is at stake in the land of Moriah. For the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) are bound up in the life of his son and, if the son dies, so do the promises and the blessings for Israel and all humanity:
… for through Isaac shall your offspring be named … Gen 21:12
Abraham has plenty of children but it is the child of Sarah who is to inherit the promises and the blessings. If the knife falls, humanity will be unblessed and God will have broken the promises and abandoned the blessings. At the Binding of Isaac all humanity holds its breath. Is the command to,
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you … Genesis 12:1
to end in,
Take you son, your favoured son, whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah? Genesis 22:2
So attend to each painful detail of readying the beloved son for destruction and for the breaking of promises by our God. From the command of God to the reaching out of his hand and the taking up the knife to slaughter his son there are 17 sentences of unbearable tension. And then, - Praise the LORD! - Do not lay your hand upon the boy! The blessings are safe. Humanity can breathe again.
Thus Jewish rabbis and scribes, and Jewish faithful, do not celebrate the Sacrifice of Isaac for there was no sacrifice of Isaac. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the Unbinding of Isaac.
Jump ahead. Jesus comes to Bethany and weeps. But with the power of God within him he stands at the tomb of his friend and shouts,
Unbind him and let him go free! John 11:44
And the band of soldiers and officers of the Jews seized Jesus in the garden “and bound him” (John18:15), Then Annas sent him, “still bound”, to Caiaphas the high priest (John 18:24). Sadly, through the good offices of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the body of Jesus is “bound in linen cloths” and laid in a tomb (John 19:38-42). And that is the end of another promising blessing given by Father God to humanity.
Except it isn’t. For when Peter, a predictable second in the race to the tomb, looked in he saw “the linen cloths lying there and the face covering which had been on the head of Jesus, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7). A very tidy God has unbound his Son and let us all go free.
And not only that. Why call our attention to the face cloth so neatly folded and set so prominently aside that the writers of John’s Gospel, excited by the wonder of resurrection, stop to call our attention to a facecloth?
Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would leave the veil off, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see how radiant the face of Moses was, that the skin of his face was shining. So Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak to Him. Exodus 34:34-35
Thus was the glory of God concealed. But the veil has now been set aside, neatly folded, and lying to one side in the empty tomb. For what may be seen there is the glory of God’s shining in the face of the Risen Son.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 115:10; 15-19
A psalm celebrating the loosing of bonds and the miracle of walking in the presence of the LORD. Much has been written to the effect that the idea of “covenant” is the centre of faith in God. God’s promise to be the God of promise is secured in the covenant with Moses on Sinai. But there are many failures to keep covenant. In words taken the Supper accounts, we break the Bread of the new and eternal covenant as sustenance on the way to heavenly feasts. But that covenant sealed in Body and Blood is broken by our waywardness.
But I suggest that at the heart of the Jewish story and at the heart of the Christian story is not covenant but Presence:
I will walk in the Presence of the LORD,
in the land of the living.
When we break covenant, when we are bound by our infidelities, when we are sorely afflicted by frailties that all flesh is heir to, then the Presence will seek us out and walk with us. Our Father in heaven always comes to earth to give us the Bread of tomorrow today. Behold! I AM WITH YOU - till the end of time! No matter how often covenant is broken, there is never a time when the LORD is absent.
A reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans 8:31-34
For Paul, God’s concerned presence is always on our side. The visible assurance is there in the Son, a gift from the Father of all gifts. The mercy is always there where acquittal is needed. For in the gift of the Son we have an eternal presence in his prayer as he stands at the right hand of the Father “and pleads for us”.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:2-10
Another omission. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration begins with “And after six days Jesus took with him …”. Mark is not concerned to tell us that what he is about to narrate happened six days outside “the villages of Caesarea Philippi (8:27 - 9:1). He is bestirring scriptural memories in his readers and hearers who will readily recall an ancient meeting with God:
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of the LORD came down on the mountain of Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. And on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the Glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain the sight of the people of Israel. And Moses entered the midst of the cloud and went up on the mountain and was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. Genesis 24:15-18
This is a translation of the Septuagint version, the translation of Jewish Scriptures used by all New Testament writers. The Greek Septuagint was the Bible of the early churches.
So, while other opinions are to hand in the commentaries, the most likely is that Mark wanted his readers/hearers to understand that the Transfiguration was best understood in the light of the descent of God onto Mount Sinai to meet with Moses. Just as Moses was enveloped by the cloud (recall the cloud by day which led the people of Israel through the wilderness), so Peter, James, and John are enveloped by the cloud and hear the voice of God identifying Jesus as the Beloved Son and, issuing the command to listen to him.
So the “After six days” is important and should not be omitted in the interests of the “incipit” instruction given in Liturgicum Authenicum.
Jesus is transfigured and the radiance and intensity of the colour of his clothing witness to the transformation.
Here is a grid that will help you to navigate through this story. For Mark it is the centrepiece of his Gospel. Everything in his text has been leading to this theophany, to this witness of God to the true identity of Jesus. We have been told in 1:1 and in 1:9-11 who Jesus is. The Transfiguration spectacularly displays the glory of the Son.
Incidently, many scholars believe that Elijah and Moses represent the Law and the Prophets. I believe they are on the mountain with Jesus because the spoke with God face to face and here on the mountain they are speaking face to face with Jesus. It is the Presence of God in Jesus that is at the heart of Transfiguration. Elijah and Moses, in speaking with Son, are, for mark’s readers, speaking to the Son of God.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
2 Καὶ μεθ' ἡμέρας ἓξ
And after six days,
The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days. And on the seventh day he called Moses out of the midst of the cloud.
παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ τὸν Ἰάκωβον καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην
Jesus, taking with him Peter and James, and John,
καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ' ἰδίαν μόνους·
he led them up ahigh mountain by themselves.
καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν,
And he was transfigured before them;
καὶ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο στίλβοντα, λευκὰ λίαν, οἷα γναφεὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οὐ δύναται οὕτω λευκᾶναι.
And his clothes became radiant, intensely white, such that no bleacher on earth could so whiten [them].
καὶ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Ἠλίας σὺν Μωϋσεῖ, καὶ ἦσαν συλλαλοῦντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ.
And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Πέτρος λέγει τῷ Ἰησοῦ· 5 Ραββί, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι· καὶ ποιήσωμεν σκηνάς τρεῖς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν. 6 οὐ γὰρ ᾔδει τί λαλήσῃ· ἦσαν ἔκφοβοι γὰρ ἐγένοντο.
And Peter, responding, says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, and let us make three tents , one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah”. For he did not know what to say; for they were afraid.
καὶ ἐγένετο νεφέλη ἐπισκιάζουσα αὐτοῖς,
And a cloud overshadowed them
, καὶ ἦλθε φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης
And a voice came out of the cloud,
Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός· ἀκούετε. αὐτοῦ
“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”
καὶ ἐξάπινα περιβλεψάμενοι οὐκέτι οὐδένα εἶδον, ἀλλὰ τὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον μεθ' ἑαυτῶν.
And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
Exodus 24:1 and 24:9
And [the LORD] said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and worship from afar.
[And they went up] and they saw the God of Israel.
Daniel 7:9 (cf. Revelation3:5;4:4;7:90
As I looked,
Thrones were set in place,
And the Ancient of Days took his seat;
His clothing was white as snow,
And the hair of his head like pure wool …
… for Moses had been talking with God …
I Kings 19:9-18
And behold the word of the LORD came to Elijah …
And Moses was afraid …
“Speak to the people of Israel … and let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.*
My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
v.5 And the glory of the LORD filled the Temple … where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever.
And as soon as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
Exodus 3:6 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered it for six days, and a voice came out of the cloud and on the seventh day [the LORD] called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.
Exodus 40:38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the Tabernacle by day, and the fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the people of the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.**
Exodus 3:6 and a voice came out of the cloud
Psalm 2:7 The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”
Isaiah 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him.
.Deuteronomy 6:4 Listen Israel! Shema Israel!
It is worth reading 2 Chronicles 5 which describes the bringing of the Ark to “the house of God” and especially the the song of the singers and trumpeters at the end:
For He is good,
His steadfast love endures forever.
Then read Chapter 6 which begins with a blessing of the people (by Solomon, exercising his priestly office - kings were endowed with priestly powers). This is followed by his Prayer of Dedication . His prayer begins in 6:14:
O LORD God of Israel,
there, is no God like you,
in heaven or on earth,
keeping covenant and steadfast love
to your servants who walk before you …
As the Transfiguration story emphasises, God is forever present to his people. But this presence is Jesus,: They saw only Jesus . The voice from the cloud (= God) points to him and commands “Listen to him”.
Moses summoned all the people and gave them the only commandment that matters:
We are transfigured by listening.
Father Joseph O’Hanlon.
Download: >>> Second Sunday of Lent: Year B