This Sunday’s Gospel takes us deeper into the struggle that is Lent, and indeed all of our Christian life. We fight to be good. But it is Jesus who gives us the strength to fight.
The first two readings are very short. The reading from Genesis is the call of Abram (later Abraham). God calls him out to a new life, and promises to protect him.
Although the Abraham narratives are long (Gen. 12-25), this little reading gets to the heart of his importance, and the reading the New Testament counts him as our father in faith (see esp. Rom. 4 and Heb. 11). Abram didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t know whether he would be safe. And the promises God swore to him were incredible. But he trusted in God’s strength.
That’s all. Abraham trusted God to be his strength. On the outside, yes, to protect him from his enemies. But on the inside, too, to give life to his weary body, to have the strength to keep walking, to know what to do. Abraham trusted in God.
The reading from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy applies that to us. “Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God. He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works.”
Now, there’s a clear contradiction, the central puzzle of grace, in that second sentence. He called us to a holy life – not according to our works? So which is it, a holy life, or not our works?
The answer – the real meaning of grace – is in the first sentence: the strength comes from God. Our salvation is “not according to our works” in that we don’t have the strength to do it. God asks too much of us. Love is beyond us. Prayer is beyond us. “A holy life” is beyond us.
But what is impossible with man is possible with God. It’s not that God lets us off the hook. It’s that he gives us the strength to do it.
The heart of the matter is Jesus.
Our Gospel gives us the Transfiguration, one of the passages that has a claim to be the very heart of the Gospel. (2 Peter preaches the whole Gospel from this passage. See also 2 Corinthians 3-4.)
Three points about this fabulous reading.
First, “the glory of God shines on the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). What the Transfiguration shows forth is the full glory of the Incarnation: man is filled with God – and thus can hear the voice of the Father saying “this” – this man – “is my son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Man can be filled with God. God can shine through man. Not around him, not off to the side, not high above him, but through man himself. That is the brilliant truth of the Gospel. That is the offer to us: just as Jesus was filled with God, so too can we be.
Second, this is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Jesus appears talking to Moses and Elijah. Moses is the lawgiver, the one who made – or rather, through whom God made – all those demands that we cannot fulfill. Elijah is the greatest of the prophets: the ones who called Israel to fulfill the Law, to its very depths, to total conversion. (As John the Baptist would do, too: repent!)
Jesus does not cast these figures aside, does not make them irrelevant. He is the one they looked forward to. In other words, the very strict righteousness of the Old Testament is only possible when man is filled with God, as in Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets because he allows us to fulfill them, allows us to see where they go. Because he is our strength.
Third, the apostles had nothing to offer in return. Peter foolishly – loveably! – suggests he could build them some tents. I think we are meant to laugh at the obvious inadequacy. But the Father says, “listen to him,” and Jesus touches them and says, “rise, and be not afraid,” and “they saw no one but Jesus.”
Finally, it all comes down to Jesus, to looking to him, to seeing the Gospel on his radiant face, to receiving from his touch the strength to live righteousness. It isn’t about Law, it isn’t about programs, it isn’t about getting off the hook. It’s about Jesus, who alone gives us strength: “they saw no one but Jesus.”
Do you ever substitute other methods instead of looking to Jesus? What could the light on his face allow you to become?