lent The Sánchez Archives


Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Called, Blessed, Graced

GENESIS 12:1-4
2 TIMOTHY 1:8-10
MATTHEW 17:1-9

So much of human life is spent in coming and going. Workers commute to and from their offices, factories and places of business. Teachers and students commute to and from school. Seasonal vacationers and migrants in search of work or more pleasing climates keep the travel and tourism industry lucrative. People seeking better opportunities for education or employment have made ours a mobile society in which one person in five changes residences annually. As is attested throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, much of biblical spirituality is also inextricably bound to the experience of traveling. From the patriarchs to the disciples, the lives of our ancestors in the faith were characterized by movement from one place to another.

But theirs was not an idle wandering or an aimless searching; rather, each of our spiritual forbears was engaged in a purposeful journey, the impetus of which was a call from God. Because of their response, in faith, to that prior invitation of God, the traveling of our biblical heroes and heroines is better appreciated as a pilgrimage or a homecoming.

The Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) once wrote, “Before he sets out, the traveler must possess fixed interests and facilities to be served by travel. If he drifted aimlessly from country to country, he would not travel but only wander, ramble as a tramp. The traveler must be somebody and come from somewhere so his definite character and moral traditions might supply an organ and a point of comparison for his observations.”

As the readings for last Sunday’s liturgy indicated, humanity, because of sin, had lost its sense of purpose and direction. It had begun to drift aimlessly, lacking definite character and moral traditions. Because of the decision to disobey the call of God, the descendants of Adam were plunged into a directionless existence, “banished from the garden,” they were subsequently “scattered all over the earth” (Genesis 3:23, 11:9). But God, in his loving mercy had not abandoned the people he had called into existence; he continued to beckon them to himself, calling out, again and again, as he had in the garden “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). In the readings of this second Lenten Sunday, believers are offered a lesson in how to live in response to that call.

What Adam had refused in disobedience, Abram (first reading) embraced in faith; because of this, Abram (later Abraham) is venerated as the father of the faithful and his response to God represents a paradigm of the believing pilgrim whose journey originates in, is guided by, and will find its end in God. Because of Abraham’s willing faith the mighty acts of God would once more be revealed in human history. As Reginald Fuller explains, God acts in human history “by calling key individuals like Abraham and it is by these human responses that a channel for the execution of God’s will is carved out in the world” (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville: 1974). Therefore, the whole of human history and each person’s comings and goings can be perceived as a response to the call of God, a response which began with Abraham and culminated in Jesus.

As is reflected in the second reading (2 Timothy, the travels of those who respond to God’s call will inevitably be marked by hardship but their way is also sustained by the constant gift of his grace.

Today’s gospel narrative (Matthew) of Jesus’ transfiguration represents an oasis of sorts, refreshing travel-weary disciples by reminding them (and us) of the resurrection which will climax Jesus’ Lenten pilgrimage and of the transformation unto glory which awaits every believer at his/her journey’s end.

GENESIS 12:1-4

In the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran (also Koran), believers are advised to “rely upon Abraham, a righteous man of God, and to study his history. . . Abraham was tried by the Lord with certain commands. He said to Abraham, ‘I will make thee an Imam to the nations.’” (Sura II Baqara c.48, p. 51-52). An Arabic word, Iman means: (1) a leader in religion; (2) a leader in prayer; (3) a model, pattern or example; (4) a book of guidance and instruction. From the moment he heard the call of God and responded in faith, Abraham has been Imam for Hebrew, Christian and Muslim believers.

An excerpt from the Yahwist’s (ca. 10th century B.C.E.) contribution to the Pentateuchal literature, this first reading probably represents one of the earliest of Israel’s recorded traditions. Joseph Rhymer, editor of The Bible in Order (which presents the biblical writings arranged in chronological order according to the dates at which they were written), places this encounter between God and Abraham at the very beginning of this text, (Jerusalem Bible Version, Darton, Longman and Todd, London: 1975). Whereas the primeval stories of creation, the fall, the flood, and Babel (Genesis 1-11) had begun with Adam, the narrative of salvation history begins with Abraham.

While some dismiss Abraham and the other patriarchs as folkloric or otherwise legendary figures, reputable scholars (e.g. W. F. Albright, E.A. Speiser) claimed that the Abraham stories concur so well with archaeological evidence from Mari (18th century B.C.E.) and Nuzi (14th century B.C.E.) that “there can be little doubt about their substantial historicity” (The Anchor Bible, Vol. I, Doubleday, New York: 1992).

According to the patriarchal saga, Abram (from Ab, father, and ram, great) was from Ur in Chaldea (Genesis 11:31) and, as one of Terah’s sons, journeyed with his family to Haran in upper Mesopotamia, about 900 miles north of Ur. Biblical descriptions of Abraham suggest that he was a well-to-do sheik of a nomadic tribe whose livelihood was largely pastoral (sheep, goats). Economically and socially, his greatness would have been measured in the size of his family and flocks. Spiritually, however, Abram’s greatness was founded in his faith.

When God called, Abram responded; where God directed, Abraham followed. Though readers of scripture are told nothing of his thoughts or doubts concerning the Lord’s command to “Go forth to the land I will show you,” there is, nevertheless, ample evidence that Abram wholeheartedly acquiesced. Because of his faith and willingness to accept his Lord as the guide for his life’s journey, Abram was blessed by God and in him are blessed all the communities of the earth. So abundant were the blessings of God upon Abram that generations after him regarded their ancestor’s very name as a blessing. Scholars, knowledgeable in ancient near eastern traditions, believe that the name of Abraham took on such significance that it was spoken at territorial land boundaries and was considered as real as a fence and legal and binding as a signed contract or surveyor’s document.

Whereas the sins of the first humans had brought curses, pain, alienation and death, Abram’s faith in God and in his promises would bring prosperity, progeny and the privileges of a saving relationship. In his capacity as blessed believer, as willing pilgrim and as Iman, Abram is an apt companion for every Lenten traveler.

2 TIMOTHY 1:8-10

Where Abram was called by God to go forth in faith to be Abraham, father of many peoples, his way was blessed and graced, but not without struggle. When Moses and the enslaved Semitic tribes in Egypt were called forth by God from slavery to freedom they also were blessed and graced, but their journey was not without difficulties so great that some were inclined to long to return to Egypt.

Paul, on his way to Damascus, was called blessed and graced by the risen Lord; from that moment, the direction and purpose of his life was radically altered. But Paul, like Moses, the Israelites, Abraham, and like Jesus, whose saving news he was commissioned to preach, was to learn firsthand of “the hardship which the gospel entails” (vs. 8). In the pastoral letters to Timothy which were pseudonymously attributed to Paul, a disciple of his preserved and adapted the apostle’s experience and teaching in order to speak to the changing needs and struggles of the late first century church (ca. 100 C.E.).

Most scholars are of the consensus that Paul and Peter died, probably in the mid-60s, during the persecution by Nero. But the second and third generation Christians for whom the pastorals were written were also exposed to civil hostilities, instigated during Domitian’s reign as emperor (81-96 C.E.). Difficulties within the church also threatened its unity and well-being. False teachers and their erroneous doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1-10, 6:2-10, 2 Timothy 3:1-9) attacked the authority of Pauline tradition and the integrity of the gospel. Rapid growth of an increasingly urban church necessitated new leaders and more extensive ministries. The ever present allure of a pagan society required a constant and daily renewal of commitment to the faith.

Aware of the hardships which beset his contemporaries, the author of 2 Timothy advised his readers to remember that they had been saved by Christ and called to live in a manner worthy of their election. With each call from God, there is a corresponding gift of unmerited grace which empowers the believer to respond to him. F. F. Bruce has called this presentation of free grace Paul’s “pre-eminent contribution to the world” (Paul, Apostle of the heart Set Free, Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids: 1991). Grace is free, taught Paul, in the sense that it is sovereign and unfettered; free in the sense that it is offered to all, and free in the sense that it is the source and principle of liberation from the bondage of sin, death (vs. 10), legalism and moral anarchy.

An ever-renewable resource, always available to the repentant and hopeful believer, grace is one of the daily miracles which makes it possible to answer the call to live a holy life and to bear the hardships which the gospel entails.

MATTHEW 17:1-9

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), American author and inveterate world traveler once wrote, “If you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” (from Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964). For Christians, the experience of Jesus’ resurrection and the glimpse of his risen glory, which is offered in this gospel of the transfiguration, could be compared to Hemingway’s Paris, a moveable feast . . . a reality of joy and triumph which believers are privileged to carry with them and in which there is grace and blessing for all of life’s eventualities.

Contextually, the transfiguration narrative follows immediately upon Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Son of the living God (16:13-15), Jesus’ prediction of his passion (16:21-23), and a series of five saying underscoring the challenges of discipleship (16:24-28). As such, it offers confirmation of Peter’s confession and anticipates the resurrection of Jesus in glory. Theologically, the narrative is cloaked with the characteristic symbols of Old Testament theophanies, viz. the mountain, the cloud, dazzling light, and a voice from heaven.

No doubt, the mountain was to remind Matthew’s readers of Sinai, where God revealed his glory to Moses and made his saving will known to his people. The shekinah or cloud was reminiscent of the cloud which signaled God’s presence and guided Israel through the desert (Exodus 24:15, 40:34), Jesus’ face, dazzling as the sun and his clothes, radiant as light, called to mind the apocalyptic man of Daniel’s visions (Daniel 10:6,7,9) and the radiance on Moses’ face after conversing with God (Exodus 34:35). As at Jesus’ baptism (3:17), the voice from the heavens clarified the significance of the event, simultaneously identifying Jesus as the beloved Son and favored Servant of God (Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1) and as the promised prophet who would be raised up by God to teach his people (Deuteronomy 18:15). The command, “Listen to him” (vs. 5) also recalled the invitations issued in the sapiential literature, to listen to Wisdom (Proverbs 5:7, Sirach 6:35, 21:15). As a New Moses and as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is presented here in glory as the source of all wisdom and the teacher of God’s saving ways. Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets indicated by their initial presence with Jesus (vs. 4) and their subsequent absence (vs. 8) that their preparatory roles in the history of salvation had found their culmination and fulfillment in Jesus.

Peter’s desire to pitch three tents (vs. 4) is an allusion to the feast of Sukkoth (Tabernacles, Tents, Booths) which commemorated the wilderness period when the Israelites lived in tents (Deuteronomy 16:13-15). In later Jewish thought, it was believed that God would finally manifest his kingship during the annual celebration of Sukkoth (Zechariah 14). Peter’s suggestion appears to indicate that he believed the eschatological moment had arrived. But this oasis on the journey to Jerusalem was only a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected glory, a glory which would be realized only after his suffering and death (vs. 9).

Reginald Fuller, quoting the Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey, has suggested that the fear (vs. 6) of the disciples, in response to Jesus’ transfiguration, is worthy of some consideration. The mystery of God present among us, particularly in the Eucharist, should evoke a certain awe and loving respect. However, it seems that “the awe in the individual’s approach to Holy Communion, which characterized both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old, stands in contrast with the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.”

In this feast of Jesus’ transfiguration and at every celebration of the Eucharist, the Moveable Feast of his risen glory is renewed. Those who are called, blessed, and graced with a share in his life are reminded to be grateful and reverent for every experience of him.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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