A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for February, 2016

The Other Side of the Mountain

“Mountains” have been a dominant image in much of literature.  For example, many sports enthusiasts want to climb “mount” Everest–mostly because it is there.  Or from a religious perspective, “mount” Sinai is important to the Jewish and Christian faiths–primarily because a crucial covenant between God and humanity was established there.

Why is the “mountain” so special?  I would say that the mountain images the meeting point between heaven and earth.  In the Scriptures, when a “mountain” appears in the narrative, there is likelihood that something special is going to happen.

Of the many possible examples, one comes to mind.  And that is the well known account of what is called the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5:1-7:29).  The text tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds “…he went up the mountain….” (Matt. 5:1)  and began to teach.  When he had finished, “…Jesus had come down from the mountain….” (Matt. 8:1)

What was his reason for going to the mountain?  Most likely he had something important to say.  And we find that reason in the biblical text itself.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

And that “fulfillment” was to make certain that sinfulness was to be considered not just externally in the deed itself, but also internally in the will.  Jesus illustrated this with the pattern of: “You have heard it said…but I say to you….”  In the Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent (Lk. 9:28-36) we note that Jesus takes a few of his disciples with him up a mountain. Thus we know that something special is going to happen there.

And what is that something special?  It is what we generally call the “Transfiguration.”  That is to say that the figure of Jesus is transformed into something else.  The descriptive images of “light, white, cloud” were biblical images that described the presence of the divine.  Most likely, the disciples saw another aspect of Jesus.

Part of the vision showed Moses and Elijah standing on either side of Jesus.  Both are Old Testament characters.   Many commentators say that Moses represented the Law and Elijah represented the Prophets.  The idea was that Jesus was to be considerd the proper interpreter of the Law and the Prophets.

But the most significant aspect of that vision was the cloud (another image representing the deity) and the voice which came from within.  The voice said “…This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” (Lk. 9:35)  The voice confirmed what the disciples had seen. ” Confirmation” of who Jesus is and “command” in how to deal with him were the key aspects of the message given to the disciples.

And what can we learn from this Gospel reading?  Various things, I’m certain.  But I would like to suggest a couple of items.  The first would be to “climb the mountain” to pray–as Jesus did.  However, the “mountain” that we can climb could be the challenges we receive from temptations.  As in Lent, so throughout the year, we face many “mountains” (temptations.)  It would be important to choose one that we find especially bothersome.  Lent can be our focus time to “climb” (overcome) that mountain (temptation).

The second thing we can learn from the Gospel reading is to realize that the “voice” from the cloud is speaking directly to us.  We also need that confirmation that Jesus is the Son of God, and take seriously the command to  listen to Jesus, especially through the Scriptures.

Consequently, through encountering and successfully climbing our “mountain” (temptation) and “listening” to Jesus through Scripture, we could experience a good Lenten season which would mean that by Easter we would have successfully arrived on the other side of the mountain which would most likely be our “transfiguration” into new people.

 

 

 

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And lead us not into temptation

Seeing people walk around with big black marks on their forehead makes you wonder if they belong to some kind of a cult.  However, for those in the know realize that sometime around mid February is the time of the year that this  occasion usually happens.  We call the experience Ash Wednesday because the season of Lent begins on that day.

Why ashes?  For many years ashes have been used as a symbol of penitence. There are many descriptive biblical examples of this.  Thus Ash Wednesday puts us in the framework of a penitential season which is what we call Lent, the preparation for Easter, celebrating the resurrection of the dead Jesus.

When the person receives the ashes placed on the forehead for all to see, the minister often says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Thus proclaiming two of most important themes of Lent: Repentance and the Bible.

The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent (Luke 4:1-13)  depicts for us how Jesus dealt with repentance and the Bible so that we could be more specific during Lent in emulation of the two themes.

First of all, there is the issue of repentance.  If one were to reflect on the topic, one could see that the need for repentance depends on how we react toward temptation.  Simply put, temptation is not a sin, but an opportunity to commit sin.  Thus, it is the “decision” that makes the action sinful or not.  The choice is to say “yes” or “no” to the temptation.

The opening lines of the day’s Gospel clearly state, as Jesus is about to enter the desert, “Filled with the Holy Spirit…”  That is to say that having the Holy Spirit (the creative power of God) gives one energy and motivation to deal with temptation.  It seemed important enough for Luke to have mentioned it.

Secondly, Jesus deals with the devil’s temptation by citing biblical passages.  Almost always there has been a belief that the Bible reflects God’s word, and dwelling on the Bible provides providential background  to challenge the temptation–as it did for Jesus.  In other words, strengthened by the presence of the Holy Spirit and displaying a good biblical sense, Jesus successfully overcame temptation.

Now we may ask: What can we learn from the day’s Gospel?  Well, many things.  But I offer three suggestion.  First, it should be that we have an understanding of what “temptation” is.  It is not a sin in itself, but rather an opportunity to commit sin.  The opportunity is facilitated by the decision making process.  Do I decide to say “yes” or “no” to the temptation?  If I say “yes” to the temptation, then I have committed sin and must do penance.

Second, when we are baptized we receive the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength and courage to say “no” to temptation.  Second, the Bible, as Word of God, should become part and parcel of our defense system against temptation.  Part of that defense system includes listening well to the readings at Mass, to join Bible study groups, and, guided personal Bible study.

Consciously aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us since our Baptism, together with a biblical sense of interpreting God’s Word among us makes it more than probable that we can honestly say to the devil, “Lead us not into temptation.”  Even if he does, we can still say “no” to the temptation itself.

 

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