Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley, Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent, Cycle B
Old Saint Patrick’s, 2018
Edward Foley, Capuchin

Early in the new year it was clear
that the opening of Lent in 2018
was going to be paradoxical
if not problematic

For the first time since 1945
Ash Wednesday coincided with Valentine’s day
ashes collided with roses
devotion with sin
proposals with prostrations
and purported lovers of God confessed our individual
and collective infidelity

Then the opening of Lent turned tragic
literally a day of guns and roses
when 17 innocents
were slain in a South Florida High School
and a nation had an unwelcome and amplified reason
both to do penance
and profess love.

Now, on this second Sunday of Lent
in a week of lingering grief and national reflection
we are confronted by readings
that are alternately shocking and consoling
perplexing and amazing

Isn’t it at least insensitive if not downright inappropriate
in the aftermath of the death of so many young people
to ponder a reading in which God seems to command
the death of the young?

Isn’t it at least quixotic if not dishonest
for St. Paul in the second reading to ask
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
One blogger in pondering Paul this week
had a one line rejoinder to Paul’s rhetorical question
If God is for us, who can be against us?
His response: Someone with an AK 47

And then there is that gospel of Glory
the virtually inexplicable transfiguration of Jesus
A gospel that seems so out of place
in these early stages of Lent
so out of place in a season
when innocents are not being transfigured
but crucified
that our Protestant sisters and brother
who follow the common lectionary
do not use it as a Lenten Gospel

Interpreting our society
the gun violence
the political posturing through the readings
through this Lenten liturgy
might portend to be an exercise in exasperation

But maybe, deeper excavation of these texts and this liturgy
might provide not only consolation
but a Christian course of action
in these troubled and troubling times

First let’s tackle the Genesis story
Sometimes called the sacrifice of Isaac
it at first blush does not seem to be about the boy
but about the sacrifice that his father must make
in order to fulfill God’s covenant

On the other hand, it seems that around the time of Jesus
Jewish tradition emphasized a detail utterly lacking in the Bible
i.e., Isaac was a willing victim
He understood what God had demanded of his father
so he offered himself for the success of the covenant

Thus emerging from these accounts as a kind of martyr
a hero for the cause

Those are words used this past week to describe
15-year-old Peter Wang, killed in the shootings last week
a junior ROTC cadet who lost his life
helping others escape
posthumously awarded a heroism medal
and granted honorary admission to West Point
something of which he always dreamed.

It is incredibly touching, these gestures from the military
honoring this young hero, this inconspicuous martyr

But if truth be told … his family, and classmates
his fellow cadets and fellow citizens
wished he would have never died in the first place

And maybe that is the true value of this Genesis reading
for at least as biblical scholar Bruce Chilton interprets it [1]
this story was created in a context
in which child sacrifice was not uncommon.

And thus the true thrust of the story
is God saying no to the sacrifice of children
God saying no to the death of innocents
God saying no for all time and in every place
for the unnecessary martyrdom of the young
whether through bombing in East Syria
or gunfire in south Florida

Then there is that dazzling yet baffling Gospel
Jesus transfigured – disciples clueless
What does it mean to be transfigured
transformed, transmogrified

Does it mean to become dazzling
blindingly beautiful like Shaun White or Chloe Kim
in their astounding half-pipe snowboarding performances
at the Olympics?
Or does it mean to be chastened, afflicted, broken
like a faith community in Charleston
an LGBTQ community in Orlando
or revelers at a Las Vegas music festival?

In Mark’s account of this event in the ministry of Jesus
we actually see both

Biblically transfiguration is revelatory
Jesus revealed as equal to the great prophets
His dazzling appearance was terrifying
his nature as God’s first “beloved”
his divine origin manifest it all of its splendor

But it did not last long …
Even though the disciples wanted to prolong it
as though by wanting to pitch tents saying …
this is what a messiah should look like
wait till the Romans soldiers and Jewish High Priests see this

But Jesus reminds them
that his divinity was not all about dazzle
for that was not how he appeared
when he blessed the children
comforted the widow of Nain
gave sight to the blind
or even raised Lazarus from the dead

His divinity was not predicated upon being raised up
on some high mountain or religious pedestal
but it was being on the ground … with the folk

And in this transfiguring vortex
he is commissioned not only to come down the mountain
but to become the true Isaac
to journey towards his own martyrdom in Jerusalem
so to reveal the depth of the covenantal love
God has for all humanity.

In his 1952 poem Transfiguration
Mark Jarman considers Jesus in conversation and conflict
with the voice of the law and the prophets
for sometimes the legal opinion, the popular prophets
Do not bring a message from God

Jarman writes:
[Elijah and Moses] were talking to him
about law and how lawgiving should be …
And they were saying that;
to save the best, many must be punished,
including the best.
And no one was exempt, as they explained it,
not themselves, not him, or anyone he loved,
anyone who loved him.

Jarman then writes:
I want to believe that [Jesus] talked back to them,
his radiant companions,
and I want to believe he said too much was being asked
and too much [being] promised.
I want to believe that that was why he shone in the eyes
of his friends,
the witnesses looking on,
because he spoke for them,
because he loved them
and was embarrassed to learn how he and they were
going to suffer.
I want to believe he resisted at that moment,
when he appeared glorified,
because he could not reconcile the contradictions
and suspected
that love had a finite span
and was merely the comfort of the lost.
I know he must have acceded to his duty,
but I want to believe
he was transfigured by resistance, as he listened,
and they talked. [2]

Transfigured by resistance
resistance to violence
to self-serving politics
to lent without transfiguration
and to Easter without suffering

Last week, while searching for resources
for preaching on these texts
I stumbled across a reflection on Julian of Norwich
the 14th-century mystic
and perhaps the first theologian to write in English

Her signature teaching, endlessly quoted by preachers & poets:

But all shall be well, and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well.

It’s a lovely thought, but is it simply unrealistic optimism?
Would anyone dare to say that
at a funeral for one of the victims of the Florida shootings

Is this St. Paul’s “if God is for us” attitude
run amuck?
The dreamy vision of a deluded mystic?

That is what I have thought before
but then ran across a serious reflection on this passage [3]
that recognized that Julian, like all of us
was struggling with the problem of evil, sin & suffering

Her explanation for God allowing such evil
was not the pat response
that such was the necessary downside
of granting human beings free will

Rather, in a more transfiguring insight she intuits
that God’s love for us is so unimaginable
so eternal, so pervasive

That God is able to draw good out of evil
joy from suffering
redemption from sin
in ways that humans cannot grasp in the present

A transfiguring insight into the very nature of the cross
that marked our foreheads
as we entered this season
and that marked our baptism
as we entered this community

The commentator concluded
that in Julian’s writings
there is even the hint
that the final triumph of God’s love

Will be the very emptying of hell itself
so that indeed
all shall be well, and all shall be well
and all manner of things shall be well.

To live in such hope … such admittedly mystical hope
like Jesus’ prodding of Peter and the other disciples
we have to leave the mountain of our expectations
pull up stakes around the tents of spiritual solace
and godly expectations that we have invested in

and trek toward Jerusalem, toward the paradox of the cross
not embracing suffering and death as our lot
but as our mission

In his dying, Jesus shattered the cycle of violence
he refused to pass pain and degradation
rejection and oppression
on to others

Rather, he took it into his own body
he became the victim
so that no one else would be scapegoated

So in the midst of whatever loss or suffering
personal or societal
that confronts us

We commit ourselves to pulling up stakes
turning our gaze toward Jerusalem
and on the way passing on no hurt,
no injustice,
no diminishment to others

but instead to be transfigured in the cross that transfigured him
in the profound hope that

all shall be well, and all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well.

Through Christ our Lord.

[1] Bruce Chilton, Abraham’s Curse: the roots of violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam  (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

[2] Mark Jarman, “Transfiguration” (1952),

[3] Ron Rolheiser,


One comment

  1. Has any thought been given to possibly having a recording of the homilies posted on this blog when they were originally preached (or even a video)? It was helpful when it was done in the past with one of the homilies from Collegeville.

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