There are two supernatural events narrated in today’s scripture readings. The first event concerns Abraham (Gn 15:5-12, 17-18). Abraham heard God speak, saying, “I have brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you possession of this land.” But Abraham needed a clarification. “O Lord GOD,” he asked, “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” After God instructs Abraham to prepare various animals for sacrifice and after much patient waiting, a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” passed between the pieces of flesh and consumed the sacrifice. If you try to imagine the scene, that must have been a spectacular sight!
The second event is the Transfiguration of Jesus. Once again, the experience is supernatural. There were no animals for sacrifice, a fire pot, or a flaming torch this time, but the scene is not any less spectacular. Peter, James, and John not only got a glimpse of the transfigured Jesus but like a movie trailer, important figures from salvation history appeared in the scene to join and converse with Jesus.
What goes on your mind as you hear these stories? They seem like events in the far distant past, don’t they? Especially since such experiences are uncommon for us, perhaps, there is even an inclination to treat them as unrealistic.
If not in ways that today’s scripture readings describe to us, how else is God present in our world, in our time, and in our lives? That is the focus of this reflection. Here are my three points for today.
The Crucifixion: More Spectacular than Transfiguration?
I want to take us to the mountain of the Transfiguration. On that mountain, unlike Abraham’s, there were no animals for sacrifice. Two millennia later as we look back at these events, we know the reason. Luke tells us that during the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were conversing with Jesus about “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). In other words, the transfiguration became that turning point where God’s revelation took on a radically new turn – ‘a suffering Messiah’. There were no animals for sacrifice on the mountain of Transfiguration because Jesus was there. “This is my beloved Son” (Lk 9:35), the voice said. The Son replaced the sacrificial animals. The splendor of the Transfiguration was only a preparation for the splendor of the Crucifixion.
If spectacular is the standard, the crucifixion was a gruesome event. Yet not even the splendor of the Transfiguration could compare to the splendor of the Crucifixion. The scene of God embracing human suffering and overcoming human mortality; the scene of Jesus transforming the very source of death and destruction into life and eternity is the most spectacular event of human history.
The Transfiguration happened two millennia back but human suffering happens every day. Today, just as at the Crucifixion, Jesus is in every cross that human beings carry. Just as at the Crucifixion, Jesus is in every suffering that we endure globally (the war in Ukraine, for example) or personally (a terminal illness, for example). When we suffer, Christ is near to us, with us, and in us. I would rather have the splendor of a suffering Messiah on the Cross rather than the splendor of the Transfiguration.
The Eucharist: More Spectacular than Abraham’s Sacrifice
There is yet another parallel to be drawn in today’s scripture reading. There was the altar that Abraham built and the sacrifice that he offered which was acceptable to God. And then, there was the sacrifice that Jesus offered on the altar at Calvary which was acceptable to God. And today, there is the altar at which we offer a worship that is acceptable to God. Please do not get me wrong. I am not saying we are sacrificing Jesus again or that the Eucharist is our atonement sacrifice. Rather, I am trying to draw attention to our altar on which ordinary bread and simple wine are transformed into the Real Presence of Christ. This is not a transfiguration but more spectacular than the Transfiguration, only, without the brilliance and splendor of the original one.
Today, right at this hour, Christ is with us on this Holy Mountain. And so, today we go on our knees. Today we do homage. Today, we are in awe. Today, we converse and commune with the God of eternity. We may not have been at the mountain of Transfiguration, but we are with Christ on his holy mountain.
The Poor: More Demanding than the Eucharist
I want to reflect on yet another way in which Christ is present in our midst. These days, I am offering a six-week Lenten series on Francis of Assisi. A wealthy young man, Francis had an aversion to filth and foul smells. It was during the initial days of his conversion that he came upon a leper. Francis got off his horse, kissed the leper, and embraced him. No other experience of Francis’ entire life had a more profound impact on him – not the stripping of his clothes and not even his experience in front of the crucifix at the Chapel in San Damiano. There is no reason to believe that Francis saw Christ in the leper. However, his embrace of the leper calmed the overwhelming turmoil of this young penitent and finally brought him relief and peace. It was the embrace of the outcast leper that became the pivotal moment of his conversion. In other words, the poor are a sacrament of Christ.
In the Last Judgement scene that Matthew describes in his gospel, the goats and the sheep were separated based on one solitary criterion – those who recognized Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked, and those in prison. We may not have had the chance to be the mountain of the Transfiguration, but Christ is among us – in the poor, in the hungry, in the ill, in the victims of human trafficking, in those enduring domestic violence, in the children not given a chance to live, in the victims of gun violence, in the victims of war, in those uprooted from their homeland, in the immigrants seeking refuge, and indeed in every peacemaker.
The presence of Christ in the poor, the helpless, the vulnerable, and those on the peripheries is the most demanding and challenging one. Let us remember Christ’s words, “Whatever you did the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
As we celebrate the Eucharist, may we have the eyes to see the splendor of Christ in suffering, in the poor, and in the ordinary bread and wine we place on the altar. Amen.
Image: Franciscan sanctuary of Greccio (Province of Rieti, Lazio, Italy). By Randy OHC from West Park, New York, USA – Saint Francis and the lepers, Santuario di San Francesco, Greccio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45010038
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.