GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Every year on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church shifts its focus from the temptations of Jesus in the desert to the mystery of his transfiguration, which is recorded in all three synoptic gospels. Because it's year B, we’re going to look at the account of the transfiguration in the Gospel of Mark and then we’ll back up and see the meaning of the Old Testament text that’s used for this week as well, and how they might actually go together in a certain sense. So let's begin. The Transfiguration is in Mark 9:2-10, and this is what it says:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Eli'jah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah." For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
Now if you go to mass regularly you’re going to be familiar with the story of the transfiguration, but I’d still like to make a few key points about it that would've been significant from a first century Jewish perspective, which might be subtle, but really meaningful when you put them in place. So for example, number one, first thing you want to notice about this account is where it happens. It happens on top of a mountain. Now in the Bible, mountains are extremely significant. You have mount Ararat with Noah's flood. You’ve got Mount Mori’ah with Abraham sacrificing Isaac — we’ll look at that in just a minute — you’ve got the mountain of Jerusalem, Mount Zion. Mountains are always treated as holy places in the Bible, and in particular they tend to be the place where God will appear, where what scholars referred to as “theophanys” take place. A theophany is an appearance of God, a kind of supernatural revelation of God. So when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of the mountain, if you were a Jewish person familiar with the Bible, you might, in a sense, kind of brace yourself for something special happening, for some kind of divine revelation or some kind of divine appearance taking place, like Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
...to look beyond this world to the glory of the world to come. So he says:
Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?
Now if the form of that is intended as a question, then obviously it’s a kind of rhetorical question to which the implied answer is, “Yes! Yes, it is Christ Jesus who died. Yes, it is Christ Jesus who was raised. Yes, it is Christ Jesus who is at the right hand of God who intercedes for us.” And with that line, we see (I suspect) one reason that this passage was chosen for the second Sunday of Lent. Notice, it’s one of these passages in the writings of the Apostles (whether Peter, Paul, or John) that gives a summary statement, almost a kind of credal statement of the Paschal Mystery — the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, Resurrection, and
(don’t forget it) the Ascension. Very important.
When we talk about the Paschal Mystery, it’s easy to just reduce it to either Jesus’ Passion and Death — which took place on Passover — or His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, because they’re tightly joined in time over the course of the Triduum. It’s very important to remember that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church
, traditional teaching, as well as according to the Scriptures...when you look at the teachings of the Apostles, they often will conjoin the Passion, Death, and Resurrection to the mystery of the Ascension, which takes place 40 days later. These things are all linked together as part of one great Paschal Mystery. The Catechism
actually says that.
So we tend to forget that the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven is part of the Paschal Mystery. But Paul didn’t forget it, and the early Church didn’t forget it, and the Catechism
doesn’t forget it as well. And one reason it’s important not to forget the Ascension is because of what Paul says here — that Christ who is at the right hand of God, intercedes for us. He intercedes on our behalf.
So we’ll see the apostle John in 1 John say this in a different way. He’ll say:
...we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ…
...who intercedes for us. So this emphasis on the intercession of Christ is meant to (again) encourage and give hope to the readers of Romans, that even in the face of suffering and death, even in the face of persecution, trials, being condemned by others, as members of the Body of Christ, Christians have a really great Advocate. They’ve got a really great lawyer. Their lawyer, who is going to intercede for them with the Judge (who is the Father), is Jesus Christ Himself...who died for them and for their salvation.
So imagine...just to kind of put the whole legal context of Paul’s words here in mind, the implied juridical context...imagine that you were being brought to court, an earthly court to be tried for some crime of which you were innocent. And you’ve been brought before the judge and the jury, and you’re led into the courtroom. And you’re wondering, “Who’s going to represent me? Who’s going to be my lawyer? Who’s going to be my advocate?” And in walks Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, and sits beside you as your lawyer, as your advocate. You should rest easy, then, if Jesus Christ is your intercessor, if Jesus Christ is the one who is going to plead for you and who’s going to make the case for you to be declared righteous rather than to be condemned….then you have nothing to fear. And that’s the imagery that Paul here is using to describe the great Paschal Mystery.
So, short passage, but pretty rich. I would just encourage you to ponder that with a couple of quotes from the living tradition. Because if you look at how the Fathers and Doctors of the Church read this passage, one of the things they did with it is they paused and they pondered the mystery of something I think we don’t think about as often as we should — namely, the mystery of the Ascension and the mystery of Jesus’ role as our intercessor...Jesus’ role as our intercessor.
Catholics are very comfortable and familiar with thinking of Mary as our intercessor, but according to the New Testament, Christ is the supreme intercessor for us with the Father. And so here are a couple of quotes from the tradition that can kind of flesh this out.
The first is from St. John Chrysostom, my favorite. I love St. John. I love his homilies on Paul. They’re just my favorite treatments of Paul in the tradition. And in his homily on Romans, this passage for today, St. John Chrysostom said this:Christ did not merely die for us; he now intercedes on our behalf as well
… The only reason why Paul mentioned intercession was to show the warmth and vigor of God’s love for us, for the Father is also represented as beseeching us to be reconciled to him.
That’s his homily on Romans, number 15. So notice that. What is Chrysostom emphasizing? We need to remember that Christ did not just die for us on the cross. He also intercedes for us now. He ascended into Heaven in order to be seated at the right hand of the Father and intercede for us. And both acts — His Passion on Good Friday and His Ascension on Ascension Thursday — they both reveal His charity. He dies for love of us, but He didn’t just love us back then. He continues to love us now, in the present, as He sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us out of charity. Powerful, beautiful, beautiful passage from St. John Chrysostom.
And then again, Pope Leo the Great. Pope Leo the Great, in one of his letters, mentions this passage and this mystery. And this is what he says:
If the true high priest does not atone for us, using the nature proper to us, and the true blood of the spotless Lamb does not cleanse us, then a true priesthood and true sacrifices do not exist in any other way in God’s church, which is the body of Christ. Although he is seated at the right hand of the Father, he performs the sacrament of the atonement in the same flesh which he assumed from the Virgin Mary
Leo the Great, letter number 80. Now that is a fascinating passage, because what is it saying? Pope Leo is putting his finger on the fact that if we don’t understand the mystery of the Ascension, that we won’t understand the mystery of the sacraments either. And the reason is very simple. In the Ascension, what Jesus does is He takes the sacrifice that was performed out of charity, out of love, in time, on Calvary, and He brings that offering of Himself that takes place on Good Friday in time and space...He brings it into eternity. He enters into the eternal now of the Father, and He offers Himself to the Father on our behalf once and for all time. So that’s what he means when he says:
...he performs the sacrament of the atonement in the same flesh which he assumed from the Virgin Mary.
So the Ascension of Jesus is essential. Sorry, I couldn’t pass that up. The Ascension of Jesus is essential because it teaches two very important truths. First, that the Incarnation didn’t stop with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus rises from the dead on Easter Sunday, the body that He has is the same body. That’s why it’s got the wounds. But it’s in a glorified state, and He takes that flesh (that glorified flesh) into eternity and sits at the right hand of the Father bodily
Before the Incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity, the Word, is pure spirit. He doesn’t have a body. But after the Incarnation, He assumes a human nature. And after the Ascension, He takes that human nature, which is now glorified (that flesh), into eternity to sit at the right hand of the Father in the flesh. And therefore, the sacrifice that He accomplishes in the flesh on Good Friday is now being perpetually offered to the Father for all eternity.
And that’s why we can refer to the Mass as a sacrifice. One of the reasons Martin Luther called the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice “blasphemous”, was because he understood that to imply that we were re-sacrificing Jesus every time the Mass was offered...as if the death of Jesus on Calvary wasn’t enough and it had to be repeated.
But what Luther didn’t understand, but what Leo does
understand, is that in the sacraments — in the Eucharist, for example — Christ is not being re-sacrificed. There’s only one sacrifice. That’s the sacrifice of Calvary. But that one sacrifice has been brought out of time into eternity. And now every earthly offering of the Eucharist is a participation
in the one sacrifice of Christ, which He continues to offer to the Father for all time in the heavenly sanctuary, in the heavenly tabernacle, in the heavenly temple.
So the Ascension is the essential link between the earthly Paschal Mystery and the heavenly reality in which we now participate in the sacraments. That’s how the self-offering of Jesus that takes place on Good Friday can come to us today on every altar, in every Catholic Church throughout the world. What Leo is saying here is that...two things.
First, in the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the mystery of the Incarnation doesn’t cease. That’s what that reveals to us — that the eternal Word is still united with human nature right now. Jesus still has His human body, His flesh and bone. It’s in a glorified state, a mysterious state to be sure, but it’s the same body. That’s why He has the wounds that He brings up into Heaven.
But it’s not just the Incarnation that doesn’t cease in the Ascension. It’s not just that there’s a perpetual Incarnation. It’s that there’s also a perpetual atonement. So the atonement that is inaugurating, consummated on Calvary, doesn’t stop there. But Christ brings the atoning sacrifice into Heaven, so that there is a perpetual atonement taking place.
And one reason this is fascinating to me as a scholar of early Judaism, is that in the first century AD there was a sacrifice in the temple called the tamid
, the perpetual sacrifice. Every morning, every evening, every morning, every evening, they would offer a sacrifice to God the Father as a renewal of the everlasting covenant.
So the Ascension reveals to us that (as Leo calls it) the mystery of the atonement is still being performed to this day. Now you might be thinking, “Well, hold on, Dr. Pitre. Are you suggesting Jesus suffers in Heaven?” No, no, no, no. The suffering ceases. Jesus ceased suffering when He gave up His spirit on Good Friday. So you can put it this way...Jesus is not still suffering, but He is still offering
in Heaven. Because He’s still offering Himself to the Father in love. And He will
offer Himself to the Father in love for all eternity, because that’s what the Son does.
And so the mystery of the Ascension is the mystery of human nature being caught up into the eternal love of the Son for the Father and the eternal offering of Himself to the Father by the Son in the Spirit.
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