Scripture shows us how God makes himself visible to humans
By Father Joseph Brando
It’s hard to believe. With my Christmas tree still shining forth in my living room, I am writing a column that features the first three Sundays of Lent. One of the factors of getting old is experiencing time going by faster and faster. This year all of us can share that phenomenon as Easter is very early and, therefore, Lent starts Feb. 10.
The first Sunday in February is not in Lent; but it very much could fit as an introduction to Lent. Another facet of old age is remembering the past better than you can cope with the present. For those who are not so old, in former days this last Sunday before Lent was called Quinquagesima Sunday, announcing that Easter was only 50 days away. And Lent was only four days hence. Well, the scriptural message is still there inviting us to get ready for Lent.
The Scripture readings all center on theophanies. These are events in which God makes himself visible to humans. Let’s take a look at these visions and the message God gives on these occasions.
In the first reading, Isaiah relates for us his vision of God. It was astounding, complete with angels and smoke. The smoke was known in Old Testament times as the Shekina Yahweh. It was a cloud that indicated God was present. Isaiah’s response was to announce that he, himself, was a man of unclean lips that disqualified him from working for God. That was a mistake on his part. God’s reaction was to send an angel with an ember to burn away whatever was unclean about Isaiah’s lips. Then God asked again, producing the desired effect. Isaiah was to be a prophet of God.
In the second reading, St. Paul writes about visions of the risen Christ. He appeared to Peter and then to 500 brothers at one time.
That may be around 20 years before Paul wrote about it to the Corinthians. Paul proclaims that many of those people were still alive. Then he alludes to what happened to him on his way to Damascus. He saw and heard the risen Christ. Paul’s encounter with the Lord led him to stop persecuting the Church and to begin a life in the grace of Jesus Christ and to teach people about Jesus’ resurrection.
The Gospel reading could be understood by a commercial fisherman.
It happened early in Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus was speaking to a crowd by the Sea of Gennesaret and the crowd was getting so large that it became dangerous. So Jesus called Simon, whose boat was within shouting distance. Jesus boarded the boat and continued to address the crowd. Afterward, Jesus directed Simon to go fishing. Simon gave him a polite no, explaining there were no fish out that day. Jesus insisted, and once Simon and his mates lowered their nets they caught an abundance of fish. The man, soon to be re-named Peter, knew what had happened. This man he was listening to was more than a prophet. And his companions, who included James and John, also came to believe. They also caught his message. The three of them left their boats and nets behind and followed Jesus.
Before we continue on to Lent, let’s close in on the lessons we learned from the last Sunday before Lent. God does speak to us. When he does, our first inclination is to protest that we are not worthy to do what he asks of us. But our resistance is futile. For the rest of our lives, whether we are successful or not, God will be with us, providing lasting joy in our living out his will for us.
For such a short month, February is filled with virtually half of Lent. The readings of the Sundays of Lent develop the theme set for us that first Sunday in February, actually the fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Now, let’s start the extraordinary Sundays of Lent.
The first reading presents us with the Old Testament answer to the question, how do we respond to the manifestation of God when it happened 40 years ago and counting?
Moses provides the answer for those who experienced the miraculous presence of God. This included the overcoming of the pharaoh with the 10 plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, manna in the desert, and now coming to the promised land. Our response, after recognizing that these are gifts from God, is to sacrifice the first fruits of the land to God, and to bow down in his presence. We need to remain aware of God’s presence even when his “strong hand and outstretched arm” is not obvious.
On the second Sunday of Lent we continue with the theme of God’s intervention into human affairs and our response. It begins with Abram [God had not as yet changed his name]. He is the first human being to our knowledge that conversed with God. His response to God was to put his faith in God. God, for his part, enriched Abram with land and a multitude of descendants. That adds up to happiness.
If you ever know a person whose grandchildren have become grandparents themselves, you’ve seen a person with a permanent smile. Such people know they are blessed. But Abram still asked God for a sign. In response, God had Abram set up an area for the making of a covenant.
Then God put Abram into a trance in which Abram experienced deep terrifying darkness. Many masters of the spiritual life attest that such a darkness is a passageway to a special contact with God. Such contacts are possible in our own day and age.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which comes next, gives us a road map to making such contact with God. The first thing we need to do is get rid of our occupation with earthly things, such as food and money and other worldly cares. Then we can concentrate on our true land of citizenship, namely heaven. We “stand firm in the Lord.” It’s really simple.
Peter, James, and John were using that method to get closer to the Lord when he invited them to climb a very tall mountain with him to pray. What they got for their hard trek was a non-worldly vision of Jesus. He was changed in appearance before them. To boot, Moses and Elijah appeared before them. They had an experience of heaven. Peter, however, proved that he didn’t know what he was seeing when he suggested that they erect three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. How do you expect to institutionalize heavenly beings on earth? That idea was quickly and wisely ignored when a cloud came and the disciples became frightened. This connects us with Moses, who experienced that cloud for 40 years. Once again the Shekina announces the presence of God. He points out something we need to do for Lent, that is listen to His Son. That’s what Jesus craved most in his lifetime in the flesh. He wanted people to receive his message. We can do that this Lent and be ready to be taken to a deeper relationship with Christ.
Now we come to the third Sunday of Lent and the journey continues. The first reading takes us deeper into Moses’ conversation with God. Moses asks God for his name. He receives an enigmatic answer, I Am.
God had already told Moses, “I Am the God of Abraham. I Am the God of Isaac and Jacob. I Am aware of the affliction of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cry of complaint. I Am to be remembered through all generations. That includes the 21st century. We are to make God present in our space and time. So making God present is our task as well as our privilege.
Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth in the second reading. He tells them we share life with our spiritual ancestors who fled Egypt with Moses. We all join them in the experiences. We were in the desert; we were under the cloud that was a presence of God. We crossed the Red Sea with them; we all ate manna; and we all drank of the water from the rock. However, they complained. We should have learned from their mistakes. They wanted more material stuff. Many of them suffered for such desires by way of the serpents in the desert. Paul ends this passage with the words, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Nor should any one of us fail to take advantage of Lent to bolster our relationship with Christ and learn to pray more deeply.
The Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Lent presents the other side of the coin of the final idea of the second reading. There, we were admonished not to fall from living the life of grace. Here, we have Jesus’ own words saying that if our lives have not been bearing fruit and the owner of the orchard would want us cut down, still there is Christ, the gardener, who wants us to be given yet another year to make our lives able to produce spiritual fruit.
Lent is that time of grace during which we can become more spiritual, more fruitful, more a person of prayer, more alive, and more a person who experiences God as the I Am in our souls. ■
Father Joe Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.