Second Sunday of Lent
February 25, 2018
by Marina McCoy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, teaching ancient Greek philosophy and in the PULSE program. She is also mom to both a BC alum and a current BC student, and her husband works at BC's McMullen Museum of Art. Her books include Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press). Marina also volunteers, visiting inmates who form the Lay Dominican community at Norfolk Prison, and writes a monthly column on spirituality for Loyola Press at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/. She recently did "basic training" in spiritual direction at the BC School of Theology and Ministry as part of her sabbatical.
Genesis 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
Love and Transformation
Love transfigures us. Love transforms us.
In the readings this Sunday, we find two descriptions of transformation. In the passage from Genesis, Abraham goes from thinking that he must sacrifice his son, Isaac, to discovering that God desires life and not death. In the Gospel passage, Jesus is transfigured atop a mountain in the presence of his friends, who experience awe and wonder.
For a long time, I had a hard time making sense of the story of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac. As Kierkegaard said, it’s too easy to present the story as that of a faithful man who simply gave up “the best he had” to God. What gets left out of that interpretation, Kierkegaard says, is the “anguish” (Fear and Trembling, Problemata). But then I heard a lecture by Elie Wiesel on this story that fundamentally changed my understanding. Wiesel noted that Abraham hears what he thinks is the voice of God twice: once when God tells him to go sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, and once when an angel tells him not to lay his hand on Isaac or harm him in any way. Abraham has to decide which is the real voice of God. He decides it is the voice that says, do no harm. Abraham learns how to discern. Wiesel argued that Abraham becomes a great leader not only because he is obedient to God, but also because he recognizes that God is a god who desires life and not death.
So, how do we learn to listen for the voice of God? How do we learn to discern where God is leading us?
The tradition of Ignatian spirituality counsels that we can discover where God leads by paying attention to experiences of consolation: places where we feel freer, more at peace, centered, joyful, connected, forgiving, or where we are strengthened in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These interior movements indicate following God’s lead. Desolation, in contrast, is marked by discouragement, resentment, feeling trapped, ungrateful, or wanting to isolate and pull away from God and others. Here one is often resisting God’s love. God tends to lead us by the way of consolation. Consolation is inherently connective: it connects me back to God and to other people. Consolation points us to that which is life giving. Consolation is revealing of love.
Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain must have been consoling for Peter, James, and John, not so much because it was spectacular, but rather because it was deeply connective. The entire scene is reminiscent of the Jewish feast of Sukkot, described in Leviticus (Lev 23: 34-42). This annual celebration reminds the Jewish people that God provided for them in the days of wandering in the wilderness. Booths built for the feast evoke God’s faithful love for the people even in their desert time. It is a happy feast, full of rejoicing. Here, too, Peter, James, and John experience a sense of dependency upon a God who lovingly provides.
Jesus is also connected back to the prophets Moses and Elijah. His dazzling clothes and the appearance of a cloud suggest that God is present to them now and doing something astonishing. Peter and his friends feel overwhelmed and have no control over what God is going to do. Instead, they surrender to what is happening around them. When they do, the experience is so good that they wish to remain.
The appearance of this passage in the liturgy during the season of Lent reminds us that it is God’s transforming love and not our own that gets us to Easter. We are not really in charge. God is in charge. Rather than being a time to transform ourselves, Lent is a season of allowing God to transform us.
What does this look like in practice? First, we must learn to wait. Thomas Merton writes that is it easy for us to turn ourselves into a project. He describes those who constantly turn to new forms of prayer, books on spirituality, or who continually make new resolutions to try to become holier. Often these resolutions simply end up broken. Merton instead recommends, “So, keep still, and let Him do some work” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 161).
Merton has in mind not being too active in extended times of contemplative prayer, and turning over the whole process to God. This is sound advice. However, his words can apply to our Lenten practices, too. Perhaps at this point in Lent, we have resolutions or plans to remake ourselves so that we will be “better people” by Easter. But what if instead we were to think about Lent as a season of slow surrender to God’s power to recreate us?
We can approach Lent as a time of watchful attentiveness to where God is inviting us to deeper conversion, and then follow God’s lead. So many key moments of transfiguration in our own lives happen when we let God do the work, and we simply cooperate. In my own life, I can think of experiences of falling in love; giving birth; being surprised by the many ways my children have formed and shaped me; my conversion to the Catholic faith; or suddenly trusting in God more fully in a moment of personal crisis. Almost always it is less my plans than cooperation with God’s plans for me.
What if we, like Abraham, recognize that obedience is less a matter of following the rules than of discovering and surrendering to a God who wants us to choose that which gives life? What if we, like Jesus, place relationship with God at the center of our lives, let go of the rest, and let him do the transforming work?
Loves transforms us. Love transfigures us. Lent is a season of God’s transfiguring love. Where do we need to surrender?
Suggestions for prayer and practice:
1. Reflect back on past moments where life was positively transformed by surrender to God: falling in love, discovering a vocation, the birth of a child, or a moment of conversion or healing. Remember and savor the good that arose.
2. If God were to ask me to give up one thing for 24 hours, what do I think it would be? If God were to ask me to do one new thing, what do I think it would be? How can answering these questions inform where God might be leading me this Lent?
3. Pray the Examen, a form of Ignatian prayer that allows us to better hear God’s call and follow God’s lead. Learn how here: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray
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