Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 12th Chapter of Genesis. Here God calls Abram to leave his home and journey to a new land. God promises to make him famous as the head of a great nation. “All the tribes of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” Abram did as he was told. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus climbed a high mountain with Peter, James, and John where they could be alone. Once there Jesus’ “face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light.” Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Jesus. Astounded, Peter proclaimed that it was good to be there and promised to build tents to commemorate the event. But he was interrupted by a bright cloud that appeared and proclaimed: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.” Jesus then told them not to be afraid.
Did you ever wonder when Jesus recognized he was the Messiah? It’s actually a more complex question than we might think. John’s Gospel begins by telling us that the Word existed from “the beginning.” But the other three Gospels (called the Synoptic Gospels) describe Jesus in human terms and it’s an open question about Jesus’ self awareness. And while both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy there is nothing that makes Jesus the son of God. This may sound strange, as the teaching on the Trinity firmly plants Jesus in that role. But our belief in the Trinity came only after years of debate in the early Church.
Granted his parents, Joseph and Mary, were given insights at his birth, but we don’t know how much they told him. And let’s face it: parents often see possibilities in their children that they choose not to share because they want their children to discover their gifts on their own. Or they don’t trust their insights and wish to make certain their children find a path that fulfills them. Those of my generation or older grew up thinking Jesus knew is role from the very beginning. Had we be given a time machine and a piano we could have travelled back 2000 years and heard Jesus play Mozart perfectly.
Today I don’t think many of us believe this. I like to think that Jesus, who is both human and divine, grew up like the rest of us. As he grew up he learned, like the rest of us, how the world worked and how he fit into his place. As we grew up learning our strengths and weaknesses, our “call,” so did Jesus. I like to think that Jesus recognized his role redeemer gradually.
Last week’s Gospel showed Jesus at a vulnerable place: after fasting for 40 days he was confronted by the devil, and he withstood temptation. Today’s Gospel comes much later, the 17th chapter of Matthew, but we can see this as a logical trend. In the chapters in between Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching his disciples. The 5th chapter gives us the Sermon on the Mount and following chapters show us healings and other miracles.
All these scenes provide us a blueprint for the Kingdom of God that we all find familiar, but very little tells us exactly who Jesus is. Today’s Gospel, known as the “Transfiguration” cements Jesus’ place: He is seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Clearly this moved Peter, James, and John. But how did it affect Jesus?
We don’t know exactly what he was thinking but he did tell them not to tell anyone until the “Son of Man has risen from the dead.” We don’t know, but can imagine that Jesus recognized himself here as the “Son of Man,” a term often used to describe his role in the salvation of the world.
Did the Transfiguration inform Jesus of his role? Perhaps it did. Previous to this he clearly saw himself as a teacher, and many non Christians limit him to this role. But we know him to be so much more. And while we don’t know for certain when Jesus recognized himself as Redeemer, this may well be the point where he recognized who he was.
Was it a surprise? We don’t know. It certainly wasn’t as clear as our reading from Genesis about Abram. Abram and Sarai were blessed by wealth, but not with children. They could easily have thought themselves cursed because they were elderly and were not able to conceive a child; at the time infertility was seen as a sign of God’s disapproval. But out of this God calls them to find a people so great that three modern religions trace our roots back to them (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). They went from cursed to blessed in one event.
As I read these readings in the context of Lent, I’m struck by how we discern our role in God’s Kingdom. In the play Fiddler on the Roof Tevye tells us that tradition tells all of us who we are and what God expects us to do. That’s fine but it’s been my experience that it’s much harder for us to do that with any certainty. Most of us can remember times when we’ve struggled with a decision, where we’ve wanted to follow God’s call but just didn’t know where we were being led. And we’ve eventually made that decision armed with the best information we knew; in other words, it was a journey.
And so perhaps we can look at these readings. As many of you know, I used to be a Catholic priest. I certainly have my own story of discernment, but it always fascinated me to hear from others how they decided that God called them to priesthood. Some told of an event, an epiphany, where they suddenly recognized that priesthood was the path that would fulfill them. Others spoke of a hunger that seemed almost imperceptible at first, but grew. One day they found themselves spending a disproportionate amount of time at church and not thinking much of their career.
And this is not exclusive to priesthood. Both Abram and Jesus (and Peter, James, and John) were not particularly listening but God spoke to them. They recognized that the call of God comes not on our time but God’s. And their willingness to pay attention changed our history.
In our lives we will not receive the calls of Abram or Jesus, but that should not dissuade us from listening to our calls from God. Our journey in Lent is a microcosm of our journey in life. We’ll be faced with decisions about marriage, children, career, and location and we’ll look to God for help.
But these readings also remind us that sometimes the call of God comes as a surprise. Abram was not expecting to be called to travel to a new land and found a new people, and likely Jesus did not expect to be in the company of Moses and Elijah. And so let us journey with the understanding that our call may surprise us.