Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, Matthew 17:1-9
The three pillars of our Lenten discipline are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Last Sunday we heard about fasting and sacrifice in the story of Christ’s fasting in the desert after which he was tempted by Satan. Next Sunday we will hear about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus invites her to an act of charity by asking for a drink. Today’s gospel is about prayer. The Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Carmel is one of the most powerful stories about prayer in all the Scriptures. Prayer is spending time with God. On that mountain, Peter, James and John, Moses and Elijah all witnessed the glory of God manifested in His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The powerful experience of prayer is given to us as a guide for our own Lenten prayer experience, the time we spend drawing closer to God, hearing his voice, yearning for his glorious presence in our lives. So much of the time we think of prayer as purely a vocal or mental exercise. We speak words to God or we hear words of prayer and the Scriptures. I find myself all the time treating my prayer as if it is always a long-distance telephone call to God who is very, very far away. Don’t you experience prayer like that? Especially in our modern life, God seems to be absent, somewhere in a heaven we don’t know where it is.
What a different kind of prayer experience Peter, James, and John had at the Transfiguration. They saw God revealed in the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ and the heard the voice of God speaking, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.” The modern world has exiled God to a far away place. We forget that the Scriptures a completely different picture of prayer and the presence of God. God is never far away in the Scriptures. God was always with his people. This is a key aspect of the Transfiguration.
Peter’s words about putting up some tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are often dismissed as silly, inappropriate babbling. Even the Gospel of Luke remarks Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. In fact, Peter is responding quite normally for a man who encounters people outside on a journey. You meet a stranger and you provide them shelter. The first reading has already prepared our minds for this gesture of hospitality. First, the explicit story of God providing a home and shelter for Abraham and his descendants. And second, the implicit story of Abraham returning the favor by welcoming the three angels of God into his tent who then reveal the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing by giving him the news that Sarah will give birth to a son.
All throughout the Old Testament are stories about the hospitality of the tent. Remember that the tablets of the Covenant were kept in the Ark which went wherever the people of Israel travelled. There was a special tent in the middle of the camp of the Israelites. There the People welcomed the sacred presence of God which dwelt among them in the Covenant. Eventually that tent would become a great temple in Jerusalem. The psalms say of the temple: behold, God’s dwelling in Sion. They would come to the temple in Jerusalem and would offer their sacrifices before the presence of God. The Psalms and the prophets all assume that Jerusalem was where God lived, not just in the sky or somewhere beyond our view. But in their midst, in the Holy City.
Moses and Elijah represent the presence of God in the Law and the Prophet, but they too have stories of encountering God in prayer. Moses meets good in the burning bush. He takes of his sandals because he has entered a sacred place. Elijah too encounters the presence of God in the refuge of the cave when he is fleeing from danger. He doesn’t meet God in the storm. He doesn’t meet God in the fiery volcano. He hears God in the quiet whispering sound, perhaps of water dripping from the walls of the cave, or a wisp of wind that has found its way into the darkness of the cave. Elijah covers his head with his cloak to indicate that he too has encountered the presence of God.
The tents that Peter suggests erecting have their origins in the fall festival, the feast of Succoth or the Festival of Booths. Even to this day, the people of Israel have an eight day harvest feast. They put up tents in the backyard or in the alley behind the house. Usually it has some grass or palm leaves on top as shade. And for eight days they go into this tent to prayer and receive blessings.
The Latin word that St. Jerome used to translate the tents that Peter wanted to erect was “tabernaculum”. It means literally the little tavern or little tent. These were the temporary shelters that were set up on the road to welcome travelers. The word “tavern” comes from this. These were also what the Romans called the shops or tents that were put up in the market place to shelter the people and the products from sun and rain. And now we know why there is a tabernacle in every Catholic Church. It is the little house that we place in the Church to welcome the presence of God among us.
What a powerful expression of the Incarnation this story is. It is a reminder that God has always visited his people and made his presence felt. It didn’t stop when Jesus ascended to heaven: I am with you until the end of the Ages, Jesus said to his disciples. The Church experienced the presence of God in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And throughout the rest of the New Testament and even up to this day, there are many stories of people experience God’s presence is special and unique ways. St. Francis of Assisi experienced Christ’s presence when he received the stigmata while meditating on the Cross in San Damiano. St. Teresa of Avila spent many hours each week totally in rapture, consumed by the presence of God. Many saints have had glimpses of heaven in their own lives. And of course, there is the most sacred story of Juan Diego at Tepeyac who knew that the Blessed Mother is not totally separated from us by being in heaven. That Mary has consoled her children throughout the history of the Church to assist us in coming to know and experience the Mercy of God.
This church here is continues the tradition of building a shelter to welcome God. Jesus tempered the enthusiasm of Peter who wanted to stay on that Mountain. Jesus reminded the disciples that to be one with God, we must carry our cross. We must be willing to suffer and sacrifice for the good of others. Jesus reminds us that the resurrection will come only after the cross. But with the transfiguration of Christ, we begin to see the reward of glory that God so generously bestows on those who trust in him and go to him in confident prayer.