Second Sunday of Lent
In many a great story of literature, we find a hero who has to undergo a great trial, or many great trials. After going through the trial(s), the hero is changed, for the better; transformed, we might even say. This is true of ancient literature, like “The Odyssey,” where Odysseus, on his way home from war, has to conquer many trials on various islands as his ship is tossed about the seas. This is true of classical literature like “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, where Ebenezer Scrooge has to grapple with his past, his present, and even a possible future in order to be changed from a miser to philanthropist. This is true in the great Catholic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien where Frodo is put through many trials trying to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom. This is even true in J. K. Rowling’s novels about Harry Potter, who discovers who he is and how to stop the evil wizard Voldemort through many tribulations.
As for the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus, He doesn’t have to do anything to be great; He is great because He is God. And yet, Jesus, too, in humility, undergoes a great trial in His Passion and Death, in order to be transformed, to be raised from the dead and receive a glorified body. And in today’s Gospel, we hear about a foretaste of that glorified body as Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. It is a rest before the great struggle begins, and the apostles will need that reminder as they go through an unexpected journey of their own with their Master.
What about our story? I dare say that everyone over the past year has had trials. And many people had trials before COVID. And we will all have trials after we’ve gotten a handle on this pandemic. How do we view those struggles in the light of faith? Do we view those struggles in the light of faith, or are we fatalists, just letting life happen to us?
God does not call us to be fatalists, as if suffering is beyond the control of God and so we have no one to turn to during our tribulations. God calls us to be sons and daughters in His Son, who gives us everything that we need, including allowing us to undergo trials to help us to grow.
There is, I would also dare say, a part of us that cringes from the trials and tests. We would rather have the Resurrection without the crucifixion. We would rather have abs of steel without going to the gym and eating well. We would rather have infused knowledge than going to school for so many years. But that’s not the way the world works. In God’s mysterious plan, somehow the struggle is good for us, and builds us in ways that cheap grace never could. There is no such thing as cheap grace; it is never earned (because grace is a gift), but it’s also not encountered passively; it always requires some death to self, which is a struggle.
And the attitude to have through it all is the attitude of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jesus: God will provide. We can imagine how much the thought of sacrificing his son tore up Abraham. We can imagine how confused and perhaps even scared Isaac was. And in a few weeks we’ll hear the reaction of Jesus to His known, impending suffering and Death as He asks His loving Father for another way, if it is possible. But, and these words are key, Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
The trials and tribulations of life, the sufferings we encounter, especially if they are not of our own making, are the ways that we pass through death to life. Lent is a long time of truly entering in, as we are called to do year round, to the Paschal Mystery–to the Passion and Death of Jesus–so that we are share in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. And if we go through whatever struggles we have with God, they do strengthen us, they transform us, they even transfigure us to be more like Jesus in glory.
We have a choice: do we want to get to that glory that Jesus showed His apostles on Mt. Tabor? If so, there’s only one way to get there: through the cross; through suffering and death to our own wills and to our own sinfulness. St. Rose of Lima put it this way: “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” The ladder may be difficult to climb, but the reward at the top is joy beyond imagining! In the story of your life, follow the path of so many literary heroes: go through trials so that you can be transformed!