Take up the cross and follow in His footsteps

  • February 19, 2010
Second Sunday of Lent (Year C) Feb. 28 (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:7-4:1; Luke 9:28-36)

Gazing into a starry sky on a dark night can be a humbling experience. The entire universe seems alive with billions of points of light. The inspiring nature of this encounter with the infinite can deepen one’s faith. But it can also be extremely humbling and some may even find their faith shaken as they contemplate comparative human insignificance in the face of such incredible expanse.

Abraham is challenged by God to count the stars in the heavens — something that is clearly impossible — and to believe that this mirrors the number of his descendants. Abraham was certainly exhilarated at both the vision of the stars and the promise but it must have strained even his faith. He was old as was his wife. The long-promised son had not yet arrived and there was no evidence that the situation was going to change. In desperation Abraham and Sarah finally enlist Sarah’s slave Hagar to act as a sort of surrogate mother. But God makes it clear that this has nothing to do with the promise. It is only when both of them are so far advanced in age that natural birth would be impossible that the impossible indeed happens.

The rather strange covenant ritual in the Genesis reading is murky and unclear but the main points are clear: as in all covenants in ancient near eastern cultures, this one is written and sealed in blood. The deep and terrifying darkness and the accompanying trance are indicative of the divine presence. God has made a solemn promise but it will be fulfilled in God’s time and in God’s manner. Abraham does not believe in God as in an idea or concept — he believes that God is true and trustworthy and uses God’s promises as the compass for his life. And this is what faith is — not assent to creeds but unwavering and wholehearted trust in the One who guides us even when “common sense” appears otherwise. This enables us to endure the unbearable and believe in the impossible. That is why Abraham is the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

The same sort of faith and hope in the unseen informs Paul’s letter to the community in Philippi. They have been struggling with persecution and their sense of hope has begun to falter. But Paul exhorts them to stand firm and have hope — after all, the Lord Jesus has made a promise. We will be transformed and share in His glory. The fact that they no longer fit in with their society and culture is not a cause for grief. Their citizenship or identity is of a different order now — they are defined by their relationship with God. By remaining focused on this unseen reality they will be strengthened and empowered to withstand the pressures that assail them. We create problems for ourselves when we over-identify with the values of our own culture and society.

Spiritual masters of various religious traditions often speak of the close connection between ecstatic mountaintop experiences and the continuing day-to-day struggles. We cannot escape the demands of life through spirituality or religion. They instead prepare us to face challenges with courage, patience and grace. One is often preparation for the other and that appears to be the case in the account of the transfiguration of Jesus. He is surrounded by brilliant light and is conversing with Elijah and Moses but the conversations centre on His passion and death in Jerusalem and His departure from the Earth. Peter and the others are rather clueless — they are overwhelmed by the display of light and the eminent personages conversing with Jesus and want to capture the experience.

The desire to build some sort of shrine or holy place is a typical human reaction. But this can anchor an experience of the transcendent to a particular place and rob it of its deeper meaning and power. A closer experience of God often signals more rather than less responsibility and a corresponding level of struggle and challenge. The voice that speaks from the cloud commands us to listen to the voice of the beloved son. And that beloved son continually reminds us in Luke’s Gospel of the necessity of taking up our cross and following in His footsteps.

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