Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (C) – Oxford University Chaplaincy
This may seem slightly perverse, immediately after hearing that Gospel of the Transfiguration, but as I was pondering on this Sunday’s readings there came into the forefront of my mind a line from an ancient and well-known hymn for Lent which runs “In darkness and perplexity, point thou the heavenly way”. It is, I feel, a touching line, a line which – like so much good poetry – expresses so much so briefly and so simply, a line which gets to the heart of the matter. Over the past few weeks, my work has brought me into contact with many, many people – whether students at school pondering university applications, university students pondering their future, penitents at their Lenten confessions or those young people who see me for help discerning their vocation – for whom those words are almost the only prayer they have. Perhaps for many of us, now that the first enthusiasm of Ash Wednesday, with all its good intentions and promises, is becoming more and more a rather distant memory, that darkness and perplexity are becoming again our daily experience of our Lenten journey this year.
Perhaps that is why the readings we have just heard are so powerful, can strike such a chord if we truly hear them. In each of those readings, we see the principal characters at a time of “crisis” – a time of doubt and perplexity and anguish. We see Abram, our father in faith, whom the Lord has called to leave his home, his family, all that is familiar, and to journey into the unknown, to a land he has never seen, and into a future which is not yet secure. The Lord has promised him both a land and a lineage, descendants as many as the stars of heaven, and yet Abram and Sara are still childless. No wonder that he questions God: “How am I to know that I shall inherit it?” For Paul, the situation is similar. Reaching the end of his earthly life, he writes passionately to the Philippians, seemingly afraid that all his labours have been in vain. After a long passage in which he makes much of his own Jewish heritage, he bewails his kinsmen, who – blind to the promise of liberation which faith in Christ can bring to all – are still tied to the dietary laws and to circumcision “who make foods into their gods and are proudest of something they ought to think shameful”. No wonder he pleads with tears, as he sees the whole of his mission, the whole of life’s work, the whole of God’s plan being undermined by the blindness and stubbornness of his opponents.
Even for Christ himself, in today’s gospel we see even him at a real turning point. In all three of the synoptic gospels, we see the same chain of events, though at different points in their story of Christ’s ministry. We see him ask the disciples “Who do people say I am?”, as if he himself is unsure. In response to Peter’s acclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, he gives not only the joyful commission to Peter to be keyholder of the kingdom, but the much darker prophecy of his own passion and death – the first of three he will give – to the incredulity of his disciples. I have often wondered, in my own reflection, if Peter’s first answer was really what Jesus most feared in his heart, if the acknowledgement by his closest friend that “You are the Christ” was the thought he most dreaded being true, since he knew all too well what that would bring.
Then comes the Transfiguration. Only in Luke’s account does this event come so early in the narrative, before Jesus sets out definitively towards Jerusalem to fulfil the Father’s will. Only in Luke, notwithstanding the glory of Christ and Moses and Elijah, does the evangelist speak of their conversation – they were discussing Jesus’ “passing”, his “exodus”, his own Passover – which he was to accomplish in the Holy City, like the prophets before him. Only in Luke is the brightness of the Transfiguration already shadowed, already darkened by the imminent and direct threat of the cross. For the disciples too it is a moment of confusion, of bewilderment, of fear – a moment which leaves them speechless, both then and thereafter, as they stumbled back down the mountain.
So what can we make of all this? In the first place, perhaps we can take courage that we are not alone in our experience of darkness and perplexity. If that experience was shared by Abraham, by Paul, by Peter, James and John and by Christ himself, then perhaps it is a necessary part of our journey, a necessary part of our relationship with God, a necessary place for our faith to be tested and to grow. It might indeed be foolish for us to assume that we are sharing in that experience of the “dark night of the soul” so commonly claimed by the great mystics; yet even for us, perhaps more ordinary souls, our own perplexity and doubt can be a place of privileged encounter.
For there is a deeper lesson to take from these readings. Not only are we not humanly alone in our shared experience, but it seems that it is precisely when we are in this darkness that God is closest to us, that his power is nearest, his presence most mysterious but yet most vibrant. For Abram, it was when the darkness was deepest and his terror at its height that the fire of God’s presence passed between the sacrificed animals – a fire which sealed God’s first covenant with him, but also that same fire of his saving presence which burned in the bush on Sinai to promise salvation to his descendants, that same fire which led Israel dryshod through the sea and through the desert. For Peter and John and James too, it was when the cloud overshadowed them, the light withdrawn and their fear greatest that the Father speaks most clearly and unequivocally: “This is my Son, the Chosen: listen to him”. Likewise, in the midst of his darkness and distress, God touches Paul’s heart with hope, and gives him the certainty that – despite all appearances to the contrary – there will indeed be a time when Christ will let us, wretched as we are, share in his transfigured glory.
Perhaps one last observation. That fire of God’s presence and his covenant was not just Abram’s dream – it was the sign of a promise later sealed by the concrete gift of Isaac, of Jacob and the whole of God’s chosen people. The dazzling brightness of the Transfiguration was no illusion, no false vision in the bewildering shadow and confusion, nor even just a vision of comfort before the scandal of the Cross, but a promise sealed on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. The light and the signs which God gives are never false, they are of God, but they are never the fullness of the revelation – they are always lights and signs which point forward, point to a reality which is yet to be fulfilled in us and for us, they are lights given to help us to make the next step. As Paul says elsewhere “for now we see in a glass, darkly, but then face to face” (1.Cor.13) or again, “for we walk by faith, and not by sight”.
In this Lenten journey, then, and in this year of Faith, let us make the psalmist’s prayer from today our own. Let us “hope in him, hold firm and take heart; hope in the Lord” (Ps.26), even when the darkness is deepest, trusting that God will give us just the amount of light we need to see how we can take the next step in our search. It may not be yet the dazzling vision of his glory, nor yet the fullness of light in his presence, but it may be just enough that we can indeed “constantly seek His face”(Ps.26), firm in the hope that he will not hide himself from us forever. Perhaps, this Lent, that hymn prayer with which we began “In darkness and perplexity point Thou the heavenly way” is not such a bad prayer after all – but let us also remember the last verse of that same hymn: “Lord Jesus, think on me: that when the flood is past, I may the eternal brightness see, and share thy joys at last.”