Commentary: 2nd Sunday Lent Year B


Every year on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Church shifts its focus from the temptations of Jesus in the desert to the mystery of his transfiguration, which is recorded in all three synoptic gospels. Because it’s year B, we’re going to look at the account of the transfiguration in the Gospel of Mark.

First Reading: Genesis 22:1–2, 9a, 10–13, 15–18

Old Testament readings for Lent give an overview of salvation history. Last week was the covenant with Noah. This week is covenant with Abraham.

22 After these things God tested Abraham.

God is testing the faith of Abraham. What he’s doing is he’s seeing if Abraham will trust him no matter what happens, even if God commands him to do something seemingly inexplicable, which would be to take the life of the son that God had promised Abraham for all these years, and through whom God was supposed to give Abraham many descendents, right. If you think about it, Abraham’s name in Hebrew, Ab-raham, means father of a multitude, and God had given him that name precisely because God told him one day I’m going to give you a son, and through your son you’re going to have a multitude of descendents, you’re going to have descendants as many as the stars of heaven. And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, Genesis tells us. And so after almost 25 years of waiting to have a child, Abraham finally has his son Isaac. And now that Isaac is a young man, what does God do? He tells Abraham okay, now I want you to take him and I want you to sacrifice him to me. Now there’s tests and then there’s tests, right. This is an extraordinary test of Abraham’s obedience and faith, and God never does anything like this anywhere else in the scriptures. He never commands someone to offer a sacrifice of a human being. This is anomalous, it doesn’t fit anywhere else. It doesn’t fit with God’s actions elsewhere.

The only way to answer this question is in light of the New Testament. However, once we have the new testament we can also look back at this event and see that what God is doing through Abraham is preparing the world for the sacrifice of his only beloved son Jesus Christ, who he is going to send into the world to offer as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, so that all the families of the earth might be blessed through him. In other words, what God is doing here is he needs a man who trusts him so much that he will pre-enact the crucifixion 2000 years before it happens.


First parallel with Christ, number one, father Abraham offers his only beloved son as a sacrifice. Well that parallels the heavenly father offering his only beloved son, Christ.

But what it shows us is is that God is planning for what’s going to happen to Jesus on Calvary in 33 A.D., he’s got that all planned out 2000 years before when Abraham is offering Issac. In fact, he’s got it all planned out from eternity, right. His plan of salvation is in his divine mind from all eternity but it’s going to play out in human history in ways that will help us see that once Jesus is actually executed on Calvary in the first century A.D., that this isn’t something that’s a shock or a surprise, it’s part of God’s plan of salvation going all the way back to the call of Abraham. 

So especially for catechumens who are preparing to receive the sacraments at Easter, this is a really important Sunday because one of the things you need to realize is that Christianity is not a man-made religion. It’s not something we just made up, right, out of symbols and stories and myths. No, it’s a divinely made religion, it’s a God made religion. It’s something that God has revealed to us and we receive it, so that we can understand that he’s actually in control of all of human history. Human history is not just a series of random occurrences, it’s part of his divine plan, leading up to what we’re going to celebrate on Easter Sunday above all.

He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

And then last but certainly not least, if you have any doubts about all of that, you’ve got to look at the mountains. I told you mountains were important, and they’re not just important in the New Testament, they’re important in the Old Testament. In Genesis 22, it makes clear that the place where Isaac is sacrificed is Mount Mori’ah. Well later on in the Bible, in 2 Chronicles 3:1, we have one other reference to Mori’ah in the Old Testament, and it’s important because it says that King Solomon “began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Mori’ah.” In other words, Abraham offers his beloved son Isaac on the same mountain that Jesus, the beloved son of the father, is going to lay down his life for the sins of the world. So there’s a geographical connection. It’s the same mountain, it’s in Jerusalem. We don’t think of it that way but that’s how the ancient Jews saw it. Abraham offered Isaac in Jerusalem, so too now God the father is going to offer his beloved son on the mountain of Jerusalem.

9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Second, the only beloved son, Isaac in this case, carries the wood of his own sacrifice up the mountain and then is laid down on the wood to become a sacrifice. Well this should make you think of the crucifixion, right, where Jesus carries the wood of his own sacrifice up the mountain to Golgatha in order to be laid on that wood as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

The other thing here, you might notice, I almost skipped it, but that when Isaac is saved from being sacrificed, God provides the substitute of a ram caught in a thicket, a thorn bush, by his horns. Many of the ancient church fathers saw that as a type of Christ too, because they saw Christ as the ram. The ram was a symbol for kings and kingship like David. So Christ is like that, the royal king who wears a crown made out of thorns. So just as the ram is caught by its horns in a thorn bush, so Christ wears a crown of thorns and he’s going to be the substitute, he’s going to take Isaac’s place, in a sense, so that he will lay down his life in sacrifice so that the world might be blessed.

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Third, also look at the effects of this sacrifice. What does God say to Abraham? Because you’ve done this, right, all the nations of the world are going to be blessed through you because of what you were willing to do. Well when does that take place? Well that’s gonna happen at the cross, when Christ ascends the wood of the cross and dies on the cross. One of the first things that’s going to happen is the conversion of the Gentile Centurion, who’s going to say surely this man was the son of God, and he’s going to be the kind of first-fruits of the rest of the whole world coming to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and the son of God.

Psalm: Psalm 116:10, 15–19

R: 9I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

This Psalm is actually one of the psalms, we’ll see this when we get to holy week, that the Jews prayed during Passover, and that Jesus himself would’ve sung at the Last Supper. So when he talks about walking before the Lord in the land of the living, it’s pointing to the hope of the resurrection. So the Psalm here points us forward to Easter. It helps us start looking forward to the fact that, although Jesus is the only beloved son who is going to come down the mountain of the Transfiguration and go up the Mountain of Calvary to lay down his life, in the end, the story’s not going to stop with his death, it’s going stop with his resurrection.

10I kept my faith, even when I said,

“I am greatly afflicted”;

15Precious in the sight of the Lord

is the death of his faithful ones.

16O Lord, I am your servant;

I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.

You have loosed my bonds.

17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice

and call on the name of the Lord.

18I will pay my vows to the Lord

in the presence of all his people,

19in the courts of the house of the Lord,

in your midst, O Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord!

  1. Sacrifice: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (v.15)
  2. Suffering Servant: “I am your servant, the son of your handmaid” (v.16)
  3. “I will offer the Lord the sacrifice of thanksgiving (Hebrew todah) (v.17)

Second Reading: Romans 8:31b–34

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

  1. Confidence in God: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31)
  2. Resurrection: “Is it Christ Jesus…. who intercedes for us” (8:34)

Gospel: Mark 9:2–10

The Transfiguration is the clearest New Testament evocation of mystical experience. The experience of spiritual things in and through the ordinary things with a keen conviction that the spiritual is far greater and more beautiful than the ordinary.

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.

Symbol of height — experience takes place on a mountaintop. Mystics often use height to evoke transcendence. It’s like seeing all things from God’s perspective. Through Jesus, the disciples got access to this higher place.

Mountains — are extremely important and holy places in the Bible — usually where God appears — a “theophany” = A theophany is an appearance of God, a kind of supernatural revelation of God.

It’s easy to pass over this fact: they had to climb that mountain. Anyone who has been to the site of Tabor can appreciate just how difficult a climb it is, almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It takes the better part of a day and the climb might well have been more dangerous back then. Once at the top, one feels as if one is looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon). So Tabor is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. It was a difficult, exhausting climb for Peter, James, and John and it tested their strength. This climb should remind us of our life here on this earth. We’ve often had to climb, to endure; we’ve had our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree, or raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb, of effort, of struggle? Most of us know that although the climb is difficult, there is glory at the top. We have to endure, to push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength. Herein lies the paradox: peace, joy, and hope are often the products of struggles, climbs, and difficulties. These things are often the prelude to seeing and experiencing glory. See Rom 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6  ~ Msgr. Pope

And he was transfigured before them,

Instead of Jesus getting something from God, He Himself is transfigured — metamorphōthē.  — went beyond the form — revealed a new depth of his existence which they had not yet seen.

3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Symbol of light — provides the ground for true vision. Mystical experience is always a moment of clarification. What was shadowy is now clear. We also associate light with beauty.

Jesus is fully human and now revealed as fully God. Jesus gives the apostles a glimpse of heavenly glory hidden beneath human nature. So in other words, from a Jewish perspective, the Transfiguration is a kind of theophany, but we might call it a Christ-ophany. In other words, it’s a revelation of the divinity of Jesus himself. As opposed to God coming down from heaven in spirit, now Jesus is revealing in his humanity his divine identity, and his divine glory, and his divine power.

Angels in Old Testament frequently described as clothed in white. Or think of woman

4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Elijah and Moses had both experienced theophanies on the top of mountains. Elijah in 1 Kings 19 — Mount Sinai — God passes by in still small voice. Elijah wraps in face with a cloak because he knows he cannot look at God’s face and live. Moses in Exodus 34 — Mount Sinai — no one can see my face and live. Elijah’s and Mose’s desire to see God’s face is finally answered here.

5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;

A bit of an understatement here from Peter. But Mark in verse 6 relates why Peter said it — Peter didn’t know what to say, he was afraid.

let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Not entirely clear what Peter has in mind here.

Dwellings: Peter might be alluding to the feast of booths, sometimes translated as the feast of tabernacles in Leviticus 23, where Jews would celebrate the deliverance from Egypt and the Exodus journey by making tents and living in those tents, and feasting with the fruits of the fall harvest. And in ancient Jewish tradition, the feast of tabernacles was sometimes linked with the peace and the joy and the rest of the resurrection, of the final age of salvation, of the new creation that the Jews were all waiting for. So what Peter says here is well let’s make our booths, let’s make our tents, let’s make our tabernacles, and just, you know, enjoy this glory that we’re tasting now. But there’s a mistake because in doing so, he doesn’t properly recognize that Jesus and Moses and Elijah aren’t on the same level, right.

6 Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!

Symbol of voice — So many mystics speak of the voice as a way to communicate the mystical as not some vague experience but a real contact with the living God who speaks to the heart. 

The image of the glory cloud, the cloud that’s coming down from heaven, because in the Old Testament, in Exodus 40, that cloud, whenever it would descend, it would descend upon the tabernacle of Moses to indicate that God was present with his people, that he came down from heaven to be with his people. It was kind of the supreme sign of God’s presence during the exodus. So the same thing is true here, God is now coming down to be with his people in Christ, in Jesus, as the beloved son of the father. 

With these words, God the Father gave Jesus Christ to humanity as its sole and definitive Teacher, superior to the laws and the prophets. St. John of the Cross said that ever since the Father said about Jesus on Tabor: “Listen to him!” God made himself, in a certain sense, dumb. He has said it all; he has nothing new to reveal. ~ Fr. Cantalamessa

8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

God the Father makes is very clear that Jesus is not on the same level as Elijah and Moses.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

The Messianic secret is present here again.

10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

The Apostles don’t seem to get it. Because you’ve got to remember, according to the Old Testament and according to the Jewish Scriptures, and as well as ancient Jewish tradition, the resurrection of the dead was something that was expected to take place at the end of time, at the end of the old creation, which the Jews called this world, and the beginning of a new creation, the world to come. But what happens with Jesus is different. Instead of everyone being raised from the dead at the end of time, Jesus is raised from the dead individually, so to speak, in the middle of time. And he refers to himself as the Son of Man, a kind of mysterious title that was linked with the Messiah there. And so he posits something that might’ve been somewhat unexpected to them, namely that the Messiah was going to die and rise again before everyone else rose from the dead, which might have been puzzling too, given the fact that they also just encountered Moses and Elijah, who were, you know, well Elijah’s not dead, he goes up into heaven, but Moses had died in the Book of Deuteronomy, there were two figures who were no longer on earth, right. So in other words, what Jesus is doing here is kind of pointing the disciples forward to the mystery of his own individual resurrection as Son of Man from the dead, and they don’t quite get it yet. They don’t understand how all of this is going to play out. They know their Jewish beliefs about what happens at the end of time, but they haven’t figured out how Jesus himself is going to enact that in his own person through his passion, death and resurrection on the third day.

“Jesus took the apostles up to the mountain for three reasons: first, to show them the glory of his divinity, then to declare himself Israel’s redeemer… and thirdly to prevent the apostles’ being scandalized at seeing him soon afterward enduring those human sufferings which he had freely accepted for our sake… He took them up onto the mountain in order to show them his kingship before they witnessed his passion, to let them see his mighty power before they watched his death, to reveal his glory to them before they beheld his humiliation.” ~ Ephrem the Syrian, Sermon 16 on the Transfiguration 1.3.4; trans. E. Barnecut

Peter, James, and John were also the only ones to

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