Whether they be final exams, doctoral defenses or pop quizzes, they require that the student is ready to prove that he or she has studied. Even more they often show the measure of how much one has learned.
The opening words of todays first reading say it all: "God put Abraham to the test." In a sense this was not a prepared examination but more of an unexpected "pop quiz" in which God asked Abraham to do the unthinkable, offer his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice.
This was as troubling a story for our ancestors in faith as it is for us. In the preceding chapters of Genesis, the story is told of how God was to fulfill the promise of a son for the elderly Abraham and Sarah. The birth of Isaac offered hope that the covenant God had established with Abraham was true and abiding.
What is truly remarkable is how readily Abraham was willing to act on the divine command, even though it made no sense.But Abraham proved he was a man of faith he passed the test, and God spared Isaac.
And the measure of that faith would be realized in the divine assurance that he would be blessed abundantly with descendants "as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore ... and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing."
In a sense the familiar account of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Marks Gospel, is also a story of testing. Here Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and the apostles encounter Jesus as they never have before. Not just do Jesus very clothes become dazzling but he is seen speaking with none other than Moses and Elijah who represent the "law and the prophets."
In Marks version, Peter ever the outspoken one suggests that they pitch three tents for this distinguished trio. What in fact he really wants to do is bask in the moment, for such an experience should never end.
The cloud that overshadows them reflects the biblical notion of Gods presence. God speaks through the cloud and says those words that must echo in the heart of every Christian believer: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." Suddenly all they see is Jesus alone with them.
Before this remarkable experience on the mountain, the apostles had encountered Jesus in the ordinary, everyday experience of their lives. Now they had a glimpse of his glory and his destiny. But God is not served by only remaining in the mystical moment of grace. In the end they saw "only" Jesus, the same Jesus they had known before.
But now the true test was to come: to go down from that mountain and face the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. It would then be the opportunity to realize Gods promise in a way even Abraham could never have envisioned. As Paul writes (second reading): "He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?"
Lent is a time of testing. But our prayer, penance and charity should not merely be efforts to experience those peak moments of grace. What truly matters is that they lead us back to the mundane, routine, distracting and even messy aspects of life. In fact, they should serve as hopeful reminders that the divine is already present all around us, calling us to conversion. What is required is to have faith, like Abraham, to believe that Gods promise is real despite what seems to be the impossible.
This is what was ultimately accomplished on the cross by the beloved Son to whom we must listen.
Father Heier is administrator of All Saints Parish in University City and director of the archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Ancient Near Eastern wisdom was pagan in origin, and practical rather than formally religious in content. To a large extent it consisted of shrewd advice for ambitious young gentlemen on how to get ahead, how to succeed in business and politics, and how to maintain their privileges as members of the upper class.
Sirach (also known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus) is a later Old Testament book in the wisdom tradition, accepted as canonical by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but not by Protestants. Its secular roots are reflected in todays selection, which offers solid advice applicable to any aspiring salesperson or management trainee. Be unassuming in conduct, especially with inferiors. Always listen to advice from older superiors, and make their "proverbs" ones own (e.g., "the customer is always right").
Ancient Israel showed commendable humility in its willingness to learn from pagan neighbors. But she reinterpreted everything in light of the special divine revelation with which the Chosen People had been blessed. Biblical wisdom puts "success philosophy" into a religious context; it is God, rather than the watchful office manager, who matters. Sirach, the teacher and wise man, wanted his students committed and God-fearing Jews, so he emphasized the practical virtues of everyday business and social life. Arrogance hurts sales and hinders advancement, but its religious implications are far more destructive. Such behavior reflects autonomy and self-sufficiency, whereas, in fact, we are quite dependent creatures owing life and talents to a loving God.
Sirachs teaching included what his audience needed to hear but may have preferred to ignore. "The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs," he concluded. Very well; heres one to ponder. "Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins." Religion means more than prayer and churchgoing. Be practical! Get right with God through genuine and effective concern for His poor!"
We need to heed Sirachs advice. He emphasized that humility and other virtues can have practical effects, not just obeying God and saving our souls. Genuine selflessness is normally appreciated. Proper moral living includes correct etiquette and politeness.
Jesus astute observation in todays Gospel passage likewise calls for a radical reordering of our priorities, of the principles governing daily life, if we wish to enter His Kingdom. We must "turn" from militant insistence on our "rights," from preoccupation with whatever is to our advantage, from a "50-50" mentality that gives only to receive. Humility means being generous and selfless without the "hook" of selfishness, awaiting the reward for goodness that finally comes from God alone.
Todays psalm poses practical challenges to our Christian self-understanding. The first and third readings emphasize that sharing with the needy is as important as churchgoing and prayer. We are called to identify with the poor in two ways: by imitating Gods special care for them (almsgiving), and by practicing humility. Moreover, is our personal and community prayer sufficiently praise-filled or excessively petitionary? How vigorous and joyful is our hymn singing?
"The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant ..." (first reading). God's "covenant" resem-bles any contract - marriage, bill of sale - where both parties freely and solemnly bind themselves to stated terms. It differs in being one-sided: God does the giving, Israel only receives. In this contract, God offers special love and everything implied in it - the divine presence to protect and guide, resulting in genuine, lasting peace and prosperity. Like us, Israel had only to accept, to let herself be loved, responding with an answering love that includes essential expressions of fidelity such as trust, dependence and sensitivity toward her Divine Lover.
And yet this was precisely what the Chosen People could not do, nor are we much better. Universal human experience attests such illogical behavior. Sinful humankind resists getting involved. We are threatened by the offer of selfless love because it involves letting go, honestly admitting needs that can't be satisfied with one's own or any other created resources.
Today's prophecy addressed this ultimate obstacle to human salvation, proclaiming God's firm intention as well as ability finally to overcome our stubborn pride. This text functions as a pivotal passage in the complete Bible, not only binding together thematically but furnishing names for its two major divisions ("testament" is Latin for covenant). God's offer remains the same in both Jewish and Christian dispensations. But in Jesus Christ unique divine power comes to enable and support selfless love, offering us a gift that literally cannot be refused. However illogical and even contradictory, God promises to do what we wish we could do with our loved ones. He promises to make us thoroughly loving!
Jeremiah's analogous imagery remains tantalizingly vague, enticing with its indistinctness. God committed Himself to remake His covenant agreement by re-creating each individual member. He would give us an interior "law" replacing the law taught from Mount Sinai, an inner compulsion toward good not acquired by personal effort or practice of virtue through learning or experience. Thus empowered, the whole community becomes a lived paradox, "forced" to love when love by definition must be freely given. Such the grace offered through Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection!
This proclamation of a new covenant reveals God's "secret weapon" for saving us sinners. Instead of commanding what is humanly impossible, or resigning Himself to our ingrained infidelity or depriving us of freedom by forcing obedience, God "makes" us freely love through overpowering grace.
The second reading further specifies this secret weapon God uses for our salvation. The main statement about Jesus' earthly life concerns His uniquely powerful "prayers and (earnest) supplications." The New Testament's description of Jesus' terrible experience in Gethsemane Garden shocks our sensibilities. Only through "loud cries and tears" was Jesus heard by his Father, "because of his reverence" - healthy or "godly fear" that accepted the divine will rather than insisted on its own. In Gethsemane Garden Jesus prayed for deliverance from physical suffering and death - "let this chalice pass from Me." God answered His and our prayer, not with rescue from a premature death but with rescue from eternal death.
OUR GOOD NEWS: John the Baptist - greatest and least in the Kingdom.
"The desert and the parched land will exult ... they will bloom with abundant flowers." Isaiah described Israel's final, future deliverance into freedom from exile in terms of, and even superior to, their ancestors' journey out of Egyptian slavery and into the Promised Land. God would personally take charge, leading the exiles on a shortcut through uninhabitable desert recreated as a new Garden of Eden. Transformed nature would provide the background for God's "glory" and "splendor," a visible manifestation of his presence and power.
"Strengthen the hands that are feeble ... say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!" Isaiah announced good news to the anxious and fearful - including us - who suffer oppression and are crushed with hopelessness. Cheer up! Our Savior-God is on the way! Literally, "he comes with vengeance" (rather than "vindication"), directed not against anyone in punishment but for his people, bringing freedom and the triumph of goodness.
Every unpleasantness will be swallowed up in rapturous delight, every handicap healed. The "blind, deaf, lame and mute," normally excluded from temple worship by reason of their defects, will dance and sing before the Lord in his honor. Those who had known only affliction and oppression will join in a magnificent religious procession celebrating God's coming Kingdom. There, in a fairy-tale-come-true, all sorrow disappears and God's people live happily ever after. "They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee."
Today's Gospel describes how Isaiah's vision of Israel's glorious future is fulfilled unexpectedly. Our attention is directed toward John the Baptist, confused in his expectation of a Messiah.
Jesus replies with characteristic gentle firmness to John's pained doubt. Point by point, he fulfilled Isaiah's Messianic prophecy (first reading): "the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear." Moreover, by curing lepers and raising the dead, Jesus performed two works commonly judged exceeding the usual miraculous powers. But the climax of his Messianic mission came last: "The poor have the Good News preached to them."
Having challenged John to revise his Messianic expectations, Jesus then confronted "the crowds" who misunderstood the Baptist's true mission. No "reed swaying in the wind" he - a vacillating crowd-pleaser playing to their selfish hopes and prejudices. No self-indulgent cleric "dressed in fancy clothes" and enjoying high-level political connections. Jesus publicly acknowledged John's exalted status as a Final-Age prophet, but top billing in the Old Testament dispensation pales in comparison to the lowest of those privileged to enter God's Kingdom.