Second Sunday of Lent
Trusting God and willing to endure what he asks of us
The Transfiguration is a dramatic event. All three of the synoptic gospels report and do so with considerable consistency. It would be common enough to focus on the event as a sign of Christ’s glorification or perhaps even as an indication of the disciples’ lack of understanding. But I propose to think of it as a lesson about petitionary prayer.
C S Lewis once observed that there is a gap between what Jesus tells us in the gospels about the efficacy of prayer and our own experience of it. Jesus tells us that we will receive what we pray for but is it not often the case we do not, in fact, receive what we ask? How can we reconcile this? Do we lack faith? Does God simply not listen? Lewis himself wondered how the question should be answered.
I don’t mean to offer a simple solution but I do think there are some clues we can take away from the readings for this Sunday, which are carefully chosen and interrelated.
The first clue is in the story of Abram, which is very abrupt. At Yahweh’s direction, Abram leaves his home and journeys to Palestine. In the tradition, he is honored for his faith, which we sometimes understand as a conviction about things unseen (Hebrews 11.1). But this is not Abram’s faith for Yahweh speaks to him and later appears to him. Instead, Abram’s faith is trust in Yahweh. He does not know why he should move or what will happen when he does but he trusts that his obedience will serve his God and that good will come of it.
The second clue, in the story of the Transfiguration and reinforced in the passage from 2 Timothy, is that things are not what they seem. There are deeper realities and more profound values than those that first appear to us. Since this episode appears in the text immediately after Jesus has foretold his torture and death, we are meant to understand that the things that are present must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of things that are hidden.
A third clue is in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where he reminds Timothy that he has been called “to a holy life” not according to our values but according to God’s own design. And he encourages Timothy to endure the hardships this will inevitably entail.
So what to make of all this? I think we should understand that, if we are Christian disciples, the point of prayer is not to change God but rather to change us. Our attitude, if we follow the model of Abram, is to be firm in trusting God and willing to endure what he asks of us, confident that, as Newman put it, “he knows what he is about.” And confident, too, that while we may not receive what we ask, we will receive the grace and strength to achieve what we are called to do and be, which though it may be hidden now, is truly what we want.
Dr. Robert Kennedy
Professor and Chair, Department of Catholic Studies