Part of the theology that most of us inherited taught that our journey of faith was one of living our lives "according to God's plan", of accepting our state in life - whatever it may be - as part of His will for us, and submitting to the sometimes unreasonable demands that we seem to think He makes upon us. The soul is spirit, noble, most God-like; the flesh is lowly, corruptible, and definitely mortal. We were trained to struggle against the desires of the body, to subdue, to repress. And Lent was a special time for self-denial and sacrifice, for beating the body and our human longings into submission.
At first glance, the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent reinforce these ideas.
In Genesis we listen to God's promise to Abraham: "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you… your name will be great… and all shall find a blessing in you." This, of course, is the same God who a little later on in Genesis will demand that Abraham offer the life of his son in sacrifice, as proof of his loyalty and faith. The Letter to Timothy reminds us that life is not easy and that we are to "bear our share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God." And finally, in the Gospel passage, Matthew allows us to become witnesses, with Peter, James and John, of the Lord's transfiguration: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light". Much later, the disciples would recognize that this mysterious event was a preview of the resurrection, and a vivid reminder that the body as well as the spirit is destined for transforming glory.
But if we are really attentive to the Scriptures, we find a very different message.
All of us have gone through, or are going through, moments in our lives when the absence of God seems so real that the promise of future glory means little… when the words and actions of others - no matter how well-meaning they might be - seem hollow and hypocritical… when our loneliness and emptiness lead us into the desert, with no hope of returning.
It is very difficult - almost impossible - to always be attentive to the presence of God in our lives, to be witnesses to the goodness and love of God to the world around us, when we ourselves feel lost and abandoned.
The first followers of Jesus had no doubts that the physical dimensions of what was happening around them were real. They had all witnessed marvelous deeds by the One they called "Master." They watched as the sick were healed, the lame made to walk and the blind to see once again. In a very short time they would come to realize this even more concretely: the bread and the wine were real - the betrayal and the arrest were real - the trial and the torture were real - the crucifixion and death of their friend were real - the tomb was real - the stone that covered its entrance was real.
Finally there was the empty tomb - and that was very real.
All throughout these events, the followers of Jesus knew that something else was happening - something beyond the physical - something one could only see and touch and understand with faith. Yet, they didn't come to faith easily, they felt the same abandonment as we, and almost lost their faith completely.