The emptiness enables us to focus

By | March 6, 2009

Each year, on the second Sunday of Lent, we hear the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, his dialogue with Moses and Elijah, and the voice of God instructing us to listen to his beloved Son. The conversation that takes place focuses on the suffering of Jesus that will precede the resurrection and final glory.

Mark’s narrative gives us few details about the event, but we know that the other two participants in the conversation, Moses and Elijah, are two key figures in salvation history and symbols of the Law and the Prophets. From the other evangelists’ accounts of the transfiguration, we learn that Moses and Elijah were discussing Jesus’ death.

The first reading from Genesis recounts the story of Abram’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac — and his entire future, for Isaac was the child of the promise and Abram’s only natural heir. Without Isaac, Abram’s line would die out. Although he couldn’t understand how God’s promise could be fulfilled without Isaac, Abram showed a readiness to sacrifice him to God. And because of Abram’s obedience, God spared the life of Isaac. Jesus discerned God’s will by listening to God’s voice within. But in spite of Jesus’ complete obedience, God did not rescue his beloved Son, but gave him up, for our sake.

Although Sundays are not really part of the 40 penitential days of Lent, as we enter the church we are reminded of the nature of the season as we notice the stark environment, simple vesture, perhaps purple hues, more simple and almost plaintive music, and the absence of the Alleluia and Gloria. Some parishes use bare branches, some decorate with gray rather than purple fabric or stones and sand, and we remove any excess decorations. In many parishes we kneel for and highlight the penitential rite and experience more silence. This emptiness enables us to focus on the important parts of the 40 days: the faithful who gather, penitents seeking reconciliation, candidates preparing to enter into full communion, and the catechumens, now called “the elect,” preparing more intensely for baptism.

Each parish has its own repertoire of Lenten music. Some parishes use one setting for the Responsorial Psalm during the entire Lenten season while others vary the setting. With the Scriptures’ focus this week on the aspect of suffering related to glory and the sustaining presence of God with those who suffer, there is a different tone from the later days of Passiontide. This week we may hear echoes of “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Jerusalem my Destiny,” “Transfigure Us, O Lord,” renditions of Psalm 116 (“Our Blessing Cup”) or Psalm 19 (“Be With Me Lord, When I Am in Trouble”) or the consoling words of “If God is For Us” which echo the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will save hymns that focus directly on the suffering and death of Jesus (“Were You There” or “O Sacred Head Surrounded”) until the later days of the season.


Sr. Rehrauer is president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Bay Settlement, and former associate director of the Liturgy Secretariat for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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