Everything about the Lenten journey to the cross focuses on God’s power and promise, which the Resurrection will show to be greater than any human design; they are the only things worthy of our faith. The author of Genesis and the Apostle Paul both saw the faith embodied in Abraham and Sarah. The psalmist in Psalm 22 knew that generations of the needy would testify to God’s blessing, and Jesus in Mark’s Gospel challenges his disciples to trust that blessing. In the alternate Gospel reading for today from the Gospel according to Mark, we witness God’s validation of Jesus as heir to Israel’s faith, servant of those in need, and teacher of those who would follow him.
The First Reading
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
God’s Covenant Promising an Abundant Future
God appears to Abram with the name El Shaddai, echoing the sense of God as the power of storm and nature. Abram learns of the covenant by which he and his wife, Sarai, will be blessed with a son. The covenant will continue between God and many generations of Abram and Sarai’s descendants, making them the ancestors of many nations and peoples. The covenant’s fulfillment, embodied in multitudes of people and in royal figures, finds expression in their new names.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, God appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai conduct your life in my presence and with integrity. I am setting out my covenant between myself and you; I will make very much of you.” Then Abram collapsed face down, and God spoke with him: “Listen! Here is my covenant with you: you will be a father of many nations. You will not be called Abram anymore; your name will be Abraham, since I am making you a father of many nations. I will assure your power to multiply abundantly, so that you become nations, and kings will come from you. I establish my covenant as an ever-present covenant between myself and you, along with your descendants after you throughout their generations—to be God for you and for your descendants after you.”
Then God said to Abraham, “Sarai, your wife, will not be called Sarai, but her name will be Sarah. I will bless her, even giving you a son by her. I will bless her so that she becomes nations, and kings of peoples will come from her.”
Praise God’s Power and Loving Compassion
God’s righteous rule merits our praise. Today’s psalm moves from God’s care for individuals, whose affliction God does not ignore (verse 24), to the congregation of Israel, in which God’s praise is heard (verse 25), to the farthest reaches of the earth (verse 27), and to all nations (verses 28-31). Recognizing God as eternal Lord of all nations, Psalm 22 expands upon the theme of the eternal covenant made with Abraham, described in today’s first reading (Genesis 17).
- Praise God, those who revere the Lord!
Glorify God, all descendants of Jacob!
Stand in awe of God, all seed of Israel!
- For God did not despise, God did not detest the affliction of the lowly.
Nor did God turn away from them.
God listened when the afflicted cried out.
- On your behalf is my praise in the great congregation.
My vows I will fulfill in the presence of those who revere the Lord.
- The needy shall eat and be satisfied.
Those who seek the Lord will praise God.
May your hearts live forever!
- Let all the farthest reaches of the earth recognize and turn to the Lord.
Let all the families of the nations bow down before God.
- For sovereignty belongs to the Lord,
who rules the nations.
- All the strong of the earth ate and bowed down.
Before God shall kneel all who go down to dust,
who are mortal.
- Their descendants shall worship God.
The Lord shall be proclaimed to future generations.
- They will come and declare his righteousness to a people yet to be born,
for God has acted.
The Second Reading
Abraham, Our Father
In the writings of the Apostle Paul, Abraham appears as the father of all peoples, as well as of Israel. Abraham “had faith in the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) centuries before Moses received the law at Mount Sinai. For that reason, Paul argues in this passage from the Epistle to the Romans, as he does elsewhere, that Abraham stands for the principle of faith for the world’s “many nations,” not only among those who keep the law.
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they will inherit the world, was not on the basis of law, but on the basis of righteousness that comes from faith, since if heirs are marked out by law, faith is voided and the promise is overturned. Law utilizes wrath, and where there is no law, neither is there transgression. For this reason, heirs are marked out by faith, so that grace confirms the promise to all descendants—not only to those who are marked out by law, but also to those who are marked out by Abraham’s faith. He, after all, is the father of us all, as it is written: “I have appointed you father of many nations,” in that he “had faith in God,” who brings alive the dead and calls what is from what is not. He had faith, piling hope upon hope, that he could become father of many nations, according to the assertion: “So will be your descendants.” One hundred years old, he did not consider his dying body, nor Sarah’s deadened womb, with any weakness of faith. He did not dismiss the promise of God with faithlessness, but was empowered in faith as he gave glory to God, convinced God would act as promised. Therefore, “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The phrase “it was credited to him” was written not only about him, but also about us, to whom righteousness is about to be credited, because we have faith in God, who raised from the dead our Lord Jesus, who was delivered over for our trespasses and was raised to set us right.
Losing One’s Life to Gain One’s Life
In this reading, the suffering that awaits Jesus is also a model for the experience of his followers. Jesus requires self-denial of himself and of his followers as well. For that reason, he uses the Aramaic phrase “son of man” (bar nasha), which means “a human being,” designating both the speaker and all people who are or can be in the speaker’s position. The usage plays a role in the Gospels’ theme of the connection between the pattern of Jesus’ life and that of his followers.
Jesus began to teach his students: “This human being must suffer much, be condemned by the elders and high priests and scribes, be killed—and finally after three days arise.” He spoke this word frankly; Rock—Peter—took him aside and began to scold him, but he turned away, saw his students, and scolded Rock. He said, “Get behind me, Satan, because you do not think God’s way, but people’s.”
He summoned the crowd with his students and said to them: “If anyone wants to come after me, deny yourself and take your cross and follow me! Because whoever wishes to save life itself, will lose it; but whoever will lose life for me and for the message, will save it. For what is the profit for a person to gain the whole world but forfeit life? What will a person give in exchange for life? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, this human being will be ashamed of also, when he comes in the glory of the Father with the holy angels.”
or Mark 9:2-9
In this scene, three of Jesus’ students are given a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. His physical appearance changes to represent his special association with God. The presence of Moses and Elijah puts him in the company of those who, according to the Judaic teaching of the time, lived on with God in heaven. Although he is compared to them, a voice from heaven insists that Jesus alone is God’s Son and that he should be heard.
After six days Jesus took along Rock—Peter—and James and John and brought them up to a high mountain privately, alone. He was transmuted before them, and his clothing became gleaming, very white, as a launderer on the earth is not able to whiten. Elijah with Moses appeared to them, speaking together with Jesus. Rock reacted and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is fine for us to be here, and we should build three lodges: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Rock did not know how he should react, because they were terrified. And there came a cloud overshadowing them, and a sound from the cloud: “This is my Son, the beloved—hear him.” Suddenly, looking around, the three no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus, alone. They descended from the mountain, and he ordered them strictly not to relate to anyone what they had seen, except when this human being had arisen from the dead.