The Transfiguration (Upper Portion), Raphael,
1516-1520, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican.
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday of Lent
2 Timothy 1:8b–11
March 5, 2023
Today we will look at the 2nd letter to Timothy. We have not only read this letter before but have virtually read around this passage. Last year we examined 1:8 but then skipped to verse 13. The most likely reason is that verses 9–10 may be a hymn which the author has placed here for emphasis. It is something of a digression from the main point of the previous section but fits in very well with the Transfiguration that we celebrate today.
General information about 2nd Timothy can be found here.
These letters present themselves as written by St. Paul to his protégé. The first letter of Timothy examines how a church can be governed by a non-apostle. Second Timothy is more personal. Indeed, it is very warm and tender and tells the story of the friendship of Paul and Timothy in Christ. We are not, however, sure if Paul himself wrote it. We can be sure that even if Paul was dead when it was written there were enough eyewitnesses to testify that the story was true or false. Minimally but most importantly it is a depiction of an older follower of Jesus inspiring a younger one.
Inspiring someone to a be a Christian is not easy. The cross is always present. Jesus not only died but he died the most humiliating death possible. Crucifixion was designed to strip a person of his humanity and honor. This would be terrifying in any age but particularly so in the ancient world. They held honor above all things and a person was worthless if deprived of it. Jesus then would have been considered worthless. How could someone follow him? How could someone not be ashamed of him?
The section of the verse before the one in our reading is to the point.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake
(2 Ti 1:8)
A more literal translation however would be:
Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord
or of me, his prisoner.
The testimony is “of” our Lord. This includes Jesus’ testimony to Pilate and indeed the cross itself. Paul does not evade the reality of the cross but embraces it. Indeed, Paul is himself a prisoner. Far from avoiding this Paul proclaims it. Jesus is all powerful. Thus Paul is not Nero’s Prisoner, but Jesus’. To be connected to Jesus requires being joined to his cross. Any theory or custom which denies this must be cast out to let Jesus in.
Today’s reading begins with:
But bear your share of hardship
for the gospel with the strength
that comes from God.
(2 Ti 1:8b)
It is difficult for people to suffer inconvenience for a religious purpose. We can see that today with the prosperity gospel. Every New Testament writer however has assured us that no one will escape the cross. It is very telling, however, that Paul or whoever wrote this letter had to invent a new word to express the reality of suffering as part of the church. What we translate as “bear your suffering” might be best understood as “co suffer”. (sugkakopatheō from kakopatheo – suffer evil and syn – with)
We who are joined to Jesus will all share in his hardship, that is the cross. We know that it is worth it because it if for the “gospel”—the good news that Jesus has saved us. Because it is with Jesus this strength will come from God.
How has he done this?
He saved us and called us to a holy life,
not according to our works
but according to his own design
and the grace bestowed on us
in Christ Jesus before time began
(2 Ti 1:9)
Salvation is always through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but we should not think that its primary purpose is to get us into heaven but for us to live a “holy” life here and now. Holiness is both a wide and deep concept and here it means that our actions will be seen as being different from others. Once more the Greek is interesting. Holy life klēsei hagia sounds like klētē hagia “holy assembly” or church. Our holiness needs to have an effect on the community.
This is accomplished not by our own actions but by the free gift of God. We do not earn it. This reflects Paul’s idea of mystery. As we have seen before God’s plan is a mystery when is revealed in Jesus. This idea is prominent in the later writings of Paul or his immediate successors. We here in the letter to the Colossians:
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom,
which God predetermined before the ages
for our glory,
(1 Co 2:7)
Also, in a later letter from the Pauline world we read that the Church was also part of God’s “mystery” from the very beginning of time. That we are joined together with God and our fellow humans is not an accident of history but baked into reality.
As he chose us in him,
before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him
This plan has become known and may be seen through Jesus by anyone who participates in his life.
But now made manifest through the appearance
of our savior Christ Jesus
(2 Ti 1:10)
The greatest thinkers did not know what God had planned before Jesus, now even the simplest Christian can know. The Greek used here for appearance is epiphaneia. It is used for the revelation of a God. For Christians it can be used for the final appearance of Jesus at the end of time
Keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ
(1 Ti 6:14)
However, the here and now are clearly intended. There are consequences:
Who destroyed death
and brought life and immortality
to light through the gospel
(2 Ti 1:10)
The word used for destroy is katargeō; It means to render inoperable. Death does not disappear but rather is no longer seen as threatening one’s existence. It is robbed of its terror in this world. A disciple of Jesus would be marked by fearlessness.
From the death of death, we contemplate an afterlife.
The word immortality is rarely found in either the Old or New Testaments. The Pharisees like Christians believe in the resurrection of the Body. A person is body and spirit, and both will rise from the dead together. Immortality has the sense that only the spirit will survive. The author is writing to a mixed congregation and may have felt that immortality best conveyed afterlife to the Greek born. He does however connect this with life, and we could translate this an “incorruptible life”. The good news is that the mysterious plan of God will be fulfilled, and we will rise body and soul with Jesus and each other.
This is a wonderful reading for the Transfiguration. The scene in the Gospels clearly shows that Peter, James, and John were able to experience the glory of the transfiguration because they, however fitfully and reluctantly, were beginning to understand that Jesus would be crucified. The preface for the Mass says:
For after he had told the disciples of his coming Death,
on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory,
to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets,
that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.
The mentor of Timothy has told him the same, but as we have seen, has shown him how this knowledge must be part of his daily life. The best way to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration on this weekend is to live fearlessly next week.