11 March 2017

Homily - 12 March 2017 - Why did Jesus take Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain and not three others?

The Second Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a curious thing that the Lord Jesus today “took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1). Jesus often went away by himself to pray, but he did not usually take anyone with him. Why did he take these three and not the others? If we remember the ancient Roman adage that nomen est omen, that the name is a sign, the answer may be found in their names.

Jesus took them up Mount Tabor, a solitary mountain rising almost 2,000 feet above the plain surrounding it. Curiously, the name “Tabor” means “the coming light,” and so we can speculate that Jesus wished to reveal something of the light of his Face to them.[1] After all, Saint Matthew tells us when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). Still, why did Jesus take these three, and not three others?

That great finder of lost things and doctor of the Gospels, Saint Anthony of Padua, tells us that “these three Apostles, the special companions of Jesus Christ, may be understood as three virtues of our soul, without which no one can climb the mountain of light.”[2] What virtues, then, do we find in their names?

The name “Peter” means “understanding,” and he who truly understands himself knows himself to be a sinner. He also knows that God is thrice holy. For this reason,

Jesus took Peter, and [we] too must take Peter, [we] who believe in Jesus and hope for salvation from Jesus. Peter is the acknowledgment of [our] sins, which consist in these three things: pride in the heart, lust in the flesh, and avarice in the world.[3]

We see this among the first words Peter said to Jesus when he was called on the Sea of Galilee: “Depart for me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Here, Peter demonstrated a profound understanding of himself. Do we have the same understanding of ourselves? Do we recognize our sinfulness?

Even so, while recognizing and acknowledging his sinfulness, Peter’s pride kept him from always following Jesus’ lead, even though he knew him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). It was Peter’s pride that led him to say to the divine Master when he predicted his Passion, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Later yet, as Jesus was being taken away to be crucified, Peter’s eyes met the Lord’s and Peter “went out and wept bitterly” because of his sinful pride (cf. Luke22:61, 62). When was the last time we wept because of our sinful pride? If Peter repeatedly acknowledged his sins to the Lord Jesus, you and I  must do the same. This is why Jesus took Peter with him up the mountain, to teach us the importance of acknowledging and confessing our sins.

The name “James” means “wrestler” or “supplanter.” We must take him with us, together with Peter, because James “is the supplanting of these vices,” the vices of pride, of lust, and of greed, “so that [we] may tread the pride of [our] spirit under the foot of reason; so that [we] may mortify the lust of [our] flesh, and repress the vanity of the deceitful world.”[4] It is only after acknowledging and confessing our sins that we can wrestle with these vices and seek to uproot them from our hearts. Jesus took James with him up the mountain to each us the importance of wrestling with our weaknesses and of seeking to overcome them, instead of being complacent about them.

Especially in these Lenten days, we are each called to take up the weapons of prayer, of fasting, and of alms-giving as we seek to supplant our sins. It is through a more intentional and increased use of the spiritual weapon of daily prayer, of open and honest communication with God, that we can come to better understand our failures to love both God and neighbor and so humble our pride even as we come to a deeper understanding of the merciful love displayed for us upon the Cross. Whenever we turn to the Lord in prayer, we not only see that we are sinners, but, more importantly, we see how much God loves us despite our sinfulness. This is the message of the Cross; we should keep it daily before our eyes if we wish to diminish the pride in our hearts.

By wielding the spiritual weapon of fasting, we can better reign in our passions and harness their energies for a greater purpose, for a continual growth in holiness, for an ever greater conformity to Christ. A fast from both foods and pleasures, whether freely undertaken or embraced in humble obedience, “enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother” and helps us ”make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger.[5] By fasting, we turn away from the lust in the flesh – which comes from an inordinate focus on the self – to recognize Christ present in those around us. Seeing their needs, our hearts can pierced by the same compassion that is Christ’s.

And through alms-giving, we can counter our greed by gladly giving away what we have received as a gift from God. It is alms-giving that “teaches us the generosity of love” because it is “a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to [the] love of God and neighbor, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us.[6] When we recognize our sinfulness and see both the spiritual and financial poverty of our neighbor, we can set out to combat the avarice in the world through alms-giving by giving not just of our things, but of ourselves.

The name “John” means “the grace of God.” We should take John with us so that the grace of God “may enlighten [us] to recognize the evil things [we] have done, and help [us] in the good things [we] have begun to do.”[7] Without the grace of God, we cannot truly comprehend our sinfulness or God’s holiness; we cannot experience the profundity of his love; and we cannot strive to supplant our sins. This is why Jesus took John with him up the mountain, to teach us to ask that the grace of God go always before us and follow always after us.

We are too often far too willing to remain on the plain. It takes effort to climb the mountain. It can be difficult and painful to reach new heights of holiness and so we content ourselves with mediocrity. Jesus, though, does not want us to be mediocre; he wants us to be saints (cf. II Timothy1:9). He wants us to be able to look upon the brilliant beauty of his Face without blush or shame.

Let us, then, with Saint Anthony of Padua, ask the Lord Jesus

to make us climb from this vale of tears to the mountain of a holy life; so that we may have the form of [his] Passion printed upon us, and be strengthened with the meekness or mercy and the zeal for justice. Then, in the day of judgment, we may be found fit to be overshadowed by the bright cloud; and hear the voice of joy, gladness and exultation, the voice which says: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).[8]


[1] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 3. In Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Volume I: General Prologue, Sundays from Septuagesima to Pentecost. Paul Spilsbury, trans. (Padua: Edizioni Messagero Padova, 2007), 102.
[2] Ibid., 101.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2009.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2008, 5, 3.
[7] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 3.
[8] Ibid., 14.

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