05 March 2023

Homily - On Following Peter, James, and John Up the Mountain with Jesus

The Second Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In his Message for Lent this year, Pope Francis reminds us “Lenten penance is a commitment, sustained by grace, to overcoming our lack of faith and our resistance to following Jesus on the way to the cross.”[1] In essence, we resist following Jesus all the way to the cross – both to his own and to our own – because we do not yet trust him fully. The Lord Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” and, “I will bless you,” (Genesis 12:2). We say to him in response, “Not that way, Lord, but this way.”

Throughout the course of our lives, we need to learn again and again how to get behind the Lord and not in front of him; we need to learn how to follow him and not to lead him. This requires that entrust ourselves not to our judgments, but to his. We must remember that “all his works are trustworthy,” even if at times they seem questionable (Psalm 33:4). After all, “he saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design” (II Timothy 1:9).

This was the experience of the Apostles Peter, James, and John when the Lord led them up Mount Tabor. It must have been a very unexpected experience for those three, because just before they went up the mountain Jesus had told them of his coming Passion and Death; he speaks of his coming suffering, and then shows them his glory. When he allowed them to see his majesty, the Lord Jesus revealed to them “the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself ‘light from light.”[2]

In light of what Jesus had told them and of what he had shown them, the Apostles had to struggle to realize that it is through his Passion and Death that his glory will be fully realized in his Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of the Father. Instead of following him to the cross and, hence, to his glory, they would rather have stayed on the mountain. Is it not the same with us? Would we not rather stay where it is comfortable? And yet the Lord calls us to follow him to the cross, as well, there to wrestle with our sin – with our own failures to love God and neighbor – and to overcome them.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain so that, through them, he might teach us how to overcome our lack of faith and drop our resistance in following Jesus. An the ancient Roman adage says nomen est omen (the name is a sign); consequently we learn this overcoming and conflict in the names of those three Apostles.

First, though, we learn something in the name of that mountain. 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.[3] After all, Saint Matthew tells us when Jesus was transfigured before those three that “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2).

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, Saint Anthony of Padua tells us,


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.[4]

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. Luke 22:61, 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. Jesus took Peter 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, as well, because James “is the supplanting of these 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.”[5] 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 up the mountain to teach us the importance of wrestling with our weaknesses and of seeking to overcome them, instead of being complacent about them.

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.”[6] 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.

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. In these days of Lent, it remains for us to ascend the heights of greatness with Jesus through an honest understanding of ourselves, by wrestling with our weaknesses, and yielding to the grace of God. If we follow the examples of Peter, James, and John in this life, we will be able to look upon the brilliant beauty of the Face of God without blush or shame in the life to come. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2023.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 310.

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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