I’d bet that, for many of us when we were growing up, one of our favorite movies was The Wizard of Oz. One of the scenes from the movie that’s always stuck with me is when Dorothy and her friends return to the wizard’s castle and bring him the broomstick of the recently-deceased Wicked Witch of the West, as he had ordered. However, the wizard—who appears to them as a huge, disembodied vaporous face, flanked by streams of shooting fire—curtly dismisses them without granting their requests. While Dorothy is busy arguing that, as a great wizard, he should keep his word, her little dog Toto pulls open the curtain covering a small booth where an old man is operating some sound and light-producing equipment. The wizard orders “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” but it’s too late: Dorothy quickly realizes this simple, unimpressive old man is in reality the supposedly great and powerful Wizard of Oz.
Many people throughout history have tried to make themselves appear more important and impressive than they actually are, seeking after what we might call a “fake glory” or a “false majesty.” Sometimes this is harmless and even legitimate, as when a magician or illusionist uses secret tricks and special effects to make it appear he has amazing powers. Other times, however, this effort can be quite sinister and deadly, as when the propaganda leaders of Nazi Germany before World War II used carefully-organized rallies, marches, and pageantry to make it appear Adolf Hitler was a divinely-appointed messiah destined to lead his people to victory and greatness. All attempts to achieve worldly glory, whether in something as simple as people inflating their resumès and greatly embellishing their accomplishments, or as ambitious as presidential candidates hiring high-priced public relations firms to make themselves appear as a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, are ultimately doomed to fail. The only true and lasting glory belongs to Jesus Christ—and only by humbly following Him can we hope to share in it.
God’s ways are not our ways, as the readings from the Second Sunday of Lent vividly remind us. The Lord asked Abraham to do the unthinkable—sacrifice his son Isaac—as a way of testing his faith. Abraham passed the test, though without actually having to go through with the sacrifice, and God promised to reward him immeasurably—far beyond anything Abraham could have expected. Moreover, many centuries later God Himself actually did what He only pretended to ask of Abraham; as St. Paul explains, God’s willingness to sacrifice His Son Jesus for us proves that the Lord is truly on our side, if only we trust in Him. Again, this is much more than anything we could have imagined or asked for. In the Gospel Jesus showed three of His apostles something beyond their expectations: for a few minutes His divine glory shone through His humanity; this gave Peter, James, and John a foretaste of how their Master would appear following His resurrection, and hinted to them that God’s plan is infinitely greater than anything the human mind can conceive.
During the installation or coronation of a new pope—a ceremony filled with pomp and religious glory and majesty—it’s customary to have a simple ritual in which a rope bundle is burned, and as the flame dies, the new pontiff is reminded in Latin, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which means, “Thus passes away the glory of the world.” Everyone, no matter how great or humble, needs to remember that this world cannot offer us anything of lasting value; true and eternal glory can only be found in Christ. In terms of achieving such joyful and everlasting glory, I think today’s readings have five lessons to offer us.
First of all, genuine glory comes from a willingness to obey God, even when we don’t understand. It could not have made sense to Abraham for God to command him to sacrifice his son Isaac, a child almost miraculously given to him and his wife Sarah in their old age, and through whom the Lord’s promise to make of him a great nation would be fulfilled, but Abraham didn’t doubt, argue, or hesitate—and as a result, he is revered today by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, and is greatly glorified in Heaven. God’s plan is always best for us, even when we can’t comprehend it; obedience is an indispensable first step on our journey to everlasting happiness. Secondly, we don’t need to be glorified or exalted in a worldly sense in order to be happy or to achieve our mission in life. It doesn’t matter if we’re foolish or disgraced in the eyes of the world, for as St. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Human fashions and opinions quickly fade away; God’s judgment endures forever. Thirdly, when we’re honestly trying to glorify God by our way of life, we must first seek to discover His will for us, instead of behaving impetuously or running off half-cocked. Peter in his unthinking exuberance wanted to erect three tents or shrines; he had to be stopped short by the voice of God, which commanded, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.” In the same way, we must always glorify God by first of all seeking His guidance in anything important we’re about to do. Fourthly, just as Jesus led the apostles down the mountain back to the challenges of daily life, we too have to leave behind any intense spiritual moments or treasured experiences of love and grace and continue fulfilling our everyday duties. God usually doesn’t ask us to do great things, but He always asks us to do routine things with great love and devotion. Lastly, we must follow Our Lord’s example in being patient, for real glory is worth waiting for. Jesus knew that before He could be exalted as the risen Lord, He first had to undergo His passion and death. In the same way, before we can share His glory in Heaven, we must take up our cross each day of our lives, persevering in spite of our sufferings, weaknesses, and setbacks. The journey may be long and at times difficult, but the outcome is certain and glorious for those who remain true to Christ.
When Dorothy realized the man behind the curtain was the supposedly great and mysterious Wizard of Oz, she reproached him by saying “You’re a very bad man!” He responded, “No, my dear, I’m a very good man—just a bad wizard.” The Lord isn’t calling us to be wizards or magicians, or to do anything glorious and amazing in a worldly sense, but He is calling us to be good persons: living our faith, proclaiming His truth, and sharing His love. This is how we glorify His Name, and this is how we’ll discover and share in the only glory that truly matters.