Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Ps 115:10, 15-19
When I was a boy of six or seven back in New Mexico, our neighborhood was rocked one day with the news that a little girl had been murdered just a few doors up the street from our house. I remember her name to this day: Darla Jean. She was no more than two or three years old. She had been beaten to death by a drunkard, whose name also haunts me still. The awful murder of a child was a very rare thing then. It seems that as I grew older and perhaps because I now live in huge metropolitan area, it is not so rare to learn that another child has been shot or beaten to death. But it’s no less a shock and a shame, a horrible crime that completely baffles us.
What are we to make, then, of a God who orders his faithful follower, who has obeyed his command to give up everything, to pursue a new life far from the comforts of his home, seeking an ever-receding promise in a faraway, hostile land, this loyal disciple who has been blessed with a child of promise in his old age, now to murder this child in an act of savage worship? And what are we to make of a God we preach as a God of Love who, we are solemnly assured, did not spare his own Son?
It was only a test, we reassure ourselves. God knew that unlike Jihad John, Abraham would stay his hand at the last moment. He would listen to the angel voice, substituting a hapless ram for the child of promise. If so, then what kind of test was that? And did Abraham really intend to kill his child, even hoping against hope, as St Paul reassures us? If so, what kind of father had God chosen to become the ancestor of the Holy People?
On this second Sunday of Lent, Catholics the world over stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most astounding manifestations of God’s gracious presence in all of scripture, an event which has acquired the title of Transfiguration. The link between the two readings is a fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, that ominous phrase that may still disturb us slightly.
Scripture scholars sometimes tell us that the account of the Transfiguration that appears in the synoptic gospels and the second epistle of Peter is a post-resurrection story introduced at this point for theological purposes. Having not read the scholars, the evangelists seem to think it belongs there, and precisely as a prelude to the approaching passion and death of the Messiah. Like Isaac, Jesus is about to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. Unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He will suffer death in our stead.
Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. This is not some dubious account of a hidden divinity suddenly breaking through the folds of Jesus’ old clothes, as we sometimes find in pagan myths of the period. True, for a moment, his garments become glistening white, more radiant than any detergent could get them, despite what you might see on television. Worse yet, he is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps they do. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking “about his departure, his Passover, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his coming death.
A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen to what? In each case, the account is preceded and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection. Jesus cautions them to remain quiet about the experience, and they do. It seems they are too dense to comprehend what Jesus might mean by “rising from the dead.” In fact, they sound a little uncomfortably to one in my profession like philosophers of religion. Curious phrase that. Rising from the dead. Whatever could he have meant by that?
But matters are not so simple, and neither were the disciples. The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God, a covenant which was announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds, and glory, and heavenly voices that terrified their hearers. And those great figures of the past who were most identified with the mountain visions of God Almighty were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who in his flight from the fury of Queen Jezabel, seeks refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appears to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great eschatological figures of the Ancient Covenant, whose own deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but according to the ancient promises who were to reappear before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus appears between them has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the final prophet, the one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
It is that which puzzles the disciples. How can the Prophet of the End Times, the one who will be raised up like Moses of old, appear before Elijah returns to announce his coming? Jesus will tell them, Elijah has come. And he went his way. Luke will explain it further in terms of a day yet to come on which Jesus will tell other disciples “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter his glory?” [Luke 24:6] But that is getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Jesus tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign. There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the death of children. In that Death, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. In each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].
Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of God and transform our lives.