Back in 1974, as I contemplated a year at Oxford, I had planned to study under the watchful eye of the preeminent scholar of religious mysticism of the day, R.C. Zaehner, who died suddenly on his way to mass just before I arrived. His final book (of many), Our Savage God, published earlier that year, might aptly describe the image of God in today’s first reading. Zaehner took as his starting point the savagery of Charles Manson, who arguably typified how twisted zealotry poisons the waters of religion. Had he lived longer, Zaehner would have grasped the meaning of the Jonestown Massacre four years later, and a decade after that the “massacre” at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And the atrocities following the rise of ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State.”
By any stretch of the imagination, anyone who sanctions the sacrificial murder of an innocent child (or anyone else) is savage. Slaughtering the entire Egyptian army and thousands of Hebrews as they made their way across the deserts of the Middle East does not soften the image, and we have only to look back at the story of the Great Flood to glimpse a strangely and remorselessly punitive deity. The sacrifice of his daughter by Jephthah to fulfil a vow (Judges 11:30-39) and the killing of Uzzah for steadying the Ark of the Covenant as it wobbled on the cart carrying it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:7) round out but hardly exhaust the ancient dread of what or who was perceived as a savage divinity.
Bronze Age religious sensibility, reflected in these accounts, differs vastly like its morality from the gospel of Jesus, although we still hear echoes of it in the ravings of fanatics to this day. You have only to read Matthew 5:38-44 to see the gulf that separates the visions of the two ages. But it is not only the sacrifice of Isaac that concerns us on this second Sunday of Lent. The mention of Moriah, or Mount Moriah as it came to be known ,the Temple Mount, links the story with today’s gospel, which narrates the vision of Jesus seen by his disciples on yet another mountain, traditionally Tabor. Both accounts deal with a sacrificial death, the second, like the first, becomes the favored explanation of the death of Jesus, as we see in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
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 that fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, an ominous phrase that may still disturb us.
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 bear our sins and suffer death in our stead.
In his gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. 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 sacrificial 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.
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. 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 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 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!
Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign, the salvation of the world. 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 the death of this divine Child, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. What he tells us may be disturbing. But 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.