It was another week for grieving as images of gun violence taking more innocent lives again claimed our national attention. And once again the national discussion has become mired in factionalism and evasion. The potentially grim story of Abraham almost murdering his son Isaac as a human sacrifice calls us to account in its own way. What is a child’s life worth?
And what are we to make 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 faithful 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? What are we to make of a God preached as a God of Love who, we are solemnly assured, did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us, even, as Paul adds elsewhere, while we were yet sinners?
For Abraham, we reassure ourselves, it was only a test, the greatest and the last of a series of tests. God knew that 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. But what kind of test was that? Or did Abraham really intend to kill his son, obedient to the voice in his head, 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, many Christians stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most astounding manifestations of
God’s gracious presence in all of scripture. It is joined with deliberate intent to the story of Abraham and Isaac. The link is a fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, celebrating God’s unquenchable love for humanity, a love that did not spare even his own Son. That little phrase may disturb us slightly, but we move on, eager to remain, like the disciples on the mountain of transformation, basking in the light of divine election.
And what has all this to do with Lent? Each of the synoptic gospels places the Transfiguration here, just before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, where the wheels of judicial murder are already turning. Is this event the culmination of his public ministry, a glorious endorsement of his earthly life, accompanied by an echo of the great voice heard at his baptism and lit from beyond by the approaching dawn of Easter? Or is it the prelude to the Passion, a reminder that just beyond the cross and grave lies triumph, a moment of splendor provided by God, or at least the evangelists, to steady us – and Jesus himself – for the terrible ordeal which is about to begin? Perhaps it is both.
It’s probably easier to dismiss the whole episode in the modern scholarly fashion as an editorial device which could have no foundation in fact, for it is, as even the disciples seem quick to observe, simply too good to be true. But having not read the scholars, the evangelists seem to think it belongs there, precisely as a prelude to the approaching passion and death of the Messiah. Like Isaac, Jesus is to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. But 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 it is who will suffer death in our stead. Significantly, one of the verses omitted from today’s reading from Genesis informs us that when Isaac questioned his father about the lack of a sacrificial victim, the old man said, “God will himself provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus dies at the very hour in which the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.
Jesus takes his chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. This is not merely hidden divinity suddenly breaking through the folds of Jesus’ old clothes. True, for a moment, his garments become glistening white, more radiant than any detergent could get them, despite what you might see on television. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, whom (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 impending 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 for what? In each case, the account is prefaced 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.”
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 announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds and glory and heavenly voices that terrify their hearers. And the ancient figures who were most identified with the mountain appearances of God were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who sought refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appeared to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great saints of the Ancient Covenant, whose deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but will return before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus stands between them now has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the eschatological prophet, the promised one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
It puzzles the disciples. How can the Prophet of the End Times, he who will be raised up like Moses of old, appear before Elijah returns to announce his coming? And Jesus will tell them, Elijah has come. [Mark 9:12-13.] And he went his way, as I will go my way. And you will go yours. 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].
And this is why these readings appear on the second Sunday of Lent. As the master goes his way, so the disciples must follow. 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 breakthrough 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 senseless death of children. In the Death of Jesus, faith tells us, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed.
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 Jesus and transform our lives. As goes the master, so must go his disciples.