We heard two startling and mysterious stories this morning… Two fathers… Two sons whom they loved… Two mountains… Two pledges of future glory. Abraham and the Almighty; Isaac and the Lord Jesus; Mount Moriah and Mount Tabor; the promise that the agèd and decrepit Abraham would have offspring ‘as numerous as the stars of heaven’; and the promise that the Son of Man would rise from the dead.
It is easy then to see why someone decided that these two Scripture passages were a good fit to be read at Mass on the same day. But while the parallels are notable, the differences are even more striking. The Transfiguration of the Lord is a glorious and awe-inspiring moment. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Peter and James and John to see their friend and master’s outward appearance change to such an extent that he shone with divine glory and ‘his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them’. No wonder Peter lost the run of himself and began talking about building tents. He was excited.
But the other story we heard is much less luminous and exhilarating. It is downright disturbing. Why would God test someone so cruelly as to tell him to sacrifice his own son? One way of getting our heads around the story of Abraham and Isaac is to note the fact that the famous ‘sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith’, that we mention in one of the Eucharistic Prayers, was a sacrifice without a victim. God did not demand blood. God does not demand blood….. The God of Abraham is no angry monster who needs to be placated with bloody sacrifices. As we say in the psalm that is most associated with this season of Lent, Psalm 50: ‘In sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit, a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.’ And in the book of Hosea, the Lord announces: ‘I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.’ That is our call at all times, but especially during Lent – to turn to the Lord God, not with grand gestures, but in simple humility and honesty, knowing our need for him and for his mercy, with hearts that desire to love him more deeply.
As we journey towards Easter, and our annual celebration in mystery of the Death and Resurrection of our Saviour, we can rejoice that as with Abraham and Isaac, God did not demand that humanity offer up a victim in order to be reconciled with him. For God offered himself up to save us. ‘In his willingness to take on the sin – to take on the prejudice and derision and animosity ordinarily heaped upon the outcasts and powerless – Jesus breaks the cycle of violence, for he chooses to pass it on to no one.’ [Ed Foley OFM Cap] In this extraordinary, burning, infinite love, the Law and the Prophets, represented on the mountain by Moses and Elijah, find their fulfilment.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin. [Malcolm Guite]
The light of the Transfiguration is love – a love that burns with such intensity that humanity’s sin is taken away and we are reconciled with God. It is a love that prefigured the love poured out on the hill of Calvary.
The extraordinary experience of his Transfiguration occurred as Jesus and his disciples were journeying towards Jerusalem. Six days earlier, we read in Mark’s Gospel, he spoke to his disciples about the suffering, death and resurrection that was to come. Such a prospect was difficult for them to take in. And so he graced them with this extraordinary moment of illumination – in all senses of the word – in order, St Leo teaches us, ‘to prevent their faith being disturbed by the humiliation of his voluntary Passion by revealing to them the excellence of his hidden dignity’.
Moments like the Transfiguration, where the veil is drawn back and we experience insight and exhilaration are wonderful, and as they did for the apostles, can strengthen us for the future. Nothing will ever ‘eclipse that glimpse of how things really are’. [Malcolm Guite] But they are just that – moments and glimpses. And of course, not all so-called mountain-top experiences are enjoyable. ‘Moses may have spoken with God “face to face” on Mount Sinai, but his life mournfully ended on Mount Nebo, where he saw the land whose flowing milk and honey he would never taste. Elijah may have been triumphant on Mount Carmel, but soon afterward he was found scared and dejected on Mount Horeb, where God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire. …Jesus radiated in holy splendour on the Mount of Transfiguration, but he died naked and scorned on Calvary’s hill’. [Andrew Byers] Nevertheless, that moment of radiance and holy splendour on Tabor was precious. May we all be blessed with such moments during our lives, not to be smug or puffed up with pride, but so that we can perceive reality.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. [R.S Thomas]
Fr Martin Browne OSB