01 Mar Second Sunday in Lent-Archbishop B. O’Brien
Mountains have something special about them; they are majestic places, where silence reigns and where you get to look at the world from a different perspective. The biblical writers saw the importance of mountains. After the flood, the ark is said to have rested on a mountain. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the ten commandment. And, at the end of his life, he scales Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land which he will never enter. Today’s gospel also involves a mountain. Jesus, with three of his closest disciples, climbs Mount Tabor. And, in the first reading, the story of Abraham and Isaac also takes place on a mountain.
As the gospel recounts, there on top of Mount Tabor, something special happens; a peak experience, you might say (if you will pardon the pun). Before the eyes of his disciples, Jesus changes in appearance. Imagine one minute that he is standing there dressed as a peasant carpenter, his clothes the drab brown-gray garment worn for work, and then he is transformed, and his clothes become a dazzling white. The interpretation that is usually given to this event is that Jesus is giving his disciples a glimpse of what he would look like after the resurrection. He is giving them an inkling of who he is – the glorious Son of God. The Gospel then says that Jesus is joined by two mysterious figures, Moses and Elijah. Again, the interpretation that is usually given is that they represent the Law and the Prophets, which point to the true identity of Jesus as the Son sent by the Father. In Luke’s gospel account, what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were talking about was Jesus’s departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Some say that a better word to use here would be his ‘exodus’. Just as the Israelites left Egypt and suffered in the desert so as to reach the Promised Land, so Jesus would have to go through suffering and death so as to rise to new life.
Then the voice of God is heard from the cloud telling them that “this is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Those words, ‘this is my beloved, listen to him’, are important in this account. They don’t simply mean ‘give Jesus a hearing; take in what he has to say, and then decide what you like and don’t like’. No, they mean accept Jesus with your heart and will; give him your radical trust. The disciples don’t know what to make of all this, and Peter suggests that they build three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The usual interpretation of this suggestion is that Peter wanted to prolong this peak experience; he wanted to stay on the mountain top with Jesus and Moses and Elijah in all their glory, now and forever. But there is a problem here. Peter is not getting the whole message, which is that this glory which he has glimpsed will only come in all its fullness after and through the suffering and death of Jesus. His faith and understanding still need to be deepened – as do ours.
In each of our lives, we recognize that, between the mountain peaks, there are valleys. The view from the mountain top is beautiful, but, at some point, we must come down and cross the valley to get to the next mountain top. We may have known moments of extreme happiness or enlightenment that we would like to cling to. But there is also the nitty gritty and the reality of daily existence which we must face.
The scene of the Transfiguration places us before a certain choice. Do we, like Peter, want to build tents and stay where we are with whatever experience of Jesus’s presence that is ours today, or do we follow Jesus forward, which involves sharing in his exodus through the cross to the glory of the resurrection. The answer is obvious: we have been baptized into his death and resurrection, and, so, that is the path we are called to follow – through the joys and difficulties of life to final joy with the Lord in eternity.
In today’s liturgy, the scene of the transfiguration is paired with the story from Genesis about Abraham and his beloved son, Isaac. This story also takes place on a mountain. In the Old Testament story, the son is spared from death; but, as we know, Jesus will not be spared. As St. Paul indicates in the second reading, “God did not spare His own Son, but handed him over for all of us.” Many people are shocked by the story of Abraham and the sacrifice he was asked to make by God of his son. They ask: “What kind of a God is this?” But the story is not really about the sacrifice of Isaac; it is about the testing of Abraham. It is about the faith and trust that Abraham had in God that, no matter what he thought was asked of him, God would provide.
I think this story concerns more than just the testing of Abraham. Each of us will be tested. We all must face the inevitability of letting go. Everything dear to us, everything given to us by God, is subject to death: our self, our loved ones, our work, and our accomplishments. The essence of the story of Abraham and Isaac involves the question: Is God good? And will God keep his promises? Abraham is our father in faith because he embodies the final act of faith that all of us must make. We all face the sacrifice. We all stand before the terrible relinquishment of everything we hold most dear. We need to pray that we will have the faith that St. Paul expresses in the Letter to the Romans today, when he says, “Is it possible that God, who did not spare his only Son but handed him over for the sake of us all, will not grant us all things besides?”
Today’s readings convey the sense of being on a spiritual journey. Abraham walked three days with Isaac to Mount Moriah; Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. We, too, are on a journey, a Lenten journey towards the celebration of Christ’s victory at Easter. Our journey is also a time of testing – asking ourselves about our faith in God and in his church. Just as Peter, James, and John were given a glimpse of Christ’s glory, when we gather for the Eucharist, we have a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem and our life with God.