by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When they came to the place which God had told them about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar…Then he picked up the knife to kill him… Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13,15-18

Peter said to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let’s make three tents: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  Mark 9: 2-10

For years I have been puzzled by the pairing of today’s first reading from Genesis with the gospel-reading from Mark. It struck me only recently that they are both about intense encounters of human beings with the Divine. The second reading from Romans is a commentary on the significance of those encounters. However, before we rush to express abhorrence at the trauma that was inflicted on the boy Isaac in the first reading, we might do better to remind ourselves that this is a story from a book compiled by various contributors over a 1000 year period (1400 – 400 BCE). It belongs to the First/Old Testament and was written for the Israelite people of its times. We have to be careful not to judge it according to the social conventions of 2024,

The teller of today’s story about Abraham recounts how God “spoke” to Abraham through the intermediary of angels, who twice prompted him that God was about to say something to him. I suspect that, in reality, God “spoke” to Abraham in the same way as God “speaks” to us – through the inspirations of our hearts and minds and through the events and people all around us. I could imagine Abraham stopping to reflect on all the good that had come his way in the providence of God since the time he had set out in faith and courage on the journey that took him and Sarah to where they now found themselves. As he reflected on all that, Abraham found himself asking if he would be prepared to give it all back to God, including the greatest gift treasured by every Semite man. – his son. Following his own inspiration, Moses headed for a mountain in the land of Moriah, taking Isaac with him. Of vital import in the story is the absence of any threat of punishment from God for failure to carry out what Abraham was intent on doing.

The two main characters in this story are God and Abraham. Abraham was convinced that God was asking him if he was prepared to surrender all the blessings that had come his way. He recognised that all those blessings were God-given. With faith and trust in God, he took the necessary steps to give back to God the greatest gift he had received, the son he dearly loved. And God guided him to a mountain, a site in Jewish tradition where God was to be encountered. In ensuing centuries Moses and Elijah would experience revelations of the Divine on mountains. Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb became truly sacred in Jewish tradition. As we reflect on this story we would do well to ask ourselves if we could ever imagine God, the essence of love, ever asking any man to kill and offer his son on an altar of sacrifice. The narrator of the story recounts how God, in admiration of Abraham’s faith, misguided as it was on this occasion, intervened to save Isaac by providing a substitute sacrificial offering. Could we ever imagine the devastation and guilt that would have descended on Abraham had he not been stopped on the verge of sacrificing his son? God does not approve, want or plan the killing of anyone loved into life.
While the narrator of the story attributes to God the instructions: “Take your son Isaac, the one you love, and offer him up as a holocaust”, I cannot entertain the proposition that God would be asking this father to do the unthinkable to his son. I can imagine God asking Abraham if his love for and trust in God was sufficiently strong to let go of all the material things this good man of faith had acquired. I suggest that this was misinterpreted and reshaped by Abraham into a direction.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews listed the giants of faith in our Judeo-Christian tradition. Of Abraham he wrote: “It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he arrived as a foreigner in the Promised Land, and lived there, as if in a strange country, with Isaac and Jacob who were heirs with him of the same promise.” (Hebrews 10: 8-9). That letter is silent on Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac.

The story of the Transfiguration, the stunning and inspirational revelation of God’s power and glory to Jesus and his companions on the mountainside was an attempt by the Gospel writers to state that, in Jesus and his mission, the story of God’s saving love across the centuries for the people of Israel had reached its completion and climax, Today’s account from Mark includes the traditional symbol of God’s presence to the Israelites in their journeying – the cloud that hovered over them. For dramatic effect, Moses and Elijah are present – Moses whose face shone bright in the wake of his encounter with God on the mountain where he received the Law written on stone tablets, and the great prophet Elijah, who unexpectedly had encountered the presence of God in a gentle breeze. Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets integral to Israel’s long-standing relationship with God. On this occasion, the voice of God affirming Jesus and his mission, and heard only by Jesus at his baptism, was heard by Peter, James and John: “Listen to him!”

There was, I suggest, another purpose to what they all experienced on that mountainside, and that was the role it played in affirming and validating Jesus and his mission. Fully human as he was, Jesus would surely have appreciated the affirmation given him in that stunning revelation of God’s presence and glory, The call: “Listen to him!” was confirmation that Jesus’ teaching had God’s stamp of approval. We all know that affirmation and approval are essential to our growth and development. When they are offered to us genuinely, we flourish. When they are withheld, we wilt. Surely, Jesus was no different!

The impact of what had occurred left Peter, who was rarely short of a word, almost speechless. All he could offer was a pretty lame proposal: “Let’s build three memorial shrines to commemorate our experience.” What he had not yet grasped was that the minds and hearts of all of us invited to be disciples of Jesus are meant to be alive with the light and love of God, which we readily share with and reflect to those around us.

Ironically, there are memorial shrines, chapels, churches and cathedrals all around the world. Yet many of them are places which attract the poor, the needy and the homeless, who come in search of acceptance, food and shelter, only to turn away with little to satisfy them and their hopes dashed. There is little in the way of transfiguration happening for many of them. How then might we become agents of transfiguration?