For much of my preparation for this homily today I could not get past the notion that I was dealing with two homilies. One of testing and one of transformation. In fact, the homilies I’m familiar with for this Sunday just skip over the 1st reading completely and go right to the Gospel because the 1st reading is too difficult to deal with. So, that is what I am going to do - for the moment. Let me go straight to the Gospel: we started our Lenten journey last Sunday with Jesus, who after his baptism in the Jordan, entered the desert for 40 days where he was tempted by Satan. On this 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel brings us to Jesus who is ascending a mountain - Mount Tabor traditionally the site of the transfiguration - with Peter, James, and John. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the Passover and enter His Passion which will deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death. It is a continuation of the Exodus theme - just as the Israelites passed through the sea and into the desert for 40 years, and just as Moses encounters the voice of God after 7 days atop Mt. Sinai. Mark’s Gospel starts out today with the words “after six days” (of travel from Caesarea Philippi, that is) on the 7th day Jesus is on the mountaintop of Tabor encountering God in the cloud. You see the parallel. In both Moses and Elijah’s experience God speaks on a mountain from a cloud, but in very different ways. For Moses, God’s presence on Sanai was fire, smoke, lightening, and God spoke to Moses in the thunder. Centuries later God speaks to Elijah for a 2nd time on Horeb - likely the same mountain - but God is not present in wind, earthquake, or fire but is heard in a small, barely audible voice. Recognizing that it was God in the quiet, Elijah still pulled his cloak over his face lest he see the God’s face and die.
In 2005 there was a BBC reality show about 5 men completely unfamiliar with Catholicism who volunteered to spend 6 weeks with 22 monks at a Benedictine Abbey to see if a 1500-year-old tradition has anything to say to offer todays “enlightened” world. It is interesting to note that, in the first 10 days, the 5 men spent most of their time trying to drown out the silence with music or chatter. How often do we fill our heads with thangs that mask the silence? Why are we so afraid of the silence? After the 3rd week the men discovered that the silence offered something unobtainable in any other way – it reshaped their hearts and mind – so at the end of 6 weeks it made them more aware of themselves, of others, and the beauty of life around them. (Come to Eucharistic Adoration this Lent on Tuesdays and dwell in the presence of God in the silence.)
Now, about this troublesome first reading, Biblical scholars have admitted that is one of the most difficult passages of the entire Bible to interpret and two of the most well-known Protestant reformers - Calvin and Luther - wrestled with this with this passage painfully. What do you do with a God that promises a son to a couple too old to conceive and then tells him to kill this son and make of him a burnt offering? And then stays his hand but not until Abraham has fully experienced the weight of this unimaginable request? Are we tempted to pass this off as the “angry God of the Old Testament”? Or, do we try to explain it by saying this is a repudiation of the infant sacrifice still prevalent in the religious practice of Abraham’s neighbors? Or do we rest with the compelling sense that this is a prefigurement of the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s own Son? The last two are certainly worth careful consideration. There is one even more challenging interpretation offered by Thomas Cahill – you’ve heard me mention him before – he is the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization. Well, in his book The Gift of the Jews, he gets behind this account in Genesis. Pulling no punches, he starts with a quite challenging reminder that the first time the word “love” is used in the Bible is in Genesis 22:2 in an instruction by God to Abraham “take the one you love and slaughter him with a knife.” He reminds us that Abraham was at one time of Sumerian and like all Sumerians had his own personal gods – a god of the field, a god of the mountain, a god of the rain - gods made in the image of man and knowable by man’s whims. Eventually Abraham learns that God is one and God is unfathomably great but that insight was earned after many years of testing and probing. His faith was ultimately in a God beyond human intellect, beyond manipulation. He learned to open himself to God who could not be understood in human terms and learned to trust beyond all outward signs. Abraham believed and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. Cahill would ask do we have the faith to be sons and daughters of Abraham, to look beyond the world and trust in God’s inexplicable and unfathomable love for us? God is not for us to understand in human terms.
So, what I have is really one homily one message – not two. In the first reading we see Abraham moving toward a place of understanding that the true God cannot be made in the image of Man and be understood by any of man’s logic or sense. In the Gospel we see the same unfathomable all-powerful God now speaking to Jesus and we realize that the truth is not a god or gods made in the image of Man but at the transfiguration of Jesus we see man made in the image and likeness of God sharing in God’s divinity. We also see Peter James and John completely overwhelmed by this They have no ability to comprehend or make human sense of this experience. God - outside of any human understanding – choose to enter our world by an incarnate profession of love. Can we allow this same faith to be part of our own transformation? Can we abandon ourselves to the Love of God who is past all understanding?
Back to the Gospel - it seems today that God has spoken in yet a third way on the mountain - with Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus, the voice of the unknowable unfathomable God now comes to us for all time - not in thunder or on a soft breeze - but through His very Word made flesh - Jesus Christ - who is somehow before all things, in whom all things somehow hold together. All of Creation is echoing the voice of God as it says “This is my Son the Beloved”. Are we ready to listen – to let go and let His words reshape us in the quiet of our minds and hearts? God says to us “listen to Jesus, listen to him”.