Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824
Homily for Mass, Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, Ottawa
Saturday 3 March 2012, 4.15pm, and Sunday 4 March 2012, 7.30pm
[Gen 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Ps 116; Rom 8:31-35, 37; Mk 9:2-10]
As we consider the remarkable story of Abraham and Isaac, we have to just note and set aside (somewhat) our automatic abhorrence at the thought of human sacrifice, and child-sacrifice no less. With that caveat, we’re left with a story with a profound lesson.
If we recall that Isaac had been promised to Sarah and Abraham by the Lord, and moreover, it was to be through Isaac that Abraham would “become the father of many nations” (Gen 17:4, 21) And then God asks the unthinkable of Abraham: sacrifice Isaac. Such a request appears to undo the promise, to destroy it, to render it useless. And yet Abraham obeys. He goes against the inclinations of his heart, and even right reason. He somehow trusts that God who has made a promise will be faithful to it, even though he can’t possibly understand how. Following Abraham’s obedience, faith, and trust, God provides the ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. And there is a crucial line in the story which, for some reason was not included in the lectionary, but it says: Abraham called this place ‘The Lord provides,’ and hence the saying today: ‘On the mountain the Lord provides’ (Gen 22: 14).
If we think about it, I believe that most often we sin because we don’t trust that God will provide what we need. We disobey God’s commandments because at some level we feel we won’t be fully satisfied, we won’t be happy. We think that if we follow God’s law as has been revealed to us, we’re going to miss out. We don’t trust or fully believe that God not only has our best interests at heart, but that God will give us what we need.
In the Gospel today we have story of the transfiguration. This Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent pairs nicely with the Gospel of the temptations of Jesus last Sunday. We reflected last week that Jesus underwent the temptations for our benefit: to show us that when we undergo temptation, he has been there before us. He is with us in the midst of it; he knows our struggle. In this Sunday’s Gospel, the event of the transfiguration is again for the benefit of those chosen disciples who witnessed it. Not only does Jesus share our temptations, but he shares his glory with us. The transfiguration is a fore-showing of the resurrection.
Just prior to the transfiguration of Jesus, he had been teaching his disciples that he was to suffer and die. And we know that his disciples struggled to comprehend this. Even on the mountain of transfiguration, Peter shows that he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. He opens his mouth and says something silly about making three tents. And yet, even in their lack of understanding, God gives them a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrection; a glimpse of glory to help them see beyond the suffering and death that Jesus would face. As one commentator says, “One might conclude that the ongoing failures of Jesus’ disciples were themselves experiences of the cross from which Jesus constantly rescued them, giving them hope” (Archbishop Terrence Prendergast SJ, Living God’s Word: Reflections on the Sunday Readings for Year B, Toronto, Novalis, 2011, p. 67). The transfiguration was meant to give the disciples hope that God would provide for them, He would look after them, even through suffering and death.
If we think again of Isaac, carrying the wood for the sacrifice; of him being bound and placed on the wood on the altar … we see in him an image of Jesus, who carried the wood of his cross, and who was nailed to the wood of the cross, the altar upon which he offered his life for us. Isaac was spared: God provided a ram for the sacrifice. But God didn’t spare his own Son. God loves us so much, that he was prepared for his only begotten Son to be the lamb of sacrifice. That’s the length that God has gone to, to bring us back to Him. Jesus did not shrink from any of the consequences of becoming human – even to accepting death. God has done all this for us. And so that leads St Paul to ask the question which we heard in the second reading: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
Nothing, therefore, can separate us from the love of God. God will provide everything we need. Our life’s struggle is to come to truly believe that. In this penitential season of Lent when we are invited to consider our weakness and sinfulness, we should ask ourselves: in what ways do my sins show that I don’t trust and believe that God will provide all that I need?
When we believe that God will provide, when we trust Him, then we will obey His will and His commandments.
I conclude with words of meditation from Blessed Charles de Foucauld:
O Abraham, may you blessed! Isaac, who so meekly allowed yourself to be bound to the altar, may you be blessed!
My God, who make such virtues spring from men, may you blessed from age to age for ever!
Love means obeying you, obeying you with this promptness and this faith, in ways that rend the heart and turn the mind upside down… love is immediate, absolute sacrifice to your will and glory of what is most dear…
It is what you did, in a wonderful way, O Abraham, getting up at once in the night to go to sacrifice your son. It is what you will do, O Son of God, coming from heaven to earth to live that life and die that death! …
My Lord and my God, so may it be with me also according to your most holy will.