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Second Sunday In Lent (L2B), Mar. 4, 2012
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
In our readings today we are presented with accounts of two extraordinary events. First we have the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac and, in the Gospel, the story of the Transfiguration. We observe that there are some elements in common. The most obvious is, of course, that both of these events take place on a mountain.
Throughout the history of humanity mountains have played a special role as privileged places of encounter between God and mankind. In certain religions sometimes even the mountains themselves are worshipped.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition mountains are frequent places for worship and encounter with God; for example Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law from God on Mount Sinai. This is continues on into New Testament times with the greatest act of our salvation taking place on Mount Calvary.
The other strong connection between these two accounts is their emphasis on sacrifice. God demands of Abraham the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Abraham obeys God and loads the wood on his son’s back and takes him up the mountain, an action which to the Christian is uncannily reminiscent of Christ climbing the Hill of Calvary.
We people of today are appalled by Abraham’s act of obedience. On the one hand we admire it but on the other hand we would consider the sacrifice of one of our own children inconceivable.
We do not understand either Abraham’s blind obedience or the extraordinarily demanding and even cruel nature of God. Our incredulity is not moderated when Isaac is reprieved which only makes it seem like a sick joke played on Abraham by an uncaring God.
This is not even considering the extraordinary circumstances of Isaac’s birth which was something only brought about, we remember, by the direct intervention of God. Again we see a strong parallel with Christ and the extraordinary circumstances of his own conception.
In the case of the sacrifice of Jesus, it is only just before he ascends the Mountain of the Transfiguration that he makes the first explicit prediction of his passion and death. The Apostles find such a thought incredible; they do not understand how it can possibly come about let alone why it would be necessary. Jesus reacts to their failure to accept his words by rebuking them harshly.
The Transfiguration has often been considered a parable of prayer. Prayer is a response to the invitation of God to come up the mountain to be with him for a while, in other words to leave our ordinary cares and concerns in order to spend time alone with him. Our response is to place ourselves quietly in the presence of God so that we can spend time apart with him.
The words are also, of course, highly significant: “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him.” This is the most important lesson about prayer that we could be given. Prayer is primarily about listening. We often fill up our prayer time with talking. We frequently spend the brief time we devote to prayer in telling God all our problems and asking him for this or that kind of help.
What we need to understand is that God knows all our needs before we even ask him. What he wants is for us to listen to his Son whose greatest title is the Word of God. What God wants is for us to spend time with his Son and to listen to his saving Word.
God certainly speaks but he doesn’t shout. And it is in silence that God speaks most powerfully of all. When we silently place ourselves in his presence and focus completely on him then in those precious moments sometimes things rise to the surface of our minds of which we would not ordinarily be aware.
Most often these spiritual insights are crowded out by the busyness of our lives and the noisiness of the world in which we live. Our constant preoccupation with inessentials renders us deaf to the voice of God.
It is only by spending time in silence and stillness alone with God that his subtle and understated message for us can get through.
To go back to the sacrifice of Isaac and of Christ, we have already acknowledged that it is difficult for us to understand sacrifice and suffering even though it is such a central aspect of our earthly lives. Certainly some suffer more than others; but, be sure about it, suffering in one form or another comes to us all.
The widespread belief in the world of today is that suffering is bad and to be avoided at all costs. People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid even the slightest amount of hardship or suffering. Our media influenced culture is all about instant gratification and the avoidance of hardship of any kind, it presents a life of luxury, comfort and relaxation as the only thing worth having.
But this is not what our faith tells us, this is not what we Christians actually believe. We understand that, while we should not actively court suffering, it is not without meaning. We realise that suffering is essentially redemptive.
We realise that it has a mysterious purpose; that suffering can bring us closer to God; that suffering, when we unite it to Christ’s suffering, can be our small share in bringing about the salvation of the world.
To go back to the Transfiguration of Christ; we have noted that it came after Christ’s first prediction of his passion and death. We remember how Jesus rebuked Peter in the strongest possible terms by saying “Get behind me Satan.”
We can imagine how Peter was feeling after these harsh words but then immediately afterwards comes the invitation to ascend Mount Tabor to see Jesus Transfigured. How consoled he must have been by the events that took place on that Holy Mountain.
With this in mind we see too that the words of the Father have a particular significance. When the Father says ‘listen to Jesus’ he surely means that they should listen, above all, to the prediction of his passion that they had found so difficult to accept.
They should listen to it and believe in the words of Jesus and in them find salvation.