A Glimpse of Heaven

Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Romans 8:31b-34, Mark 9:2-10.

Today’s readings demand that we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Parts of our faith are easy to accept — the Beatitudes, for example — they mirror moral truths we find in other religions and civic systems. But when it comes to actual encounters with God, which are the endgame to which we’re all drawn, I might add, we find some frankly difficult episodes. Sure, God is love, but is He also the one who tells a man to sacrifice his own child, and tests him up to the point of the knife going in? That sounds extreme, almost unhinged, to our rational minds. And the Transfiguration includes what some would call ghosts, voices from the clouds, and secrecy pacts. This would be the description of a skeptic, of course. As believers, we have to come face-to-face with the Transfiguration as reality, not make believe; the truth, not a story.

Sacrifice of Isaac (1635), Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn | Creative Commons, courtesy the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. There are several famous paintings of this moment, but the action captured in this one really strikes me – not just the hand of the angel on Abraham’s arm and the falling knife, but also Abraham’s hand completely covering Isaac’s face, pushing back his head and bearing his neck for the sacrifice. Isaac is clearly depicted as a lamb about to be slaughtered, and the vulnerability is moving.

Lest we think we have to leave reason by the door as we enter into these moments of faith, there are rational underpinnings to God’s actions with Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The covenant God makes with him is fundamental for the preparation of humanity for His Son’s entry into history. It’s appropriate, then, that the patriarch understand and commit to the type of love God has in store for his progeny, God’s Chosen People. In poker terms, this love is all-in. No chips are set aside, nothing reserved. Today, we read that “God put Abraham to the test,” and not to belabor the comparison, but He needed to see if Abraham would go all-in. Why, we might ask, is this necessary? We can’t forget that God’s love allows for our own assent and free will to meet His. He never wants to take away our sovereignty over our own will; if He did, this would be a lesser love that does not respect us as complete beings. As God is establishing His People, He needs to have these moments where His leaders, prophets, and other figures exercise their free will in the direction of faith otherwise this spiritual muscle and determination can wither and become weak. I think this is a good way of looking at what the scriptures call “testing” — it is, in fact, a loving act by God to help His chosen ones to grow in faith, to enact and uphold their end of the covenant (this is the definition of “being faithful”). They gain spiritual determination, but perhaps even more importantly they serve as a lasting example and teaching for all of us who follow.

Who is this God? A God who wants us to come to Him, not a God who cackles with sadistic glee by making us march around doing ridiculous and dangerous tasks. Every moment of salvation history is infused with God’s superabundant love. In order to truly understand our scriptures and the Word of God, this must be our starting point.

This is why all of the details are so important in our recorded scriptures. God acts with great purpose in the world and the Holy Spirit guides the pen of the authors of scriptures in order to capture these details faithfully. Two details from the first reading jump out at me today. First, it is what God’s messenger tells him: “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” I love how absolute the command is not to “do the least thing” to Isaac, displaying God’s absolute love for His creation. The angel acknowledges Abraham’s devotion to God (most translations write “that you fear God,” meaning you have great reverence, respect, awe, fear, and devotion), specifically because “you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” As Christians, we see the significance of this episode because God will be sacrificing His own Son (and not stopping it). God is not asking of us anything He is not willing to accomplish Himself.

The second detail that jumps out for me today is the ram. In a verse skipped over in today’s reading, Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb is for the sacrifice as they are setting out to climb the mountain and Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen 22:8a). This is a sad-but-lovely double meaning for Abraham because in his mind Isaac is himself this lamb led to the slaughter. What prompted him to say it this way? Perhaps it was the Word of God placing this phrasing in his mouth. While some scholars see no significance to the fact that a ram was what God provided instead of a lamb, others see a great significance here. I tend to see significance in scriptural details as the Doctors of the Church teach us to. A ram is just an adult sheep while a lamb is a young one, and a ram’s horns make it easier to be caught in a thicket and so be delivered to Abraham. More significantly, we know that ultimately an unblemished lamb will be sacrificed once and for all; John the Baptist tells us, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The ram can be used for Abraham to sacrifice and save his son from physical death while Jesus, the Lamb of God, will be sacrificed to save us all from spiritual death.

Agnus Dei (1635-1640), Fracisco de Zurbarán | Creative Commons, courtesy the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In the gospel reading, St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John behold this spotless lamb: “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” The Transfiguration starts where Abraham finished — they have climbed the mountain with the Son and have found the lamb acceptable to God as a sacrifice. 

But here God more fully reveals His Truth to humanity. “Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.” We are invited, like Peter, James and John, to ask what this could possibly mean. On the mountain — the place of encounter with God since time immemorial — our teacher is transfigured into a vision of purity so dazzling white it hurts the eyes. Clearly he is someone special and this is a great confirmation of our decision to follow him. But now he stands in the company of the greatest law-giver and the prophet who was to return to us, talking with them as an equal would! To be on the same level as Moses and Elijah, well, we perhaps didn’t expect such an exalted teacher. Not to mention, these great men are dead and yet here they are, seemingly in the flesh once again and holding a conversation with him. Are they apparitions or spirits? Are we to think that they are there in some sort of resurrected body? Whatever the case, this encounter is miraculous and great. Praise be to God, and how exalted this spiritual encounter must feel to be in the presence of these three great men!

Thus, Peter says, let’s build a tent for everyone and stay here. This is how Moses welcomed the divine presence of God to stay with them in the desert, obscured by the cloud. The tent has a sacred significance for the temporary dwelling of the divine here on earth. I can relate to Peter here. Have you ever been on a retreat or encountered the sacraments in a way that was extraordinary, when you felt the Spirit of God more palpably than you ever had before? I’ve felt that — like my soul was soaring. And above any other reaction (fear, confusion, uncertainty, nervousness) was the desire to have it continue, to keep that feeling going. Let’s build a tent and stay awhile!

But this is not the Christian path, always on the move, always in the world. 

And in response to Peter’s naïve declaration, the Father arrives: “from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.'” Peter, James and John must have been thunderstruck. Their teacher’s specialness was confirmed in a way that far surpassed any expectation. Moses and Elijah now appear as minor players in the drama where the Father reveals His Son as the unblemished lamb, the Savior. And just as abruptly as Jesus was transfigured before them, it all disappears. Mark writes, “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.” What was the point of having this revelation of the Son in all His Glory only visible to these three men for a few moments on a secluded mountain?

Today’s Office of Readings gives us an explanation from Pope St. Leo the Great: 

The great reason for this transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed. With no less forethought he was also providing a firm foundation for the hope of holy Church. The whole body of Christ was to understand the kind of transformation that it would receive as his gift. The members of that body were to look forward to a share in that glory which first blazed out in Christ their head.

This is a sharp insight. The Transfiguration occurs towards the end of Jesus’s ministry, shortly after He first shares with His Apostles “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk 8:31). Peter’s response is to vigorously tell Christ not to say such things (and Jesus famously responds, “get behind me, Satan,” pointing out that it is a temptation of course to deny the bitter cup He is asked to drink and He must not be tempted away from the Father’s will). This shows us that there was likely some emotional upheaval going on with the Apostles. They had given up everything to follow this man they believed to be the Messiah and He tells them the endgame is great suffering and being killed. Pope St. Leo the Great recognizes the despair that must have gripped the Apostles and the fact that the Transfiguration is God’s way of showing them the truth and glory behind the sacrifice before it was made. It is a glimpse of Heaven. This vision, imprinted on the very hearts of Peter, James and John, gives them the image of their faith to share with everyone else in their time of darkest despair after the Crucifixion. Christ always is this immaculate lamb, even when pierced and covered with blood and hanging from the cross. It is His core being, the Truth. To this day, this gives us our undimmable Christian hope for our reunion with our undefeatable Savior.

The Transfiguration of the Lord (mosaic, Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel), 1924, Umberto Noni | Wikimedia Commons. The caption is Latin for “And he was transfigured before them.”

When we recognize the great purpose and significance of the Transfiguration, it helps us start to digest and accept the wondrous event as it took place. But no less than the Resurrection itself, we are called to believe this without seeing it with our own eyes. Doubting Thomas would (without a doubt) doubt the Transfiguration as much as the bodily Resurrection of our Savior. God’s question to us is the same as it was to Abraham: are you all-in?

Our faith demands ever fiber of our minds, bodies, and souls. We must give ourselves back to our Creator, in love, in order to enter the Kingdom. This is the same action of Christ Himself, giving Himself wholly back to His Father in love. If we are called to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, we are also called to believe in His bodily Resurrection, His Ascension into Heaven, and His Transfiguration on the Mountain that revealed His Glory to the apostles to plant the seed of faith, hope, and love in the Church.

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