In the Transfiguration Jesus gives his most beloved disciples (Peter, James and John) a glimpse of the life they will live one day in glory. Not just a transfigured life, but a life with their beloved forever, free from all distraction. It is an encouragement for our own desire for silence and prayer that enables us to encounter Our Lord in the depths of our heart.
Today’s First Reading recalls another mountain, but also a momentous decision in the life of Abraham, a life or death decision that showed who came first in his life. Isaac was the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father to a great nation. The Lord had promised Abraham for years that he would bless him with a son who’d show the promise being fulfilled. He and his wife Sarah were so old that Isaac’s birth was nothing short of miraculous. At one point Abraham had another son, Ishmael, through the slave Hagar, but the Lord revealed that Ishmael was not the way he intended to fulfill the promise.
When the Lord tells Abraham to offer up Isaac as a holocaust it seems that he is asking Abraham to kill a promise fulfilled. The Old Testament does not say that Abraham went ballistic, engaged in long and bitter discourses a la the Book of Job, or denounced God as cruel and evil. He simply took his son and headed for Moriah. Abraham was put to the test, and he passed. He was ready to go through with something horrible because he believed it was God’s will. His attitude was enough to show that the Lord came first for him. As the Lord said, “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
In today’s Second Reading Paul reminds us that the Lord spared Abraham’s son, but did not hesitate to sacrifice his own. When Abraham was heading up the mountain with Isaac, Isaac asked him, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8). The sacrifice of Isaac was a prefiguration of the Lord sacrificing his Son, Jesus, on Calvary. When we call Jesus the “Lamb of God” we are referring to the fact that he willingly laid down his life, like a lamb led to the slaughter, to take away the sins of the world. When John the Baptist first identified him to the disciples who would soon become Our Lord’s Apostles he said, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). He saw him as a sacrifice for the sins of the world from the beginning. Just as Abraham showed how the Lord had first place in his life through his willingness to sacrifice his son, the Lord shows us that we are first place in his. Sacrificing his only-begotten son shows that there’s nothing he is not willing to do for us.
In today’s Gospel the Lord takes his closest disciples up the mountain, alone, to give them an insight into who he is and prepare them for the trials to come. If the Lord subjected Abraham to a trial, Our Lord takes his closest disciples up the mountain to prepare them for an upcoming trial: his Passion and death. Our Lord gives his disciples a glimpse of his divinity. They’ve followed him and had faith in him, and now he gives them a deeper insight into who he truly and to strengthen their faith.
Elijah and Moses, through their appearance, show the disciples that Our Lord is the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). That’s enough for Peter to suggest building a shrine in remembrance of the revelation he’d just received, but the Lord is not done. The disciples witness a theophany: God the Father (the voice) identifies Jesus as his beloved Son, and the cloud that overshadows them is the Holy Spirit. It’s important to remember that this was not the first opportunity for the disciples to show their faith, but, rather, like Abraham with Isaac, it was a culminating moment of the faith they’d already shown. Neither the disciples not Abraham understood completely after the “mountain” what had happened. The disciples still didn’t understand what Our Lord meant when he said he would be raised from the dead, but they soon would.
It’s not easy getting to a mountaintop, and today’s Gospel says Our Lord took his disciples up a high mountain. Prayer is one of the pillars of Lenten observance. The battle for quality prayer is often a battle for silence. Everyone acknowledges the utility of “quiet time,” but, for prayer, this is just the first step. Exterior silence must foster interior silence. We have to quiet down on the inside too. Find a quiet place this week (a chapel, a monastery, a convent, a shrine) and set aside some real quiet time so that Our Lord can reveal himself to you more profoundly. Consider doing a retreat or a daily mediation for Lent.
Readings: Genesis 22:1–2, 9a, 10–13, 15–18; Psalm 116:10, 15–19; Romans 8:31b–34; Mark 9:2–10. See also Transfiguration of the Lord, Cycle B, Transfiguration of the Lord, Cycle C, Transfiguration of the Lord, Cycle A, 2nd Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, and 2nd Sunday of Lent, Cycle A.