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Monday, March 5, 2012

Second Sunday of Lent – The Transfiguration

Second Sunday of Lent
The Transfiguration
Mark 9:2-10

On the Second Sunday of Lent, a Gospel account of the Transfiguration is proclaimed (Luke 9:28-36, Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-10).

Before we hear the Gospel according to Mark, we will listen to one of the more difficult Old Testament passages, that of Genesis Chapter 22, the Testing of Abraham.

In this passage, Abraham is called by God to take his only son to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. This sounds as if God is asking for a human sacrifice, something that existed at the time of Abraham, but was repugnant to the Hebrews and against the will of God.

Was God asking for something that was against His own Commandment’s? On the surface it appears so. But sometimes, well maybe most times, God’s commands are opaque to us, in other words they are not transparent or easily understood. So how do we come to terms with God’s request of Abraham?

Rewind a few chapters to the three promises God made to Abraham, which would set in motion the course of salvation history coming to fulfillment in the Pascal Mystery; suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. “I will make of you a great nation…I will make your name great…All the communities of the earth shall find blessings in you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

At the time God made these promises, Abraham and Sarah his wife were childless and well beyond child bearing years. Abraham then inquires, “O Lord God, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless? (Genesis 15:2) To which God replies, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5)

Time passes and Abraham and Sarah still have no children. Sarah suggests that Abraham take her maidservant Hagar – “Have intercourse with my maid; perhaps I shall have sons through her.” (Genesis 16:2) Abraham agrees and at the age of 86 fathers Ishmael with Hagar. Yet, Sarah is not as excited as she thought she would be over the birth of Ishmael to Hagar.

Fourteen years later, in God’s timing, He blesses Abraham and Sarah with a son. (Genesis: 21:5) However Sarah’s jealousy and resentment over Hagar and Ishmael causes her to demand of Abraham “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10) Abraham is torn but is consoled and counseled by God to “heed the demands of Sarah.” (Genesis 21:12)

More years pass and Abraham, Sarah and Isaac are very happy. Then one day God calls to Abraham asking him to “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust.” (Genesis 22:2) There was nothing more precious to Abraham than his son, but God had asked for this sacrifice so, “early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him his son Isaac….and the wood…and set out for the place of which God had told him.” (Genesis 22:3)

But there is more to this story of Genesis 22, for as Saint Augustine wrote, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”

Why the land of Moriah? We receive a clue to the geographical location of this land from the only other time it is mentioned by name, 2 Chronicles 3:1. In 2 Chronicles we read that it is in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah (the highest point in the land of Moriah) that Solomon is commanded to build the Temple which will hold the Ark of the Covenant.

Solomon’s Temple will stand until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. A second Temple will be erected in 515 B.C. This Temple is then desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 B.C, which ignites the Maccabeus revolt. This culminates in 164 B.C. with the rededication of the Temple an event which will be celebrated thereafter as the feast of the Dedication or Hanukkah. In 20 B.C., Herod the Great renovates and expands the Temple to the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple. It is this same Temple built on Mount Moriah, the highest point in the land of Moriah where Jesus was dedicated to God (Luke 2:22-38), drove out the money-changers (John 2:14), and taught (John 7:14). It was near this Temple that Jesus was condemned to death and died. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher sits over the site of Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus.  The Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Solomon's Temple.   
Hidden in this Old Testament story is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice Jesus would make for each one of us in His Paschal Mystery. Jesus, the only Son of God, the perfect Lamb is sacrificed in the same land Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his only son. Did God want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? No God did not want the sacrifice of Isaac, nor would the sacrifice of Isaac, or any of the animal sacrifices performed by the high priest in the Temple suffice. The only sacrifice that would break the chain of sin and death would be the sacrifice of the Perfect Lamb of God, Jesus.

At the place where God had commanded Abraham to make a holocaust, Isaac said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” “Son,” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” (Genesis 22:7-8) Abraham continues in obedience to God, trusting him even to the moment of raising the knife to slaughter his son. At that moment Abraham hears, “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.” (Genesis 22:12) “As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it up as a holocaust in place of his son.” (Genesis 22:13)

God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was a test. God did not want the human sacrifice of Isaac in the bloody sense; he wanted a “human” sacrifice from Abraham, the surrender of Abraham’s heart to free, total, and faithful trust and devotion in and to God’s will. This true devotion would be required of Abraham if he was to carry out God’s task for him, and become “the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:5)

The Old Testament story of the Test of Abraham is unveiled in the New Testament with John the Baptist’s cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) As Abraham told Isaac in Genesis 22: 7-8 God will provide the sheep and indeed He did provide the perfect Lamb in His Son. Jesus himself, who lived in loving obedience and service to His Father, was the best and perfect of all sacrifices. In His suffering, death and resurrection He would conquer sin and death.

God wants only what is for our good. His plan is far greater than our own. If we listen to God, obey God, trust and have faith even when his commands appear opaque, we will be rewarded with God’s goodness and life.

In the Gospel message from Mark 9:2-10, Peter, James and John are given a privileged glimpse of who Jesus is and what heaven will be like. For one moment on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration, the curtain was pulled back and the perfection of our life to come was revealed.

The disciples were given a gift, the gift of understanding what Abraham could only perceive through faith. What the disciples witnessed is what our faith anticipates. This is what we hope for, what we long for, what we were made for. “God made us to know, love and serve Him and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Our ultimate destination is Heaven. As Catholics, we believe that if we remain faithful to God and His Commandments, what happened to Jesus in the Transfiguration will one day happen to us.

Until the day you call me home,
Lord help me to live out my faith as Abraham did
perceiving through faith what your disciples
witnessed in the Transfiguration.
Help me to accept in faith Your will for my life.
For if you are for me Lord, who can be against me?
Your will be done.

Transfiguration - Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Sacrafice of Isaac - Giambattista Pittoni
God's Promise to Abraham - Unknown
Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael - Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
Abraham and Isaac - Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier
Map of Temple / Diagram of Church of Holy Sepulcher/ Location of the Temple to Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher
Sacrafice of Isaac - Carvavaggio 
Sacrafice of Isaac - Laurent de La Hyre
Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor -  Mosaic

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