Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : Each of our Lenten readings speaks of death in one form or another. Last week’s readings reminded us of the extraordinary love of God for his creation and now we are being led further into the mystery of God himself as we are led out beyond our temporal mortality.
I think we have the reading from Genesis (22:1-2.9-13.15-18) as part of our ‘wake-up call’. We are all guilty of investing so much of our time, money and hopes and attention in the things of this world that we cannot really see beyond them, indeed, frequently get stuck with them. It may be our love for our children, our pride in our jobs and our own achievements, or our clinging to possessions or something else; but lovely as all these things are, they can blind us to the truth that these are only temporary gifts from the Creator whose purpose for us is so much greater.
When Abraham was tested by God and was willing to sacrifice his only son and heir, Isaac, something similar was going on. Abraham, we must remember, lived in a time when there was no concept of ‘eternal life’ with and in God. In consequence people invested all their hopes for the future in their offspring, especially male children. Abraham, you will recall, had been childless for many years until persuaded by his wife to take a concubine and produce a child; and it was only very late in life that Sarah produced the beloved son Isaac, literally the pride and joy of his father’s heart, his posterity, upon whom any possibility of an Abrahamic line hung. Imagine therefore the horror of being asked to destroy the child on which so much depended.
Now in the Near East of the time it was not unusual for great rulers to sacrifice sons at great events. We hear precisely of this action by the ruler of Jericho in the First Book of the Kings. I suspect therefore that our story is actually a ‘myth’, a very ancient tale about the shift from human to animal sacrifice; and deeply embedded within it is this story of Abraham’s interior debate as to what is most important, his attachment to his only son, or his relationship with God, from whom he has all he derives. It is only when Abraham gets his priorities right that he can appreciate the real grace and goodness of God and is apparently ‘reprieved’ by the finding of the ram, the alternative sacrifice, sent by God. Only when we are staring death in the face can we truly get our priorities straight.
Our Gospel, (Mark 9:2-10) is about another moment of death and transformation, here the Transfiguration, literally metamorphosis in Greek. In this, Christ appears, significantly again on a mountain, and is shown to the disciples in all his heavenly glory. He appears alongside Moses and Elijah, signifying the Mosaic law and the prophets, and thus he is encompassing everything that Judaism stood for but much more. It is a moment of crisis, just as Abraham experienced, a moment of decision; whether to continue with the old ways of understanding God given in the Old Testament, or whether to go on the dramatic and radical journey with and in Jesus to become his new creation; heirs with him of God himself, sharers in the divine nature. For many Jews this would be a scandal, an outrage. For the disciples it was a moment of transition, decision to adopt that decisive shift which would transfigure their entire being. It was a moment of death and led to new life. As the Gospels present it, affirmation came to the disciples in the divine voice; “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” It is significant that this moment of the revelation of the true identity of Jesus to his chosen followers was so powerful and earth shattering that Jesus told them not to reveal it to the rest until after his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was insistent that belief in him should come through an encounter with the fully human Christ and not in any sense be compelled by knowledge of his identity given only to the chosen few and then only as an aid to their belief.
When we consider how the twelve actually behaved at our Lord’s passion perhaps we begin to appreciate the sense of this injunction. Indeed, it would be his post mortem appearances that convinced the disciples of his identity and enabled them finally to make that great transition. Death, and the giving of a wholly new and far richer life after physical death, is the thing that really will make the difference for all of us. Just like the disciples, we too, cling onto the familiar, onto this material life, and find it very difficult to place all our hope in eternal life.
Surely the final word in all this must go to St Paul (Romans 8:31-34). So much of this extraordinary letter is focussed on the problem which faced Christians then and continues to drag us down now. It is the problem of our own sins, those we willingly commit and those we simply fall into despite our best intentions. We agonise and tie ourselves into knots over questions of our unworthiness of eternal life; of whether God could possibly forgive us and of our inability to embark on a path of lasting change. Paul provides the answer to all our angst: we can’t and we don’t have to. It is God in Christ who has won salvation and eternal life for each of us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. “He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.” What we have to learn to accept is that Christ Jesus has already won paradise for us. Our Lent is therefore about a literal dying to the past with all its hang-ups and a taking on of the new life we are already guaranteed in Christ. We must allow our selves to be transfigured as he was.