2nd Sunday of Lent
February 23, 2018 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
No Glory sharing without cross bearing.
The first reading of this second Sunday of Lent speaks of the
covenant that God renews with Abraham. The Gospel tells of the
Transfiguration of Jesus. But we notice that Abraham is first tested by
God. In Mark’s Gospel just previous to the Transfiguration scene Jesus
predicts his passion and teaches that we must take up our cross. We could
summarize this Sunday’s message as Cross bearing and Glory sharing.
Does the God presented to us in the first reading present any problems for you? I think this demanding God who asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” the miracle child, the promise, the cherished gift, is the image some people have of God. Theirs is a demanding, punishing, testing God. Is yours the kind of God who would as it were play this cruel game on you? Some would ask of this story: “What if Abraham only thought he knew what God wanted? He came from a culture that occasionally reverted to human sacrifice in times of national crisis, as a desperate attempt to secure divine help. We do not know for certain if this was the case with Abraham, but people have often thought that they knew what God wanted and have been mistaken. Only when the angel stayed his hand did Abraham know what his God expected of him. This story confirms once and for all that God forbids human sacrifice.” (Hebrew Scriptures by Mary Reed Newland, pp.35=36).
The author seems to have been a prophet disturbed by constant pagan pressures inflicted on his readers.
Many of these non-Jewish people actually sacrificed their children to the fertility gods and goddesses they worshiped; often taunting their Israelite neighbors that such atrocious practices proved they were more dedicated to their deities than the Israelites were dedicated to Yahweh. This is where the Eholistic author seems to step in.
This complete surrender of Abraham to God must be set in the context of Abraham’s life. Abraham was by no means a perfect human being. In Chapter 12 and 20 Abraham was willing to give up his own wife to rulers to save his own life.
In chapter 16 he is uncertain enough of God’s promise to take Hagar to gain a son. The sacrifice of Isaac in the context of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael takes on a fuller meaning. Sarai, in her 70’s, had borne no child for Abraham. She then offered Hagar, her Egyptian maid-servant, to Abraham as his wife. Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael, a source of joy to Abraham at the ripe age of 86, but an irritating source of jealousy and resentment to Sarai. Sarai abuses the pregnant Hagar. It becomes too much for Hagar and she runs away. But Hagar is assured by God that her son will be great and she is to return.
In chapter 17, Abraham doubts the angel who tells him
that Sarah will bear a child. This is thirteen years later. God, while
ensuring a fruitful and happy fate for Hagar’s Ishmael, offers a new
covenant to Abraham, with the promise of a son for Sarai, now to be called
Sarah, at the age of 90.
At the time of Isaac’s weaning (chapter 21, vs.8), however, Sarah’s
jealousy gets the better of her and she insists that Abraham cast Hagar and
Ishmael out in to the wilderness. Abraham is pained but he easily accepts
God’s reassurance that both will survive. Giving them some bread and a
skin of water, he casts them out. Abraham was ambivalent. He loved his
son Ishmael but is willing to cast him out. This is somewhat eased by the
promise from God that both will survive. The casting out is also eased by
the happy result that Sarah will be happy.
Years later (chapter 22) when Isaac reaches about the same age
Ishmael had been when he was banished, God gives Abraham another test. But this time the ambivalence is removed. In words and context much the same as those of the Ishmael incident, we read that Abraham is once again in the situation of dispatching the “son he loves.” This time however, there are no beneficial side effects that might alleviate his pain. All Abraham has is his trust that God is good and will keep his promises.
In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, we see a different Abraham.
He is not the deceptive Abraham, he is not the doubting Abraham. He is the completely believing Abraham, confident that God will provide. He believes that Isaac is God’s promise of future generations and believes that God is good and will keep his promises. God intervenes to spare Isaac. Isaac lives, marries Rebekah and fathers generations of grace and abundance. (Just as he was overshadowed by his Father Abraham, he will be overshadowed by his son Jacob from whom will come the 12 tribes of Israel.)
John McKenzie in his dictionary of the bible offers: “The story of the sacrifice of Isaac shows the great faith of Abraham. It is also directed against the practice of human sacrifice, and this is probably its primary purpose in it original form. It may be the expression of this truth by an imaginary narrative, a parable, or it may preserve dimly the memory of some spiritual crisis in the life of Abraham.”
Just as the story of Abraham must be understood in the context of
Abraham’s entire life, so the story of Transfiguration must be understood
in the context of Jesus’ entire life. In terms of the number of verses
this story stands at the middle of Mark’s gospel. It is the only
“high mountain” scene in Mark’s Gospel. Outside of baptism this is the
only time the life of Jesus is marked by divine intervention in visible and
audible terms. There will be no divine intervention at Jesus’ passion and
crucifixion. It proves helpful to observe precisely at what point in the
dramatic development Mark places this scene of recognition. It is not
presented until all the crucial identifications of Jesus have been given:
figure of power over evil and death, founder of the new community, man of
suffering and death, victor over death who will come at some future time.
The transfiguration scene is therefore to be understood as a preview,
granted to the three chosen disciples, of Jesus’ full identity as Son of
God, an identity which is yet to be fully materialized through suffering
The Transfiguration scene begins with the somewhat ambiguous phrase “after six days.” Raymond Brown says of this phrase: “The “after six days” of 9:2 seems to recall Exodus 24:16 where cloud covers Sinai for six days and only on the day after that does God call to Moses.” Marie Sabin Noonan says: “There is a sense of new beginnings. The time frame of “six days” (9:2) is suggestive of the six days of Creation before God’s Sabbath rest. Mark intensifies the sense of a new creation when he describes God’s voice saying to Jesus the very same words he spoke at the moment of his baptism. …The reference to “six days” also recalls the period Moses waited before the divine voice called to him on the mountain of Sinai (Exod 24:12-18).
Ched Myers asks: “What is the meaning of the appearance of Moses and Elijah here?” His answer: “…each of the two great prophets represent those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission.” (This observation helps us to understand the choice of the Transfiguration Gospel as always offered to us for consideration on the Second Sunday of Lent.)
The disciples misunderstand. Peter wants to arrest and make a
present reality of what was only meant to be a preview of the future. The
disciples desire a shortcut to the Kingdom of God by eliminating the
dimension of suffering and death. The Markan Jesus by contrast not only
postpones fulfillment but insists on an irrevocable connection between true
life and death on the cross. The glory of the transfiguration will not
be consummated except through the agony on the cross. No glory sharing
without cross bearing.
The story of the Transfiguration is followed immediately by one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel (Mk. 9:14-24).The disciples have returned from a brief moment of insight to their usual state of dulled understanding. The disciples are powerless to combat a destructive demon who is pictured in graphic and horrible detail controlling a young boy. In his painting, the Transfiguration, Raphael captures these two scenes. In top half of the painting, Jesus and the heavenly companions are illumined in resplendent colors. The lower half of the painting portrays the hapless disciples in the face of their inability. Looking at the painting we behold the chaos of earthly evil and a glimpse of heavenly glory. We in our life time will have moments of transcendence and transformation. But we must always return to earth to hear the voice of Jesus and follow him on the way to the cross.
So in the first reading we have the intervention of God to save the
life of Abraham’s beloved son Isaac. In the Gospel we know that God will
not intervene to save the life of his Beloved Son Jesus. But God will
intervene to raise him from the Dead. Death has no more power over him.
Paul writing to the Romans teaches us about our God: “If God is for us,
who can be against us? Is it possible that he who did not spare his own
Son but handed him over for the sake of us all will not grant us all things
August 6, 1945, a blinding light transfigured the citizens of Hiroshima, Japan. On that day the Catholic Church was celebrating another transfiguration, the transfiguration of Jesus. The anniversary of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima reminds us of the destructive transfiguring power (intelligence at the service of power). The opposite is the creative Transfiguring Power of Life in Jesus (intelligence at the service of love).
We will share moments of transcendence but must return to earth to combat evil.