The readings for this Sunday are: Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Romans 8:31b-35, 37; Mark 9:2-10
Moriah. Sinai. Nebo. Carmel. Horeb. Gilboa. Gerizim. Mount of Beatitudes. Tabor. Hermon. Zion. Mount of Olives. Calvary. Golgotha. Mountains are often used in the Bible as the stages of important encounters between God and his people. Though we may have never visited the lands of the Bible, we are all familiar with these biblical mountains and the great events of our salvation history that took place there.
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel reading take place on two important biblical mountains – Mount Moriah and Mount Tabor. Both readings give us profound insights into our God and his Son, Jesus, who is our Saviour. First let us consider the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham as portrayed in Genesis 22:1-19. The story is called the Akedah in Hebrew (Anglicization of the Aramaic word for “binding”) and it easily provokes scandal for the modern mind: What sort of God is this who can command a father to kill his own son?
How many pagan voices were assailing Abraham at this moment? What would a contemporary father do if he were to be called on to sacrifice his only son to God? He would be thought mad if he even considered it – and unfaithful to God as well. What a poignant story indeed! “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love … and offer him there as a burnt offering. … So Abraham rose early in the morning.” Because Abraham listened to the Lord’s messenger, his only son’s life was spared. The binding of Isaac, then, is a symbol of life, not death, for Abraham is forbidden to sacrifice his son.
What happens on Mount Moriah finds an echo in what happens atop Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary in the New Testament: The mounts Moriah, Tabor and Calvary are significant places of vision in the Bible. For on these peaks, we see a God who never abandons us in our deepest despair, terror and death. God is with us through thick and thin, through day and night.
These mountains teach us that it is only when we are willing to let go of what we love most and cherish most in this life, to offer it back to God, the giver of all good gifts, that we can ever hope to receive it back in ways we never dreamed of or imagined. Only then will we experience resurrection, healing, consoling light and new life.
We can only speculate on what lies behind the story of the Transfiguration – one of the Gospel’s most mysterious and awesome visions (Mark 9:2-10; Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28- 36). Peter, James and John had an overwhelming experience with the Lord on Mount Tabor. Following the night of temptation and preceding the blackness of Golgotha, the glorious rays of the Transfiguration burst forth. Before their eyes, the Jesus they had known and with whom they walked became transfigured. His countenance was radiant; his garments streaming with white light. At his side, enveloped in glory, stood Moses, the mighty liberator, who had led Israel out of slavery, and Elijah, the greatest of Israel’s prophets.
Jesus needed the light and affirmation of the mountaintop experience in his own life. In the midst of his passion predictions, he needed Mount Tabor, to strengthen him as he descended into the Jordan Valley and made his way up to Jerusalem. For every disciple since, it is the same. Those who follow Jesus must ascend the mountain to catch a glimpse of the mystery of God’s presence in our world and in our lives.
And yet Mark’s story of Jesus transfigured reminds us that gazing in contemplation is not enough. The disciples are told to listen to Jesus, the Beloved of God, and then return to their daily routine down in the valley.
The awesome Gospel story of the Transfiguration gives us an opportunity to look at some of our own mountaintop experiences. How have such experiences shed light on the shadows and darkness of life? What would our lives be without some of these peak experiences? How often do we turn to those few but significant experiences for strength, courage and perspective? How has the mountaintop experience enabled us to listen more attentively to God’s voice – a voice calling us to fidelity and authenticity in our belief? When we’re down in the valley we often can’t see Christ’s glory.
The most consoling message of the Transfiguration is perhaps for those who suffer, and those who witness the deformation of their own bodies and the bodies of their loved ones. Even Jesus will be disfigured in the passion, but will rise with a glorious body with which he will live for eternity and, faith tells us, with which he will meet us after death.
So many voices assail us that we find it difficult to listen to God’s voice. Before light envelops us, we need to go through darkness. Before the heavens open up, we need to go through the mud and dirt. We must experience both mountains – Tabor and Golgotha – in order to see the glory of God. The Transfiguration teaches us that God’s brilliant life included death, and there is no way around it – only through it.
It also reminds us that the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling. During moments of transfiguration, God penetrates the hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do, and he leaves upon them the imprint of his own face, in all its radiant and dazzling glory and beauty.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Publications Service, or from the Salt + Light online store.