Mar 3, 2012

2nd Sunday Lent: Our mountain top encounters

Transfiguration of Christ - Lodovico Carracci

Gen 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Rm 8: 31-34
Mk 9: 2-10
Having grown up in the Chicago area I could only imagine what a mountain might look like.  In fact, it was not until we took a family vacation to Colorado that I think any of us had seen a true mountain range.  I was only twelve at the time but it was for us a mountain top experience nonetheless.
In our scriptures this second Sunday of Lent we hear of two mountain top experiences. Each separated by centuries of time but united in a common theme of absolute faith. One is clearly a shocking moment of near tragedy and the other is an experience of glory tinged by the prediction of death and suffering. 
From the book of Genesis we hear the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. God has tested the faith of his chosen senior citizen Abraham in several ways but this test is the ultimate one. What parent does not love their child? Only a mother or father know what parental love is like and I have occasionally heard parents say, whose child may be going through a tough time, “I would be willing to trade places with them but all I can do is pray.” That is inspiring to me and a sign of true love.
God asks Abraham to take his son up on top of a mountain and there offer his son as a human sacrifice. .  Human sacrifice was repugnant to the Hebrew people so this particular story has a singular power. Rather than bargain with God for an alternative choice or question God’s wisdom, Abraham obeys.  He seemingly intends to do exactly what God asks of him – to slay his son in obedience to God. We know the ending. 
At the precise moment that Abraham was ready to follow this appalling request of God, he is stopped by the voice of an Angel: “Do not do the least thing to him . . .” And his reward for unquestionable faith is given: “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky . . .” In this case Abraham followed the will of God, as bizarre as it seemed.  This was a mighty test of faith.  Would much lesser hard times in our lives also be tests from God?
The second mountain top event is much grander in scale and certainly more mysterious. It involves another Father and Son – Jesus and his own Father in heaven, a mysterious transformation in the person of Christ, a cloud, a voice from heaven and three awestruck witnesses: Peter, James and John.
This was an encounter with the divine and living presence of God which revealed to these three privileged disciples, the true nature and mission of Jesus.
Mountains play significant roles in Biblical literature beginning with Abraham, as we heard in today’s first reading.  Then to Moses where he encountered God displayed through a “burning bush.” (Ex 3: 1-6). Then to Elijah the prophet where he hid in a cave and found God not in a frightening display of nature’s power but in the gentle breeze (1 Kings 19: 8-13).  These mountain encounters became signs where God would speak to chosen messengers on holy ground.   
Now Jesus, God in the flesh, is revealed in a mystical display of divine presence to these chosen three messengers, who recognize they stand on holy ground and like Elijah, hide their faces in fear and awesome trembling.  That is, with the exception of the ever impulsive Peter, who boldly invites Jesus, Elijah and Moses to dwell with them in three tents. 
God the Father confirms the truth of Jesus in the same words heard at his baptism: “This is my beloved son . . .”
What do all these strange events mean for us in our Lenten journey? They all point to the Christ foreshadowed in the obedient faith of Abraham, in the law giver Moses and the Prophet Elijah, a forerunner of the Messiah.
These beautiful readings all invite us to see Jesus with awe and wonder as the very foundation of our Christian faith. Peter, James and John likely had no clear sense of what the future would bring, despite Jesus’ prediction of his suffering. It was by hindsight they came to believe that the cross leads to resurrection and is the path of every Christian person who takes his identity with Christ seriously.
Our mountain top experiences, those moments of trouble, anxiety, fear, hopelessness and frustration can all be seen as moments of faith that is tested.  Like Abraham who was asked by God to slay his own son our far less worrisome encounters with suffering are moments on the mountain with God. 
The Eucharist is always an encounter from on high – the “source and summit of our Christian life” as the Catholic Catechism reminds us.  There we encounter the passion, death and suffering of Jesus as he becomes present to us in risen life in each Mass. In the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist Jesus comes with life and hope for us.
How strong is my faith really? How willing can I be to join my mountain with that of Jesus?  Am I just a spectator or a participant in the Lenten journey? Isn't Lent something about change or a kind of "transfiguration" of our person?