The readings set for this week ask us two questions: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What are we preparing to celebrate?’. First and foremost, Lent is a time for prayer and contemplation: spending time with Jesus before we celebrate His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This moment of our salvation is the culmination of the Biblical narrative, and is found in all four Gospels. It represents the high-point of the Liturgical Year, the Feast of Feasts, and we prepare for it with forty days of prayer, fasting, and good works.
Our first reading from Genesis, the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, is both well-known, and deeply shocking. The concept of human sacrifice was widespread in the Ancient World. It was not a common occurrence, but it did take place. It seems abhorrent to us, and so it should. In the passage God speaks to Abraham and says,
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
Thankfully, just as Abraham is about to offer Isaac, God tells him to stop, as Abraham has demonstrated his complete devotion to God:
“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22: 12)
Abraham sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, and offers it to God instead. The ram symbolises Christ. It looks forward to Jesus, recognised by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It points to the Passover Lamb in Exodus, which also prefigures Jesus, the fulfilment of the Paschal Sacrifice. Because Abraham has not withheld his son, he is blessed by God, and through his offspring, all people will be blessed. For Christians the Easter story is important because in it God, like Abraham, does not withhold His Only Son, but gives Him, to die for us. This narrative demands contemplation because it is the demonstration of the mystery of God’s love for humanity. It is amazing that God could love us that much, especially when we do not deserve it. The mystery of God’s love is that we are not loved because we are loveable. We are often quite the opposite! But God loves us anyway and His love transforms us.
St Paul pondered such questions as he wrote to the Church in Rome:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom 8:32)
Christ’s death on the Cross is a demonstration of divine generosity, and the reason for our hope as Christians. God’s love for humanity is truly amazing. We should pause for a moment as we read this. God loves me enough to die for me. If God can do this for us, what can we, in return, do for Him?
Our Gospel reading this morning presents us with another vision that is hard to understand, the Transfiguration. Jesus and his closest disciples go up Mount Tabor in Galilee. Here, for a moment, the disciples experience the transcendent beauty and glory of God. God breaks into the world to give a glimpse of heaven, and the disciples experience the majesty of Christ’s divinity.
Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). Just like Jesus, Moses and Elijah spend a period of forty days fasting and being close to God. They both point to Christ and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. On the mountain top, Peter makes a very human response to the strange situation he finds himself in. He knows that it is good to be here and realises that what he is experiencing is life-changing. Peter’s suggestion to make three booths points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. But, despite Peter’s hope, this experience is not to be prolonged. This is just a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.
When God speaks from the cloud He tells us three things about Jesus. Firstly that Jesus is the Son of God, secondly that He is loved, and thirdly that we should listen to Him. What Jesus says and does should affect us and our lives. Like the disciples, we have to be open to the possibility of being radically changed by God.
Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about their experience on the mountain until after he has risen from the dead. Jesus has another mountain He must climb: the hill of Calvary, where He will suffer and die upon the Cross. There He takes our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This then is real glory, not worldly glory, but the glory of God’s sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal and restore it.
The Transfiguration shows us the glory of heaven, the glory of the Resurrection at Easter, which lies beyond the Cross. God’s glory and God’s love are intertwined, and cannot be separated because they given freely. God’s very nature is generous, beyond our understanding, and characterised by total self-gift. God does not hold anything back, and whereas Isaac is replaced at the last minute by a ram, there is no substitution for Jesus. God gives His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, and to rise again, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him in Heaven. The Transfiguration is a promise of our future heavenly glory, offered to us because God is a God who keeps His promises. Through signs and glimpses, He shows us what future awaits us. He longs to heal and restore us, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him.
The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare ourselves to live the life of faith. It helps us to comprehend true majesty, true love and true glory. The wonderful glory that can change the world and which lasts forever, for eternity, unlike the fading glory of the world, which is here today and gone tomorrow.
So let us behold God’s glory. Let us prepare to be transformed by His love. That we may be healed, and restored, and given a foretaste of eternal life. May God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, proclaims Him. Let us tell the world about Him, so that all people may believe and trust and have new life in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.