Journey into God
(Readings: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Rom 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10)
Introduction to Mass
Just as Abraham, the first of the great patriarchs of Israel, was called on to make a journey out of ignorance and error and towards knowledge and love of God, and just as Jesus' mission meant journeying towards Jerusalem, where he knew he would be put to death, our life, as disciples of Christ, also involves a journey: away from our sinful leanings and our self-assertiveness and towards greater closeness to God and holiness of life. The bright light of Jesus' transfiguration transfigures us, as long as we don't turn our backs on it.
As we prepare to celebrate this Mass together let us call to mind our sins and ask God for his pardon and for the strength of his grace.
When God calls someone or some group, and they answer his call, God doesn't leave them as they are. If we're serious about getting to know God, he never leaves us unchanged.
One important aspect of Christian belief is the fact that we're not born into a state of closeness with God. We're born in a state of separation from him, which is what we mean by sin. And yet our real calling and our true nature is to be completely united with him and with each other, and that's what we mean by holiness and the life of grace.
But since that isn't our starting-point we have to embark on a journey towards God, and when we start to move towards God we start to move away from other things, and to leave other things behind. The closer we get to God the more we learn that a lot of the things we used to feel were reasonable to want for ourselves are really obstacles to fulfilling our real calling and re-discovering our true nature. Putting our security in God means giving up the security we put in other things.
This was Abraham's experience. By the time Abraham came to stand on top of the mountain, ready to make a ritual sacrifice of his son Isaac, he had come a long way.
God's approach to Abraham, as told earlier on in the book of Genesis, was the first contact he'd made with human beings since the Fall, and it involved Abraham going into exile. He had to abandon the happy, settled life he'd made for himself, and his roots and his sense of belonging had to be left behind. Then, as if that wasn't demanding enough, we have the story in the first reading - God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son.
To us this is shocking, unreasonable and savage - the demand of a psychotic. It contradicts the picture we have of God, based on the rest of the Bible, and especially Jesus' own preaching, a picture of God as a loving Father, someone who is perfectly just and compassionate.
The answer lies in reading the story in its proper context, as we have to do with all the books of the Bible and indeed many other forms of literature.
At the time the story was written many of the pagan religions included ritual human sacrifices. The supreme sacrifice was the sacrifice of the first born child. It was a feature of primitive religions to believe that the gods were powerful but capricious beings - not by any means morally good beings - who would grant favours to people who made sacrifices for their sake.
The Chosen People, as they made their slow progress along the path of finding out accurately what God's character was like, were always falling back into that primitive mentality, just as they were always falling back into believing in a variety of Gods instead of the one true God.
In this particular story the authors of the book of Genesis were trying to show, by describing the event in very dramatic and mythological terms, that God precisely wasn't a God who demanded sacrifices. Today we would say that if God doesn't accept sacrifices like that, he wouldn't even ask for it. It's the contradiction in the story that we notice most of all.
But for the authors of Genesis, showing God as requesting the sacrifice and then intervening to stop it was a dramatic way of showing his real attitude and his real wishes. The important point is what God does in the last instance. And so the reason why this incident is so important is because it marks the point in the Chosen People's journey of faith where they broke away from older and more primitive notions of worshipping God, the point where they left behind all notions of worshipping God by making human sacrifices.
The gospel reading this Sunday is about another journey, or at any rate, the halfway point of another journey: the journey that Jesus made towards Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.
That journey also involved sacrifices and, like Abraham, Jesus had to leave some things behind and reject certain things as obstacles. When the Devil suggested at the start of Jesus' ministry that he could make use of earthly power and wealth and fame to spread his message, he refused. He accepted that being faithful to his Father's will would mean experiencing suffering and loss. They would be an inevitable part of his journey.
If the temptations described what happened at the start of Jesus' ministry, what we get in this Sunday's gospel is a sort of anticipation, or a preview, of the end: Christ's glorification and his return to the Father.
Jesus had already announced to the disciples that his ministry would end with his being killed. What the transfiguration on the high mountain showed them was what was to come after Jesus' death. This was such a mysterious and wonderful experience that Peter wanted to freeze it in time. In the transfiguration, the three disciples caught a glimpse of the divine, glorified Jesus, which later on the gospel writers struggled to find the words to describe.
At the same time, as well as being a preview of the end of Christ's journey, it's also a preview of the end of ours. One of the phrases that's used at the offertory at every mass refers to the fact that God shared in our humanity so that we could share his divinity. That isn't just a bit of pious rhetoric, it's a belief which is at the heart of our faith.
We know from our own experience that our lives are marked and spoiled in all sorts of ways by self-centredness and violence and untruth. But that wasn't how God made us and it isn't what our real natures were meant to be like. The gospel account of Jesus being transfigured reminds us of the fact that our present perception of things, and so much of our present experience of life, is distorted and unreal.
The real life, which belonged to us originally, now lies in the future. Beginning with Abraham and ending with his Son, God has communicated with us and reached out to us. He's made it possible for us to share again in the real, transfigured life of his Kingdom, where there's no distortion, no violence and no untruth, but where - as Jesus said himself - the blind see, the lame walk, and the hungry have their fill.
Abraham's voyage into exile turned out to be a journey towards greater knowledge of God. Jesus' progress towards Jerusalem was a journey back to the Father who'd sent him.
Especially during the season of Lent let's think about how willing we are to make the same journey: in our case, from sin to holiness; from self-centredness to love; from an outlook centred on our own desires and ambitions to one that revolves around God and what he wants us to be like.
As Pope Benedict has said, Christ takes nothing away from us and he gives us everything: the sacrifices involved in Christian faith aren't really sacrifices. Ultimately they bring us liberation and greater happiness and truth. This is the experience of the people who've had the courage to make the journey, and there's nothing to stop it from being ours as well.