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We hear the story of the Transfiguration this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent Year B, and what at first glance seems to be a strange story that is more of a curiosity than anything else, the more you look at it turns out to be a specific and radical warning of what will happen to each of us soon.
First, we learn that Jesus Christ is not just a Prime Mover, but a Zeus.
“Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white,” says the Gospel of Mark this Sunday.
“They hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified,” it adds about Peter, James and John.
As one theologian here at Benedictine College has put it, we 21st century Western Catholics are quick to see the Prime Mover of Aristotle in the Biblical God, and rightly so. But we have been less willing to see in him the thundering Zeus of Homer — because Zeus is immoral and untrustworthy. Obviously, the Lord God of Hosts is far from the Zeus of poetry — but he is also far from being merely the Final Cause of philosophy.
The all-too-human Homeric gods “point gropingly to our human need to see God in the flesh,” said Aaron Riches. But Zeus and his pantheon “ultimately just are not either God enough or human enough” for us. Jesus, fully God and fully man, is the fulfillment of what both the Old Testament and The Iliad long for — and that means he is neither tame nor predictable.
My friend Peter Wolfgang and his wife Leslie recently completed the Bible in a Year together and Peter shared this:
“’God doesn’t do that!’ Leslie would write jokingly in the margins every time God did something that modern Christianity tells us he doesn’t do. But God does do that. There are sections of the Bible where he seems to do it on every other page.”
In Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton addressed the popular complaint that the Church has taken the loving teacher Jesus and twisted his message of peace into a message threatening fire-and-brimstone. That understanding is “very nearly the reverse of the truth,” he said. “The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well.”
Aslan is the Christ figure in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. A character sums him up as “not safe.” “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This Sunday Jesus is the unexpected face of the unsafe God. He stands before us like a character in a Pagan myth who swallowed the sun. Or, better, he is the “light from light” who existed before the sun. But unlike the myths, this is a God who wants to know us, a Zeus who came to serve and a Prime Mover who is demanding in ways that defy logic.
The Transfiguration is a vision of Jesus as we hope to meet him.
“Such as he then appeared to the Apostles, he will after the judgment appear to all his elect,” says Venerable Bede.
Many will see what they saw: “Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus,” says the Gospel.
When something this extraordinary happens in a Gospel reading — when two specific characters emerge from the pages of the Old Testament to chat with Jesus as we will see him at the end of time — it is crucial to figure out why.
This vision is a warning meant to shake us up. We too hope to stand in the presence of Moses one day, the lawgiver par excellence who went up into the cloud of thunder and lightning on the mountain and emerged with the tablets of the Law. We hope to be in the same company as the first prophet, a man of fasting who called the people to repent and was last seen leaving the earth in a chariot of fire.
And we will meet them in the presence of almighty God. The Holy Spirit who was a dove at Jesus’s Baptism and a driving wind as Lent began is now represented by a cloud of glory that “casts a shadow” over the apostles. The Father who was “well pleased” at the Baptism is now a thundering voice saying “listen to him,” and pointing to the Son. And the Son who we last saw in the desert with wild beasts now stands on a mountaintop looking like a bolt of lightning.
How unsafe is this startling God? Ask Abraham and Isaac.
The First Reading is one of those stories where God does what he is not supposed to do and demands what he cannot demand. He tells Abraham to slay his son Isaac on an altar atop Mount Moriah — which is by Calvary. The obedience of Abraham is famous: His very future, his very identity, is tied up with this son, and yet he is willing to sacrifice him at the Lord’s command. Hebrews even says Abraham figured God would raise Isaac from the dead if it came to that.
But the obedience of Isaac, who by then was an adult, is important too. His father woke early in the morning with an intense look in his eyes and a plan to go up the mountain with the tools of sacrifice but no lamb, and Isaac followed — even allowing the old man to bind him on the altar.
In his willingness to follow his father’s will, Isaac foreshadows Christ himself, who carried the wood of the cross up Mount Calvary to his own place of sacrifice. The difference is that Isaac’s journey ends with God sparing him, but Jesus’s ends with his lifeless body being taken down from the cross and buried.
As Paul puts it: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”
The Church gives us this story early in Lent to tell us that we can only get to Easter, our own meeting with the Risen Jesus, by taking up our cross — the wood for our sacrifice — and following. And we can only show our faith by laying our own Isaac, the thing we love the most, on his altar.
Jesus ascended Mount Tabor on the way to Mount Calvary. In Lent we follow him to both places, but in the opposite order.