IMMOLATION AND TRANSFIGURATION
After triumphing over the temptations of the Adversary last week, today the Lord Jesus takes us with him from the depths of a dark desert to the shining heights of Mount Tabor. Unlike the dreadful solitude of the desert, here on Tabor we experience a true fullness of communion. The text structures the narrative at three levels, and in three groups of three persons each. First, there's the triad of disciples—Peter, James and John—whom Jesus takes with him up the mountain. A second triad sums up the history of salvation: Moses (the Law), Elijah (the Prophets), and Jesus (the Fullness) converse peacefully with one another, in a profound accord that symbolizes the unity and harmony of all Revelation. But, in this ascending hierarchy, the summit will be the manifestation of the divine Triad: the Father, whose voice can be heard speaking only of the Son; the Son, the Mediator, who is integrated into both the divine and human orders; and the Holy Spirit, whose active presence is signified by the Cloud that covers the disciples with its shadow, just as the Spirit had covered Our Lady at the Annunciation (Lk 1.35).
The dazzling person of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Incarnate Word, is at the center of the whole epiphany. Jesus, the uni-versal center where all created and uncreated realities converge, opens for all a passageway to the invisible Heart of God. In his human body, deified by the divine Light that inhabits it, Jesus offers God our humanity, elevated by grace and immersed in divine life. In this sense, the Transfiguration is already a foretaste of the new cosmic order of the Kingdom that will be inaugurated by Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.
By plunging his disciples into the spiritual and sensual experience of this transformation of his person, Jesus puts them to the test, just as God had tested Abraham, in order to purify their faith and enable them to have access to the torrent of life that is the Holy Trinity. However, Peter didn’t know what to say, so great was their fear: to experience Christ’s glory and intimate secrets in this way, to contemplate with mortal eyes the uncreated Light shining from within Jesus and his very garments, to listen to the eternal words of the heavenly Father with human ears—all this constitutes a difficult and truly frightening experience, even if it is at the same time exhilarating and life-giving.
The trust that God places in us by revealing his innermost being demands our own total “transfiguration”. From now on, even if we are only half-awake, we cannot remain the same; from now on, we too must shine with the light with which God has flooded us. Among other things, the Transfiguration is a mystery that demands our conversion, and that’s why we climb Tabor with Jesus in the middle of Lent, to be converted to his Light, to accept his Light within us, so that finally we might become, with him, the Light of the world (Jn 8.12; Mt 5.14).
But why does the Church today present to our contemplation this parallel between the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah and the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor? What connection can there be between bloody Immolation and light-filled Transfiguration? In my opinion, it’s because both episodes reveal the magnificent beauty of eternal Love, a Love that can only be experienced, by God or man, in the unbreakable unity binding suffering and glory. In the Passion of the Lord Jesus, light and blood merge, becoming one, because both blood and light communicate life. Let’s take a closer look at this challenging mystery of our faith.
In the Genesis account we have just heard, God outrageously orders Abraham, knife in hand, to sacrifice “his only son, the one he loves”, Isaac. Note that this formula of Abraham’s predilection for Isaac (his only son, the one he loves) is almost identical to the words the eternal Father utters from the cloud: This is my beloved Son. What Isaac is to Abraham on the human level, Jesus is to God on the divine level. So God must perfectly understand in his Heart the full scope of what he requires of Abraham. Note as well the astounding fact that Abraham’s “Here I am!” at the moment of God’s second summons—the very moment when, obediently, he is about to plunge his knife into the flesh of his beloved son—is in no way less serene or whole-hearted than his first “Here I am!” at the beginning of the story, when Abraham does not yet know what God is going to demand of him. Even if the whole scene on Mount Moriah doubtless has something keenly repugnant about it that assaults our human sensibilities and our conventional ideas of God, the fact remains that the majestic narrative plunges us into the mystery of God’s absoluteness, something that we moderns have largely lost sight of. Do we even believe that any absolute exists?
In any case, this scene leads us to conclude that God’s absoluteness demands of us total submission, boundless trust, even and especially when we don’t understand God’s deepest motivations and intentions, which in fact we never do! The moment Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to immolate his son, the great Patriarch could not have known that the very instant the angel of the Lord would call down to him from heaven to command him not to lay a hand on the boy. It is in this unhesitating obedience, in the depths of his darkness and anguish, that all the greatness and holiness of Abraham, our father in the faith, lies. He risked the absolute absurd and was rewarded, through Isaac himself, with an endless progeny.
Nevertheless, it is elsewhere, in the Mystery of Christ grasped most fully by St Paul in his Letter to the Romans, that we must seek God’s true intention when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. With this command, God wanted to prepare what we might call the “way of the three mountains”, that is, he wanted to set in motion the process of salvation history that begins at Mount Moriah, then passes through the splendor of Mount Tabor, and finally arrives at Mount Calvary, the Mount of the Cross. He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, writes St Paul, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8.32). In the final analysis, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was merely a prefiguration, the anticipation of an unheard-of mystery that makes up the very substance of God’s Heart: I mean God’s eagerness to sacrifice himself in his Son in order to give us life in him.
If we are already overwhelmed by Abraham’s absolute obedience to a commandment that could only have seemed brutal and terrible to him as a human being, what can we then say about the way God was driven, by the love he has for us, to the extreme of plunging the sacrificial knife into his own Heart by delivering his beloved Son to death? We can never repeat it enough: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3.16). And the precious Blood of this only-begotten and beloved Son of God has truly flowed over our earth, whereas the blood of Isaac, which symbolized it in advance, was never shed: One of the soldiers pierced [Jesus’] side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (Jn 19.34). Yes, the Almighty spared Isaac, but he did not spare the Son of his own womb! In the mystery of the Cross of Christ, the out-pouring of the Blood of the Lamb becomes one and the same thing with the shining forth of the Light of God’s Love transfiguring all of creation. There can be no lasting transfiguration without the bitterness of immolation. The unfathomable suffering of our beloved Lord Jesus acts as the hydraulic power of an incomparable Love, driving the light of Salvation through his sacred wounds and making it burst forth out of eternity into the darkness of our world and each of our hearts. And this precious fusion of blood and light reaches us at this altar today under the appearances of Bread and Wine, seeking to transfigure our hearts.