The readings present a compendium of themes that shape the Lenten season. The first reading concludes the cycle of narratives about Abraham (Gen. 12-23), which unfold from his call, with the promise that he and Sarah will be parents of many nations, through the covenant and the birth of a son, the bearer of the promise (Isaac), and reaches its pinnacle in God’s command that Abraham offer Isaac as a holocaust. As one of the most treasured subjects of Christian art, the denouement of the story is familiar. At the last moment "the Lord’s messenger" intervenes; Isaac is spared, and the promise is renewed: "Because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly."
In both Judaism and Christianity Abraham is a paradigm of faith, who "when tested was found loyal" (Sir. 44:20), who "hoped against hope" (Rom. 4:18) and who "by faith, when put to the test, offered up Isaac" because he believed in a God who could raise up the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). Also in Jewish tradition Isaac is transformed into a model of self-sacrifice who went willingly to his deathwhich is adopted by Christians for Jesus "the beloved son" who "has loved me and given himself up for me" (Gal. 2:19).
"Transformation" would be a better term to describe today’s Gospel story, since Jesus, though in the form of God, took on the "form" of a slave (Phil. 2:6-7) and is now transformed and seen as an exalted member of the heavenly court. The narrative is dense with biblical allusions. The dazzling white clothes are a symbol of divine presence in Dan. 7:9, while the presence of Elijah and Moses has been interpreted in a number of ways. They are symbols of the prophets and the Law; both are people who did not taste death but were exalted to heaven (Elijah in 2 Kgs. 2:1-12; Moses in extra-biblical tradition); they are faithful prophets who suffered because they followed God’s word.
The deeper focus of the account emerges from the divine voice: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." The transformation follows the first of three predictions by Jesus of his death by crucifixion, which the disciples consistently resist. Peter’s desire for three booths seems an attempt to substitute divine presence for the way of the cross. The same three disciples who witness Jesus’ transformation fail to watch with him during his agony in the garden (Mk. 14:32-42). Mark’s readers and we ourselves are to hear the voice of a Jesus who says that the way to glory is only through the cross.
The narrative is also followed by one of the most dramatic stories in the Gospel (Mk. 9:14-29), the exorcism from a young boy of a destructive demon which the disciples of Jesus are powerless to combat. Raphael’s magnificent panorama "The Transfiguration," which greets visitors to the Vatican museums, captures the sequence perfectly. While Jesus and the heavenly companions are illumined in resplendent colors, the fruitless struggle of the disciples with the demon occupy the lower right hand corner. The eye cannot help behold the chaos of earthly evil when looking at heavenly glory.
The Transfiguration is not, as some homilists state, a kind of mid-point encouragement to the disciples, since they will continue to misunderstand Jesus and will flee at his arrest; and Peter denies him. The deeper meaning of the narrative for Mark and for us during Lent is that even after moments of transcendence and transformation, we must come back to earth, continue to hear the voice of Jesus and follow him on the way to the cross. Experience of transcendence is juxtaposed with the struggle against evil.
The readings today encourage deep faith and trust in God. Poignant and powerful is the faith of an aging Abraham, ordered by the same God who promised multiple progeny, to kill the son who was to continue the promise. And yet, such a mystery of total self-giving is rooted in the very nature of God, "who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us." The final transformation in Mark is not another heavenly vision, but a youth clothed in white announcing from a tomb: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" (16:6). At the very door of death, a message of life is proclaimed. Believing this is the ultimate challenge of Lent.