Today’s Scripture readings are challenging, to say the least. The first recounts God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac to him as a holocaust. Abraham takes the unsuspecting Isaac on a three-day journey and then ties him up. In the instant before Abraham is about to kill his son, his hand is stayed by an angel, who declares God’s pleasure: “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly....”
Making sense of all this has taxed both Jewish and Christian traditions. Several interpretations seem less than fruitful. One poses God as an ultimate tester: “I wonder how far I can push Abraham?” Another sees in the story a contrast between Israel and her neighbors, who practiced child sacrifice. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard offers a third view: Faith is absurd from a mere ethical stance. All three interpretations are unsatisfying. The first seems to depict God as one who tests to the level of torture. And the story does not suggest any contrasts at all. Finally, I urge the reader not to consider Christian faith as ethically absurd. (If you think God has ordered you to kill an innocent person, call 911. That isn’t God.)
What do we make of this confounding story? Consider the Jewish practice of referring to the episode not as the sacrifice of Abraham, but as the binding (or submission) of Isaac, as Abraham radically binds his progeny to God and his promises. This approach does not solve everything, but it leads in a more promising direction. We can also remember that as we bind and submit ourselves to God, God also binds and submits himself to us in covenantal fidelity.
Paul’s message in the second reading reflects this dual binding. Paul begins, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He then leads us through a wonderful medley of rhetorical questions and possible tribulations. He ends his meditation—not part of Sunday’s Lectionary passage—with the words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities…nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
The Gospel takes us to the transfiguration of Jesus. Here Peter, James and John discover Jesus radiantly transformed and conversing with Moses and Elijah, who represent, as the Preface of today’s Mass suggests, the law and the prophets respectively. There are certainly associations. For instance, it is illuminating to recall that both Moses and Elijah directly encountered the Lord on Mount Sinai (Ex 24; 1 Kgs 19), and both were linked with the coming of the messiah. Elijah was specifically prophesied to usher in the messiah (Mal 4:5). In Jesus’ day, there was also a tradition that, like Elijah, Moses had been assumed into heaven awaiting the messiah. Thus, what we have now is an eschatological moment and a revelation that eclipses Sinai on this mountain of transfiguration.
The message the disciples receive from the Father in an enveloping cloud is: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Those heroes and guides of the past from Abraham on, those whose lives anticipated the fulfillment of God’s blessings, now fade into the background. There is no one but Jesus. Our submission of faith is to him alone. We bind ourselves to him even as that means going to Jerusalem and witnessing his passion. Moreover, as Paul reminds us, we bind ourselves to him in the midst of our own tribulations. And we do so knowing that he has also irrevocably bound himself to us.
The Transfiguration offers striking insight into Christ’s authority, mission and nature. The journey begins and ends with Jesus.