Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Life can be uncertain. Fergie sings a version of the National Anthem that belongs more in a jazz lounge than the NBA All-Star game. For those of us following the Olympics, we’ve seen unanticipated falls, photo finishes, and controversy in the most unlikely places. Back home, unexpected tragedy in Florida and election-tampering indictments exacerbate division and uncertainty. This Sunday’s readings also introduce us to the unexpected, both exciting and alarming.
The only thing predictable about this Sunday’s readings is the location: the mountaintop. Mountain imagery is prevalent throughout Scripture as a place of both risk and encounter with God. Last week, we saw Jesus driven into the desert, where one of his three temptations took place on a high place overlooking a great kingdom. This Sunday, we see Jesus leading his disciples to an equally barren place. He “led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.”
Mountains are strenuous to hike. To assist the traveler in the assent, trails often involve switchbacks. These lead the traveler back and forth across the mountainside, sometimes appearing as if hardly any ground is gained. Perhaps Peter, James, and John were filled with anticipation as they climbed. After all, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah received a revelation of God on Mount Horeb. Little did they know that both historic figures would be appearing alongside Jesus in a blaze of glory!
We tell the story of the Transfiguration as an exciting one now, but the disciples had a different experience in the moment. While Peter babbles about making tents to honor the covenantal heroes, the evangelist Mark notes that “he hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.” They had seen Jesus work miracles and were coming to believe in him as the Messiah. Still, this spectacular showing was more then they had anticipated.
Another unexpected event awaits Isaac in the first reading. Despite the reality of human sacrifice in pagan culture, it’s unlikely the youth woke up that morning expecting it to happen to him. The test of faith here is difficult to understand, and it’s one that affects both Abraham and his son. Abraham’s faith is stretched to include offering the one thing he had longed for his entire life: offspring. In verse 6 – including in the full Biblical account – we read that Isaac carried the wood for the offering himself. A young man strong enough to carry that much wood is surely strong enough to resist his elderly father placing him on an altar. He goes willingly.
The raw, unflinching trust of both Abraham and Isaac is part of their covenantal sign. God sees this trust and honors it. Abraham and Yahweh enter into a promise of mutual fidelity that will endure throughout time, but it was built on risk and faith in uncertain times.
The stories of Scripture aren’t easy ones. Our Lenten readings reflect that. Lent is a difficult time in the Church’s calendar. The stories only increase in intensity as we move toward Holy Week, when we take a long look at the darkest sides of human possibility. Yet like Abraham and Isaac and Peter, James, and John, we can trust that the unexpected does not mean abandonment. This Lenten season is not a prolonged march to Good Friday, but a preparatory anticipation of Easter Sunday!
Whatever mountains we ascend this Lent, whatever awaits us beyond the switchbacks of our daily circumstances, we are invited to have faith. We rarely know what will happen next in life, but we can trust in the presence of Christ. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son … how will he not also give us everything else along with him? … Christ Jesus it is who died – or, rather, was raised – who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following Your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust You always.
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.
—A Prayer by Thomas Merton