2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B
Text: Gn. 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Ps. 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rm. 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10.
“‘[The disciples] hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.’”1 We hear of this terror a lot, when people encounter God more immediately and directly than usual. As another example, after God spoke directly to the people of Israel, giving them the Ten Commandments, “All the people shook with fear …. ‘Speak to us yourself’ they said to Moses ‘and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.’”2 Why is an encounter with God so terrifying? We believe God is benevolent—that God is Love3; why then do we fear, so much that we think that to encounter God again would be too much for us?
From my own experience, when we encounter God, it’s overwhelming and very difficult to grasp directly: God is more than we can speak; we are reduced to ambiguous approximations like the name God tells Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh”4, which I want to translate as “I am being”. The experience is all-engulfing while it lasts, so much so that there is no room for thoughts or feelings as we experience them in normal consciousness. The disciples probably had no idea how long they were on the mountaintop.
And then the transcendent experience ends. Ultimately, we are created to be in love with God, in God with love, but our lives here serve a purpose, and so we return. We are attached to and entangled with life: not only with possessions and habits and pleasures, but also with goals and commitments and, perhaps most of all, with each other. Such an experience unravels those ties a bit, because we cannot take that with us into God, though we are powerfully drawn; with a foretaste of heaven comes a foretaste of the letting go that accompanies death.
Small wonder, then, that the disciples were terrified; I certainly was after even a small such encounter. I think T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”5 It has taken many years to accept my encounter even as much as I have, and I still have great difficulty in talking about it. I fear that to experience something like that again could unbind me completely from this life, and so I’m reluctant to pray too hard for another such encounter.
I want to pause and go back to reexamine the story of Abraham and Isaac. That has always been a problematic story to me, because the God I know doesn’t demand death, but life and love. The sacrifice of the firstborn was a widespread practice among early religions; while later Jewish law requires the redemption of the firstborn by a sacrifice of five shekels of silver6 instead, it is not inconceivable that in the very early time when Abraham lived, he may have felt that a blood sacrifice was required. On the mountain, the angel of God told Abraham that God knew that he would hold nothing back, but that Isaac had a purpose in the world, to become the nation of Israel. In this case, the meeting on the mountain was to mission Abraham and Isaac into the world.
Returning to the disciples on another mountain many years later, it seems to me that the purpose is different: the disciples were already in the world, but through Jesus, God revealed to them what their destination was. The disciples were called up the mountain to learn that Jesus was at once the man with them and the God with Moses and Elijah, and even more crucially, that they too would one day be with Jesus in that heavenly radiance.
So what about us? We usually identify with the disciples in this Gospel, but if I’m right, we are invited as much as they are to identify with Moses and Elijah. When the disciples lived with Jesus, they weren’t revered saints: they were ragtag followers of a charismatic preacher and healer. If they are invited to identify with the great leaders and prophets with God in heaven, then so are we. Before Communion, each of us will confess that “I am not worthy that [God] should enter under my roof, but [God need] only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”7 Peter, James and John weren’t particularly worthy either; in their own time, neither were Moses and Elijah. We are not worthy, but not because someone else is worthier; we are not worthy because God is beyond worthiness. As Paul writes, “It is God who justifies,”8 not condemns.
I don’t want to leave you with a sense that encountering God is a bad thing; it is a transformative thing, if we let it be so. For me, it has been a bedrock of certainty and a source of strength and comfort in difficult times ever since. I don’t know why these experiences come to some of us and not to others, but “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.”9 Trust that God wants to be with us and have us with God, and that our experiences and actions here can serve in some way to help all of us grow into that mysterious, all-encompassing love.
1: Mark 9:6
2: Exodus 20:18-19
3: 1 John 4:8
4: אהיה אשר אהיה, Exodus 3:14
5: Burnt Norton (1935) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
6: Numbers 18:16
7: Liturgy of the Mass
8: Romans 8:33
9: Psalm 95:7-8