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2nd Sunday of Lent (25.02.18)
Mountain tops can be metaphorical too!
Mountain tops have a special appeal for some. This 2nd Sunday of Lent our 1st Reading and Gospel relate mountain top experiences with religious significance. Those with no access to an actual mountain top can, with practice, create a metaphorical mountain top of silence and stillness within themselves, even in the midst of noise and distractions.
Lent is an extended period inviting us to do just this by reducing the intrusiveness of life’s daily hustle and bustle. A digital switch-off enables us to have time for reflection and quiet prayer. Being silent and still is a good place to recall that God is God and I am not God. It allows us to review our priorities, to realign our relationship with God and with each other.
God is at once inscrutable and yet willing to be known, intimately, in the person of His Son, Jesus the Christ. Lent calls the Baptised to reconnect, at a deeper level, with this foundational Christian truth because we live now in a secular age. These forty days call us both to surrender to the mystery of God and to place our trust in Him, even when we are surrounded by multiple voices telling us to do otherwise.
In the Genesis reading (22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18) we hear how Abraham – whom we honour as our father in faith - was told by God to prepare to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. To contemporary readers this is shocking. Yet, many now accept, without shock, the ever-growing number of direct abortions and euthanasia killings. Have Europeans become selectively blasé?
It is perhaps worth recalling that, sadly, it was not uncommon among the ancient Near Eastern civilizations to sacrifice children by fire to pagan gods. This was the practice of the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the Mari.
At the time of the prophet Elisha (800 B.C.), a Moabite king, who was losing a war, burned his son on the city walls (2 Kgs 3:27) asking the god Molech to grant him (the King) victory. Child sacrifice was strictly forbidden among the Israelites (Lev 20:2-5), yet there were low points in Israel’s history when some of its kings resorted to this pagan practice (2 Kgs 16:3; 17:17; 21:6).
Abraham’s journey to the mountain God had identified, with an unsuspecting and much-loved Isaac, must surely have filled Abraham with dread. The hard lesson, for us, is that Baptism calls us to be willing to open ourselves with faith and trust to God whose ways cannot be fathomed. Abraham had made his commitment to follow God’s will and so had set out.
The Genesis author writes, “God put Abraham to the test”. Some may find the translation disquieting. It could be read as though God was putting Abraham through some training, drill or exercise. God loves us too much to treat us as raw recruits who have to be knocked into shape. As our loving heavenly Father, God is fully aware that in our land of exile, where, as 1 John 5:19 tells us: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one”, our faith, not infrequently, will be ‘taken to the wire’ by Satan.
As Pope Francis said last July, “The line between good and evil runs through the centre of each person’s heart”. While God our Father will never allow Satan to break us against our will, God is constantly encouraging us to develop our faith in Him, on a daily basis, so that we may not allow our wills to be broken down, to collapse, through our lack of preparedness. In this Genesis reading we see how God was inviting Abraham to discover, for himself, the depth of his faith in God so that he (Abraham) could not be surprised and caught unaware by a cunningly malicious Satan.
Like Abraham, we have already been at many a ‘faith crossroads’. Maybe, for some of us, these crossroads have taken us ‘to the wire’. The countless fleeing war, persecution and devastation come to mind. Yet who is to say what the future holds for us? For sure, the wickedness of Satan should never be underestimated. There is a line in the Book of Jeremiah (6:16) that we would do well to keep in mind every day:
‘This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
pray to know the ancient paths,
where the good way is -
then walk in it
and you will find rest for your souls.”
As anyone who has climbed mountains or hills knows well, cloud can descend and envelope you with amazing speed. In the Old Testament the appearance of a cloud, known in Hebrew as a shekinah, was a traditional symbol of the divine presence. The Hebrew word shekinah means the dwelling place or settling of God’s presence. The word shekinah does not appear in the Bible, but the concept clearly does. The Jewish rabbis coined this extra-biblical expression. On their extended journey from Egypt to the promised land, the Old Testament tells how God revealed his presence to his chosen people, on multiple occasions, in a cloud.
St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel (9:2-10) that a cloud enveloped Peter, James and John on the mountain top to which Jesus had led them. As if to affirm the fact that this truly was a theophany, a cloud appeared. The voice heard from the cloud identified Jesus as the Son of God and called upon the disciples to “listen to Him”.
Peter, James and John’s experience was at once awe inspiring and terrifying. It also compelled them to attempt to prolong the experience – Peter said to Jesus: "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
But mountain top experiences, in this life, are not permanent. They are pauses when we are invited to step aside and recover a distorted or fractured Baptismal perspective that cannot be rectified in the midst of our daily hassle. Psalm 46.10 expresses it: “Pause awhile and know that I am God”.
Jesus commanded Peter, James and John to remain silent about their mountain top experience until after: “… the Son of Man had risen from the dead”.
St. Josemaria Escriva, in his spiritual guidebook called ‘The Way’, recommends us to be silent about the details of our personal interaction with God through the Holy Spirit. He believes we should only speak of such intimate details when it is essential for the spiritual health of another.
What God reveals to a person is, at least initially, for the benefit of that person who may, subsequently and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, disseminate some or all of the revelation for the benefit of others. Moreover, considerable time, reflection and patience may be required for a person to adequately comprehend what God has shared with her or him. St. Paul’s was clearly an exception. Under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, his conversion was accomplished in just three days.
The value of Abraham’s obedience was his willingness to give back to God the most precious gift he had ever received, Isaac. Every one of us has an Isaac, someone or something without whom or which we think we could not go on. Are we willing to surrender our Isaac to God?
The value of Peter, James and John’s silence as they came down from the mountain was their willingness to trust what Jesus had said and what God had spoken from the cloud. To show such trust, while still coping with a massively undeveloped understanding, is real faith.
It takes courage, commitment and determination to climb a mountain whether it be a geophysical reality, the conquering of a deeply embedded fear, a sense of shame or the opening of the heart and soul to the Divine Presence. During Lent’s forty days we, the Baptised, can be of support to one another as we struggle to connect with the grace of our personal vocation.