The Transfiguration of Christ, Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai, Egypt.
Sunday 25 February 2018.
He was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white. Mark 9:2-3
So far this church year, we have had three epiphanies, or manifestations of God, namely the Nativity, the adoration of the Magi and now the Transfiguration. In other years there would also have been a Sunday gospel proclaiming the Lord’s Baptism. In each of these there is a statement of God’s presence: the angels appearing to the shepherds at the Nativity, the star leading the Magi to the birthplace of the Lord, and Jesus seen in dazzling white, in the company of Moses and Elijah and a voice from heaven (and also God’s voice and the Holy Spirit as of a dove at Jesus’ Baptism). Just as a seal is attached at the bottom of a very important document to prove its validity, these epiphanies attest to who Jesus is in the most dramatic way. Today’s gospel, however, is especially important. For the first time an epiphany takes place in the presence of his most important followers, destined to be the leaders of the first Christian community. It confirms their initial belief in this man who seems to be close to God. And now they have the proof and indeed an order from God: Listen to him.
Peter, James and John, understandably, were overwhelmed by this experience. They were looking at Jesus who stood between the towering figures from Holy Scripture of Moses who represents the Law of God, who received the 10 Commandments from God and brought them down from Sinai, and Elijah, one of the premier prophets and who was spectacularly taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, who represents all the prophets of God. So, symbolically, it states that both the Law and the Voice of God, as heard through the prophets, are now united in Jesus. It is God’s seal upon him as the true Voice and Presence of the Divine. In other words, their trust in him was given a solid foundation without a shadow of doubt. And, as ever, Jesus forbade them to say anything about this to anyone until his mission was complete. Once more, he was afraid that the people would proclaim him Messiah on their terms rather than God’s, and expect him to raise up all Hebrews to conquer the pagan Romans who dominated them. That was not God’s will for the Messiah. And Peter, James and John had just been ordered by God to listen to him rather than entertain their own thoughts about the Messiah.
Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire, Angeli, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Today’s first reading is the famous scene traditionally known as the Sacrifice of Isaac. Although Abraham’s only son was not sacrificed (unlike many other children in Canaan at that time, possibly the reason God intervened in human history at all), Abraham obeyed God’s instruction. It made no sense at all: God had promised ancestors through this young man, but now God wanted him sacrificed! Yet Abraham obeyed, only to be stopped at the last moment, and Isaac was saved. Then followed God’s promises made to his obedient servant of descendants and land and blessings. As with the gospel, it destroyed a stereotype common in that day. In ancient Canaan, child sacrifice to the god Moloch was made as “payment” for protection from invasion or some equally desperate need. With Jesus’ disciples, the stereotype was their conception of God’s Messiah as a military figure who would re-establish the kingdom of David.
Both were equally wrong. They both resulted in disaster. Child sacrifice is an abomination which speaks for itself. The military idea of the Messiah defeating the occupying Roman army, which was the universal stereotype of the Messiah at that time, was also disastrous. In fact there was a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 132 CE, led by a man called Simon Bar Kokhba whom many claimed was the messiah. The Romans not only crushed the revolt, but expelled all Jews from Jerusalem, and even changed its name to Aelia Capitolina. Worse was the erection of a statue of the god Jupiter on the exact spot where once stood the Holy of Holies, the center of the old destroyed Temple and the holiest place on earth for the Jews. So the two stereotypes named here both led to death and destruction. It was clearly the reason Jesus insisted on secrecy concerning his identity and vocation, the Son of God and Messiah.
So stereotyping seems to be a theme here. In both cases there is a kernel of truth: the Scriptures did describe the Messiah as honored by kings; and sacrificing to God or the gods does show human deference to the divine. But the bigger reality with the two examples here shows something horrible and decidedly false. Hence stereotypes are to be treated for what they are, dangerous and false. And yet it seems we are all guilty of indulging in them. If our knowledge of something or someone is shallow, stereotyping very quickly fills the void. Irish? Oh, must be a d***k. Muslim? Clearly a t*******t. Italian? Must be in the M***a. And so on. Another word for it is prejudice. Most teenagers have been stereotyped when they walk into a clothes shop. They will probably be eyed by the employees as potential shoplifters. Young females at home with brothers are often stereotyped as weaker and less able to take care of themselves than the boys. Discrimination is another word for it. So here is a Lenten exercise for us all: Who or what do I stereotype? Do I have any areas of prejudice or discrimination? Do I make judgements without the full facts available? If any of these answers is “definitely not”, think again. Stereotypes are sneaky and easy to accept. They can become so ingrained that we are unaware of them. But like a decayed molar, they have to be ripped out. They are evil and they hurt people. Christians are in the business of loving their neighbors, not stereotyping them. If we can locate such evils within us, we should expel them and begin to make judgments based on facts rather than fancy, that alone would make our Lent well spent. Go to it!
Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrandt, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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