Today’s readings: Genesis 22, 1-2.9-13.15-18; Romans 8, 31-34; Mark 9, 2-10
The centrepiece of today’s Scripture readings is what provoked St Peter to exclaim: “It is wonderful for us to be here”. If there is no spark in the faith we profess and in the Church we belong to, then there is no real motivation to keep believing and to appreciate how faith can be transforming in life.
Many of those who still claim to belong to the faith unfortunately fail to grab what is wonderful and delightful in believing. If faith is merely doctrine and rules for living, and is not adding colour to life and making belonging meaningful, then something vital is missing. Meditating on this Sunday the mystery of the transfiguration of Christ, we are called to recover the power of the Christian faith to allure us, to delight us and to transfigure us in spite of whatever is tormenting in life.
In his book Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart remarks that the most important function of Christian history is to remind us not only of how Western civilisation was shaped, but also of something of incalculable wonder and inexpressible beauty, the knowledge of which can still haunt, delight, torment and transfigure us.
It is to no avail for us to keep hammering today on our Christian past and on how our culture has been shaped by our religion. There has been, without doubt, an interruption to this which we need to acknowledge and understand in order to grasp better what embracing the Christian faith entails, and still be able to navigate in today’s troubled waters.
The two biblical narratives today of Abraham asked to sacrifice his son and of Jesus’s transfiguration call on us to thoroughly examine the mainstream projection of the Christian faith as we received it. Is the kind of Christianity practised in much of the so-called Christian countries the real faith that transpires from Jesus Christ?
Standing by what we read from Genesis, it is quite a leap of faith to hold Abraham as our father in faith mainly because of his willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. This narrative in itself can be very disturbing. How is it that God can ask of Abraham such an atrocity? Is it not contradictory that a loving God demands something so cruel? Was it really necessary for God to put Abraham to the test?
Perhaps there are no answers to such questions. But something that stands out in the narrative is the measure in which Abraham treasured his relationship with God to the extent of being ready to take such a risk. We should not take Abraham’s decision to leave for Mount Moriah with Isaac lightly. We can imagine it as a tormenting three-day journey with Abraham internally arguing with his God.
The fact that nothing of this internal arguing with God is recorded in the narrative should not lead us to the concept of robotic obedience we so often promote in Christian life. Etty Hillesum was a courageous 28-year-old Dutch woman who died in Auschwitz in 1943. In his book Etty Hillesum. A Life Transformed, Patrick Woodhouse tells the story of Etty, who in the hellish conditions of the concentration camp continued to insist that life is meaningful and good.
But she struggled internally and painfully to come to such insights. In the midst of terrible suffering and violence, there was something that she discovered, which gave her strength, and which sparked the light in that darkness. It was this same spark that made Abraham keep going, even if he could not understand. The reassurance of his faith in God could not rest merely on the fulfilment of the promise with the birth of Isaac.
The authenticity of our faith is nourished by our internal struggles with God and cannot simply have its force in the cultural supports on which it rested for so long.
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