Opening the Word: Biblical high points

As a general, scriptural rule of thumb, dramatic things happen on mountaintops. There are about 500 references in the Bible to mountains and hills. Sometimes mountains are described as places of hiding and refuge; sometimes they are presented as desolate and barren, hostile to the living. They are depicted as places of false pagan worship; they are also celebrated as sites of authentic worship of the true God.

And in some of the most significant events presented in Scripture, mountains are where man encounters God in transforming, stunning fashion. In such instances, man's faith is tested; he is drawn outside of his comfort zone and into a relationship that is holy, other-worldly, even terrifying.

Today's Old Testament reading is one of those incredible mountaintop encounters. It is also one of the most perplexing and baffling stories in the Old Testament: How could a good and loving God ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son?

Cardinal Jean Danielou (1905-1974) contemplated this unsettling mystery in "The Advent of Salvation" (Paulist Press, 1962). He described the event as "a high point in the Old Testament." Why? "In the first centuries of the Christian era," he wrote, "the rabbis taught that Abraham merited all the graces given later to his people by sacrificing Isaac, and that Isaac, by submitting to be sacrificed, was the cause of his people's salvation."

When St. Paul wrote that God "did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all" (Rom 8:32), surely he was very mindful of Abraham's trek to the mountaintop with Isaac. Cardinal Danielou emphasized that the Old Testament, in this story and many others, provides a promise and foreshadows a fulfillment. The sacrifice of Isaac was not consummated, but pointed to the sacrifice of the Son of God, which was consummated. The fulfillment of the covenantal promises made to Abraham did not come about in his lifetime, but in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"The passion and death of Christ," Cardinal Danielou said, "were the supreme test of faith: from death came the Resurrection wherein the promise was fulfilled."

This brings us to today's Gospel and St. Mark's account of the Transfiguration. That blinding event also, of course, took place on "a high mountain"; only Peter, James and John were present. They didn't expect to be granted "a glimpse of the Godhead," in the words of St. John Chrysostom, seeing, as it were, the veil of this world pulled back to reveal the dazzling glory of Christ's divinity and the holiness of Moses and Elijah.

Peter, terrified and shaken, but still impulsive, wished to immediately commemorate the event by setting up tents, perhaps thinking of the Feast of Tents (or Booths) that recalled the 40 years in the desert (see Lv 23:39-43). A cloud, the presence of the Holy Spirit, overshadowed them (see Lk 1:35), and the Father's voice declared, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." Whereas Jesus' public ministry had commenced with his baptism in the Jordan -- the heavens torn open, the Spirit descending, a voice saying, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Mk 1:9-11) -- his paschal mystery commenced with the Transfiguration.

Moses, the Lawgiver, and Elijah, the Prophet, pointed to the One who fulfilled perfectly the Law and the Prophets. But he fulfilled it by entering into the heart of sorrow and death. The dark hours of the Passion did, for a while, overcome the disciples. But the Resurrection tore apart the veil that had only been pulled back on the mountaintop. And now we -- listening to the Son, guided by the Holy Spirit -- can encounter God in transforming, stunning fashion.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.