Just returning from my annual retreat, two things are always clear on the trip back home. First, we don’t leave “the real world” to go on retreat. Any true encounter with the Lord is more real than anything else the world has to offer us. I would dare say, then, that what we experience on retreat is the real world. We don’t create a pretend way of life for a few days to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, so we can go home with a “retreat high” for a few days. A veil is torn aside and the Lord invites us to see what is even more real than our daily lives. Second, we don’t leave our daily lives for retreat in order to stay there. We go on retreat in order to go back home. The Lord invites us into His presence so we can bring His presence, what is most real, back into our daily lives. And this takes a tremendous act of obedience on our parts, sometimes. We want to stay where we feel closest to God.
St. Leo the Great ( with words taken up by the preface for the Mass of the Transfiguration of the Lord) taps into this mystery beautifully:
“The great reason for this transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples, and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed. With no less forethought he was also providing a firm foundation for the hope of holy Church. The whole body of Christ was to understand the kind of transformation that it would receive as his gift. The members of that body were to look forward to a share in that glory which first blazed out in Christ their head.” // Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermo 51
No wonder Peter wants to stay on the mountain! The scandal of the Cross to be removed from their hearts, even before they can imagine the betrayal they are capable of! He wants to build those tents because he sees that God is shining through Jesus, and Peter wants to build a new Temple, right there on the mountain of Transfiguration. This isn’t just a camping trip he’s thinking of, a weekend in the mountains for retreat. Peter wants to build a house for the Lord. But Jesus is going to ask him and the other Apostles to go back home. This takes some tough obedience—to leave the really real and go back to their daily lives. Obedience.
These readings have “obedience” written out all over them. In fact, it could be said that this is what the booming voice from the heavens is calling for when it says, “This is my beloved Son—listen to Him.”
In the original Greek of the Gospel—ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ—it calls to mind the greatest commandment—ἄκουε Ἰσραήλ in Greek; שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל in Hebrew—Hear O Israel! This is what Jesus Himself calls the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29), which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4. And it means so much more than to simply listen—but to obey.
No doubt, one praying this Shema prayer would have in mind the grave obedience of Abraham and Isaac, and what it would cost them. The obedience of Abraham and the obedience of Isaac would cost them everything—not because God wants to take everything away, but because He wants to receive it from us so it can be given back to us even more fruitful.
First, Abraham’s obedience is going to cost him everything. There’s a beautiful ancient rabbinic reflection on the moment that God calls Abraham to his test. It first notes that God uses four ways to refer to his son Isaac: Your son—your favored one—the one whom you love—Isaac. This reflection imagines an extended conversation between God and Abraham:
“‘Your son.’ He said to him, ‘I have two sons. Which son?’ He answered him, ‘Your favored one.’ He said to Him, ‘Each one is the favored one of his mother.’ He replied, ‘The one whom you love.’ He said, ‘Is there any limit to the affections?’ He answered, “Isaac.’ And why did He not reveal it to him immediately? In order to make him more beloved to him and to give him a reward for each utterance.” // Genesis Rabbah 55:7
God was not just asking an important thing of Abraham. He was asking of him the most important thing. Isaac was not “just” his son, his favored one, his beloved, but the promise God Himself had made that his family would become as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the shore. This is the son by which God would raise a family that would save the world from sin. And now God was asking for an obedience that would cost Abraham even this. It was going to cost Abraham everything.
But Abraham is not the only one being asked to give everything back to God, so that it may become a greater reward. Now, we have such a beautiful stained glass window in our choir loft in the church. It has so many of the great saints of the Old and the New Testaments. One of those windows is Abraham with Isaac. As with so much artwork portraying this story, it’s the image of an already elderly Abraham and his ten or twelve year old son Isaac. But again, the ancient rabbis give us good reason to think that Isaac was not ten or twelve at the time of this testing of Abraham—but any where from twenty-six to thirty-seven years old! That changes the story a bit! Can one believe that the well over one hundred year old Abraham would be able to trick and overpower his thirty-seven year old son and bind him to the wood for sacrifice? This lead the rabbis and Church fathers to see in Isaac himself a priestly figure, who by his own consent, was ready to be offered as a sacrifice.
In another moving rabbinic reflection on this story, Isaac pleads with his father not to free him from this sacrifice, but to bind him for his own sake:
“Father, I am a young man and I am fearful that my body will tremble out of fear of the knife and I cause you sorrow, so that the slaughter will be rendered unfit and this will not be accredited to you as a sacrifice. Therefore, bind me very tightly.” // Genesis Rabbah 56:8
This idea that both Abraham and Isaac were being obedient with an obedience that would cost them everything—Abraham, the promise of his family that would bring blessing to the world; and Isaac, his very life—challenges us in our own sin-scarred view of obedience. They were ready to give everything over to God, and not just when it was convenient to them. And furthermore, this inconvenient obedience is only really understood in the light of Jesus’ own Cross as a fulfillment of this near-sacrifice of Isaac. Just as Isaac was brought to the mount of Moriah by his father, carrying the wood of his own sacrifice, freely consenting to offering himself as the victim and priest, so would Jesus be brought to that very same mountain (the Jerusalem Temple was built in that same mountain range) by His heavenly Father’s will, carrying the wood of the Cross, freely consenting to offer Himself as sacrifice for the sins of the world.
That’s what obedience looks like. And that, as the scandal of the Cross might be removed from the hearts of his disciples, is the obedience into which the Voice from the cloud is calling Peter and James and John by saying, Listen to Him. And us.
I know that during this last year, there has been so much to wrestle with when it comes to obedience—whether it be church authorities, political authorities, or just the events we find our world wrapped up in. So I want to offer this beautiful reflection from one of the great spiritual writers of our own time, Fr. Jacques Philippe:
“Of course we must obey God rather than men, but it would be an illusion to think we were capable of obeying God if we are incapable of obeying other people. The reason for this is that the same obstacle has to be overcome in both cases: attachment to ourselves and to our own will. If we can only obey people when it happens to please us, we are fooling ourselves about being able to obey the Holy Spirit. If we are never prepared to renounce our own will (our ideas, our tastes, our attachments) for other people, what guarantee is there that we’ll be able to do so when God asks us to?…What most prevents us from becoming saints is undoubtedly the difficulty we have in consenting fully to everything that happens to us, not, as we have seen, in the sense of a fatalistic passivity, but in the sense of a trusting total abandonment into the hands of our Father God…Externally, it doesn’t change anything, but interiorly it changes everything. This consent, inspired by love and trust, makes us free and active instead of passive, and enables God to draw good out of everything that happens to us whether good or bad.” // Fr. Jacques Philippe, “In the School of the Holy Spirit”