Mark 9:2-10, Second Sunday of Lent
There is this painting by Rubens, Landscape by Moonlight (1635-40), which I think might provide a way in which we could meditate on our readings today. In this painting, Rubens paints the night sky illuminated by the warm light of the moon and innumerable stars. Against this brilliant but distant horizon is a deep and dark forest that lies right before him, in stark contrast to the celestial lights above. This painting, which hangs in the Courtauld Gallery in London, is one of Rubens’ last paintings. To me the painting reads like a meditation on his imminent death. Now an old man, Rubens ponders on what lies before him; illness and death. Though seized by fear, he fixes his gaze not in the darkness before him, but rather on the distant scene of celestial light.
Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you. Tersely narrated – we are hurried from the Divine stipulation of the test to Abraham’s swift departure at dawn in perfect obedience in the following verse – the text hides from our sight Abraham’s interior pain. Rashi’s Midrash on this text opens up a window into Abraham’s anguished soul: “‘Your son’. He said to God, ‘I have two sons.’ God said to him, ‘Your only one.’ He said, ‘This one is an only one to his mother and this one is an only one to his mother.’ God said to him, ‘Whom you love.’ He said to Him, ‘I love both of them.’ God said to him, ‘Isaac.’” The prospect of losing Isaac, whom he loves dearly, through whom Abraham thought God’s promise of unending generations and blessing would be fulfilled, instills a terrible fear that can elicit no adequate response but silence. Abraham is thrust into the darkness of the fear of losing his son.
Yet, the text plays with the verb ‘to see’: Moriah, the mountain that they go to assonates with yir’eh, “he sees”. Abraham says to Isaac, God will see to the sacrifice. Abraham sees the ram that is then used for the sacrifice. Although Abraham is thrust into darkness with the fear of losing his son, he keeps his gaze on God who will provide for the sacrifice. Abraham thus teaches us what faith really is. It is not blind obedience. Nor is it clear sightedness in what lies ahead. It is rather much like what the psalmist declares today: I trusted, even when I said: ‘I am sorely afflicted.’ Faith is seeing through the darkness that lies before me with hope.
This then is what we must learn when we are discouraged and gripped by fear, when we are unable to see beyond the darkness before us or beyond our own grief. God lies ever before us. God is ever with us. God’s light fills our darkness — as the clearing in the forest in Ruben’s painting admits light into the darkness — even if it is at times so faint, so fragile.
Perhaps this is a way of reading our Gospel text of the Transfiguration. There are many resonances with our first reading: there is the climbing up the mountain, there is Jesus’ imminent passion and death, there is even Jesus as Isaac, the sacrifice. The Transfiguration moves our gaze from the imminent darkness of Good Friday towards the brilliance of what God will do for Jesus on Easter morn, and in and through Jesus for all of us. This is because God sees Jesus whom God loves: This is my Son, the Beloved. Ultimately, the point of our readings is not so much our capacity to see beyond our failures, but that God sees us and loves us.
Love is what helps us see beyond our present pain. Love comes as a light that illumines our grief. Love is what moves us along as we try to scale our challenges. Love is what transfigures us into all we are meant to be — the beloved of God.
Where is the darkness that keeps you from seeing God’s loving light? How can you better allow God’s light to enter and fill your eyes?