In past bulletins I have written about the work of the renowned New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright. I recently read his newest book, which is entitled Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive into Paul’s Greatest Letter (IHR). It is a short, but insightful book, in which Wright thoughtfully walks the reader through Chapter 8 of Pauls’ Letter to the Romans.
At the beginning of the book, Wright explains why he wrote a whole book on one chapter of one of the letters written by St. Paul. He says:
One of the fascinating things about Paul’s letter to the Romans is that it is not only a vital part of scripture in its own right. It offers guidance on reading all the rest as well, Old and New Testaments alike. It doesn’t cover everything, but it covers a lot. And, within Romans, chapter 8, by common consent, is one of the most spectacular pieces of early Christian writing. It is the very heart of Romans – and, with that, it has a claim to be near the heart of what the Bible, and Christianity itself, is all about. (IHR, p. 3)
Wright then spends the next 200 pages carefully and convincingly demonstrating how essential Romans 8 is for an understanding of both Scripture and Christianity.
When I saw that this Sunday’s second reading is taken from Romans 8, I immediately went back to Wrights’ book. Commenting on verse 32 of the chapter (“He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all”) Wright indicates:
[Paul] here calls to mind, and weaves into the text, an allusion to Genesis 22, where Abraham prepares to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham did not spare his only son; and now, remarkably enough, this can be said of God himself as well. So Paul, firmly basing himself on this astonishing act of divine self-giving love, assures his hearers, not that there won’t be any opposition, but that ‘all things’ will be given to us. He isn’t saying there won’t be problems. He is holding out a stupendous promise that will far outshine any and all challenges. (IHR, pp. 185-186)
Wright’s comments made clear the connection between Romans 8 and the first reading we hear at Mass today, taken from Genesis 22. But Wright goes on to say, “The account in Genesis 22 of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, I think, one of the darkest moments in all scripture.” (IHR, p. 186) In fact, few biblical accounts trouble us as much as that of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, even if, in the end, God tells Abraham not to go through with it.
But Wright can help us wrestle with this tension we feel. He goes on to write, “So my sense is that Paul here sees Genesis 22 as an oblique forward pointer to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in the death and resurrection of God’s beloved son.” (IHR, p. 187) Which brings us to this Sunday’s gospel.
Each year, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we hear an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This year, we hear Mark’s version of that event. As people who live in a culture obsessed with bright and shiny things and people, we naturally tend to focus on the dazzling elements of the account. But today’s liturgy invites us to hear Mark’s account in the light of the two readings that precede it. We are meant to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the light of the unsettling account of the sacrifice of Isaac and Paul’s hope-filled reference to it in Romans 8.
Our hearing this Sunday of the Transfiguration account is meant to prepare us to remember and celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week. The readings this Sunday invite us to ponder anew the “astonishing act of divine self-giving love” that Jesus made of himself for us, and how that gift assures us of God’s loving faithfulness, especially when we are confronted by difficulties and death.
As we gather to celebrate the Eucharist this Sunday and every Sunday, we also experience God’s loving faithfulness as the Lord Jesus transfigures the bread and wine we offer into the sacrament of his body and blood, which allows us to taste and be nourished by the new life he received at his resurrection and which we first received at our baptism.