One of the biggest societal challenges we face today is our collective loss of the ability to make distinctions, the ability to tell one thing from another thing, especially when the two things are inextricably bound together. A few years ago, a friend of mine, who teaches Philosophy at a well-known university on the East Coast, said he was tempted to take some of his classes for a walk around their campus. During this walk he was going to point out the differences between things they encountered: “This is a rock.” “This is a run of fencing.” “This is a metal pole to which a sign is attached. The sign, while attached to the pole, is distinct from it.” “That is a tree,” etc.
In light of God’s word for us today, I ask you to consider the distinction between hearing and listening. I submit that while it is impossible to listen without hearing, it is not only possible, but very often the case that we hear without listening. My use of the word “hear” in this context simply refers to the physical phenomenon of sound waves striking and vibrating our intricate human hearing apparatus. Listening, on the other hand, means something like, to pay attention and then to heed. Of course, in English, we a have word for this: “obey.” But our word “obey” finds its origin in the Latin word oboedire, which means to listen.
In our first reading we see a clear demonstration of what it means to listen to God. Indeed, what we have heard proclaimed is surely one of the most disturbing events in all of Scripture. God speaks and Abraham not only hears, but listens. As a result, he sets out to fulfill what God commanded him to do, which is to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whose name, Yitz’ak, in Hebrew means “laughter.” Indeed, it seems that God is playing a cruel joke on Abraham. God promised our father in the faith that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore (Gen 13:16). Yet, despite this promise, Abraham and his wife Sarah remained childless until after Sarah was well beyond child-bearing age (that their son was named “Laughter” refers to Sarah’s response at being told she was going to have a son).
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who also observed that “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” contemplating this awful episode in his famous work Fear and Trembling, wrote this about Abraham’s listening to God:
If Abraham had doubted as he stood there on Mount Moriah, if irresolute he had looked around, if he had happened to spot the ram before drawing the knife… then he would have gone home, everything would have been the same, he would have had Sarah, he would have kept Isaac, and yet how changed! For his return would have been a flight, his deliverance an accident, his reward disgrace, his future perhaps perdition. Then he would have witnessed neither to his faith nor to God’s grace but would have witnessed [only] to how appalling it is to go to Mount MoriahLast Sunday we heard proclaimed God’s promise, made after the great flood, which he sealed by placing a rainbow in the sky, never again to wipe out all of humanity. It is safe to say that because Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only begotten son was a foreshadowing of what the Father would do in and through His only begotten Son, that God will never again ask such a terrible thing of anyone.
To hear and heed God is what it means to have faith. Faith is our response to God’s initiative towards us. But even our response is the grace of God at work within us. So it is God, who both begins and completes the good work begun in those who listen to Him (Phil 1:6). God, who loves us so much that He did spare the life of His innocent and only begotten Son, both pulls and pushes us towards Himself. But God does not pull and push us towards Himself with so much force that we're unable to resist. We must reject any theology that holds that God's grace is irresistible.
It’s important, I think, not to be too distracted by the shiny object of Jesus’ Transfiguration. To be sure, it is a preview of His resurrection, albeit only understood as such after the resurrection. His appearing along with Moses and Elijah shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. What we are to attend to are the words of the Father, who says to Peter, James, and John, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7). After hearing these words, “They no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8).
If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, when we consider things that are inextricably bound together, yet distinguishable, the relationship between loving God with our heart, might, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves must be considered. While it is impossible to love God without loving our neighbor (1 John 4:20), there are ways we love God that are distinguishable from how we love our neighbors: prayer, fasting, and worship, to name only three.
We are at “Mass.” The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word misa, which means to be dismissed, to be sent forth to make Christ present wherever we are. In addition to apostolic succession, which refers to the Church receiving her authority from Christ and the apostles, our being sent forth from here to demonstrate that the liturgy, which is our common work, has consequences in the world, is what makes the Church truly apostolic.
Our take away today is obvious: Listen to Jesus. During this Lent, what is Jesus saying to you? Are you taking time each day to listen to Him? Once you have heard what He is saying to you, are you willing to do it?
St Paul today tells us that following Jesus means embracing the Cross. In other words, if everything you think you hear the Lord saying to you is aimed at making your life easier and more prosperous in worldly terms, then I would suggest that you need to exercise better discernment, meaning you need to make a better effort to listen to Jesus, who speaks to us through Scripture and in prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit. “The end of the story is God’s glory,” John Martens observed about today’s readings, “but it requires hearing God's voice in the midst of trials, suffering, pain and loss, even when it seems to be God's voice commanding the suffering. Be patient and listen again, for the voice of God desires only our blessing."