Today’s scripture readings show us many things. Firstly, how difficult it can be for Christianity to communicate itself today through the scriptures. Their stories, and metaphors often strike the modern mind as offensive or at the least ‘primitive’. Bede Griffiths thought there were only a few psalms suitable for Christian worship. Reading ‘happy the one who will seize and dash your infants against the rock’ makes anyone squirm and it needs a good lawyer to explain what edifying meaning it might have.
A defence is that such violence echoes the (hopefully) repressed cruelty and sadism sneaking in our own psyches. There are wild beasts lurking in the fresh and green pastures of our inner journey. Such passages may need to be de-selected for communal worship. Maybe we also need to see how the Word is present in diverse ways in the scriptures of other faiths and that we could to some degree incorporate them in Christian worship to better understand our own.
Be prepared: today’s readings are about sacrificing your child. Abraham has lifted his hand to plunge the sacrificial knife into his son Isaac when the angel of the Lord – who is the Lord – grabs his hand. A substitute victim is found in a ram. Abraham is applauded for not drawing the line at anything to prove his devotion to God. We can read this as a dramatic example of prohibiting human sacrifice which was common among the neighbouring tribes. It certainly shows how different the Israelites were and how this difference forced an evolving cultural description of their experience of God.
St Paul broke with this tradition when he found the Christ he had rejected to be dwelling in himself. But, in the second reading, we see how he still uses the old language: the old terms acquire new meaning but we cannot invent a new language even after radical conversion. For Paul, God ‘did not spare his own Son’ in order to benefit us. This expresses God’s absolute self-emptying; but it easily leads to an image of a God who uses violence to make things right again.
The gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus soars above all this. It is the iconic moment of Christian faith for the Orthodox church as the Cross is for the Western Church. Here we glimpse the blinding, unfathomable depth of the true identity of Jesus and of his filial relationship to the Source. But he also stands between, and so bridges, Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets. The Law endorsed violence, the prophets denounced it. But they are twin expressions of a unique way of approaching the divine.
We need to think and discuss this issue of biblical violence – just as we need to address the violence against women and children in our ‘advanced’ societies, not to say in Syria or Parkland. But talking and thinking never end and can also lead to violence. We have to plunge into the truth, into the experience of pure light that burns away all shadows. Then we will find ourselves in the absolute intimacy that not only changes but transfigures us.