After the liturgy started Lent about prayer and fasting, this week’s readings may be seen as a reminder of what our practices are meant for: to bring us ever closer to God. There two striking revelations of God’s presence, but we usually experience something less dramatic.
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Abram was the earlier name for the Patriarch we call Abraham. The background to this selection is his yearning for a son, but he has been childless for many years. Without an heir, when he died, his slave would get his inheritance. God in showing him the numberless stars assures him of a long line of descendants. His trust in God’s promise ‘justifies’ him, that is, makes him acceptable to God.
A few verses are skipped to a second promise: Abram’s line will inherit the lands over which he has wandered as a nomad. This time, instead of believing instantly, Abram asks for reassurance. What happens next is strange in our times. There is some background in ancient texts from the Middle East which explain the reasons. Cutting animals and walking between the parts was a ritual for making a solemn contract. It was like swearing, ‘If I don’t keep my part, may I be cut apart like these sacrifices.’ But here there is no other human to walk between the severed animals as the covenant was made with God. God’s part is signified by the smoking brazier and fiery torch. Robert Alter writes, ‘All this is mystifying and is surely meant to be so.’
E. A. Speiser, in his commentary, Genesis, says, ‘we are witnessing a covenant between the Creator of the universe and the ancestor of a nation ordained in advance to be a tool for shaping the history of the world. Small wonder, therefore, that the description touches on magic and carries with it a feeling of awe and mystery which, thanks to the genius of the narrator, can still grip the reader after all the intervening centuries.’
Despite the mysteriousness in this reading, there is a lesson on faith that we can take into our lives: ‘Abram trusted in God and it was credited as justification.’ St Paul in the Letter to the Romans has a long reflection on this act of faith as it applies to us.
Psalm 26 or 27, verses 1, 7-9, 13-14
The Psalmist reflects on the graciousness of God and God’s care, and responds with hope. To seek the Lord’s face – that is, to be in God’s presence – is the goal behind Lenten practice.
St Paul uses himself as a guide for his converts in learning to live the Christian life, a comparison he makes in several places and it shows that it is the fullness of an obedient life and not just a profession of faith that counts. The reminder not to be caught up in the pleasures of eating and drinking and such worldly concerns is a good enough guide for Lent. The promise of our own ‘transfiguration’ comes before the gospel which will describe the experience of three disciples seeing Jesus so changed.
This scene, also in Mark and Matthew, is often called ‘the Transfiguration’ from the Latin translation of the text. The biblical Greek is the source of our word ‘metamorphosis’ meaning ‘changed in form’. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not use that word, he simply says that the face of Jesus became ‘different’. But by mentioning the dazzling brilliance of Jesus’ clothes, he gives a sense of how Jesus whole appearance was beyond any normal human appearance. In the three gospels, this takes place about a week after Jesus had predicted his passion, death and resurrection. The disciples were greatly upset by this and of course by being told they too needed to ‘take up the cross’. (See Luke 9:20-27) It was not the kind of Messiah they had expected.
Luke, who more than the other gospels mentions Jesus praying, tells us that Jesus was going to the privacy of a mountain top for that purpose. The three he took with him are the first disciples called, who became an inner ‘core’ within the larger group. They will also later be the ones selected to be with him when he prays in Gethsemane. None of the three gospels tell us how they recognized Moses and Elijah, and only Luke tells us they were talking of Jesus ‘passing’ which will come in Jerusalem. The Greek word in the text, exodos, is the root for the ‘Exodus’, used for the experience of the Hebrews when they were led out of slavery in Egypt and would encounter God in Sinai. That exodus was led by Moses, who had prophesied that God would send the people another prophet like him. Elijah was the first great prophet, who was taken into heaven before death and was expected to come back before the Messiah, according to the prophecy at the end of the book of Malachi. These two appearing with Jesus would be a way of saying that Jesus is the one the two prophets had expected as God’s final messenger. But now the identification goes further than another prophet: this is God’s own Son.
Peter is overcome by the experience, and speaks spontaneously wanting to honour the prophets from the past as well as Jesus, but as the evangelists hint, his idea was not very practical. Perhaps also he wanted a way to hold on to the experience. The ‘cloud’ was a symbol of God’s presence during the Exodus and such revelations often inspire fear in many accounts in the Bible, as it does here.
The voice from the cloud is similar to the words spoken to Jesus after his baptism by John, ‘You are my beloved son,’. Here the three disciples are addressed, and are further told that Jesus is the one they must listen to as having the authority of God the Father. Some commentators take the words ‘and they saw no one but Jesus’ as meaning that first the disciples thought another heavenly messenger would appear to them, but when they saw no one else, realised that the voice spoke of Jesus. But it may simply mean that such revelatory moments in this life are not meant to last.
Coming after Jesus’ prediction of his his death which upset his disciples, this event likely was meant to assure them that the Passion would be followed by the glory of the Resurrection. Some suggest it may also have been a personal moment for Jesus with his full human range of feelings, to strengthen him for the ordeals he knew were to come.
‘Listen to him’: our perfect command for Lent – and for always.