The first reading today is very strange to the modern reader unless we make ourselves familiar with the customs and usages of the ancient world. The extraordinary ceremony related here was no sacrifice but rather a ritual symbolic of a covenant or a solemn promise between two people. What they did was take one or more animals and cut them in half and then laid them out opposite to each other but separate, making a sort of avenue between the two halves just as is recorded here in the Book of Genesis.
Then the parties to the covenant would walk down the avenue between the halves of the animals. The meaning of this is obvious: if I break the covenant then let happen to me what has happened to these animals, may I also be severed in two.’
In the middle of the night Abraham wakes in terror from a deep sleep and observes the Lord passing between the pieces of flesh in the form of a blazing fire. Here is an event unprecedented in the history of religion till that point: God himself stoops down to enter a Covenant relationship with Abraham using the forms that men use among themselves.
There are other interesting elements in the account given to us, one being the birds of prey coming down to pick at the carcases which Abraham drove off. Some commentators see these as being symbolic of the powers of evil trying to intervene and hinder the making of this great covenant.
This extraordinary intervention of God comes about as a result of Abraham putting his faith in God, leaving his homeland and beginning his great pilgrimage of faith. Abraham never regretted putting his faith in God for gradually the promises of the Lord were fulfilled. Isaac was born soon after and from Isaac two sons, Esau and Jacob, and from Jacob twelve sons who were to become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Eventually the Chosen People would inherit the land of Canaan according to God’s promise. But, of course, the supreme blessing that was to result from this solemn covenant was the birth of the greatest of all Abraham’s descendents, Jesus Christ himself. And through Jesus Abraham’s descendents would become more numerous than ever for from then on all who believe in Christ can call themselves a true Son or Daughter of Abraham.
We are given this incident from the Old Testament to help us interpret the Gospel account of the Transfiguration and by placing these two events together we realise that one of the lessons we are to take is that of continuity; continuity between the Old and the New Covenant.
And what we have to learn from Abraham is that like him we should have faith in God and realise that if we do so he will keep his promises to us. They will not all be fulfilled in an instant, but fulfilled they certainly will be, and more than we could ever hope for
One might wonder why the beautiful Gospel reading about the Transfiguration is given to us in Lent. It seems such a sombre time of the year to focus on so joyful an event; and one which already has its own special day in the liturgical year on 6th August.
Well there is a clue in the opening line, although unfortunately in the text we are given the first half of the opening line is omitted. The first line should read: ‘Now about eight days after this had been said, he took Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray.’
So, what is it that was so significant that Luke feels able to omit the intervening seven days? As you might have guessed, it was Peter’s Confession and the prediction of Christ’s Passion. In fact, it is the first of three predictions of the passion in Luke. When you read the Gospel through these three predictions sound like the ominous tolling of a bell.
As we have seen, the first covenant with Abraham was sealed in the blood of a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon. Here we are being told that the New Covenant is going to be sealed in the blood of Jesus.
God revealed himself to Abraham in a blazing flame and here he reveals himself by encompassing Jesus in blinding light. The presence of Moses and Elijah being all the confirmation we need that the New Covenant is an extension and fulfilment of the Old Covenant.
Having unwrapped some of the historical and religious meaning of these two events you might by now be asking yourself how they impact on us? As we have noted with Abraham the appropriate response to these events is faith. But what the Transfiguration teaches us is that if we are to share in Christ’s glory then we also have to share in his suffering. And suddenly we realise why this particular text is given to us in Lent.
Jesus is destined to suffer but his sufferings are glorious because through his suffering and death he takes our sins upon himself and brings salvation to the world. Because of our human condition we too inevitably undergo suffering at various times but unlike those who do not know Christ we believe that our sufferings are filled with meaning. By uniting them with Christ we make a small contribution to the great work of salvation.
There are many other lessons to draw from the Transfiguration and some interesting scriptural curiosities. I’ve often wondered about the three booths or tents that Peter proposed one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. I looked this up and find that it is another one of Peter misunderstandings. By giving them all tents he would have been putting Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus thus showing that, as the text says, he really did not know what he was saying.
Another interesting nugget is the word passing; ‘Moses and Elijah were speaking of his passing’. The word translated by ‘passing’ is actually ‘exodus’ and we immediately see the connection with Moses and how Jesus is the New Moses. Exodus literally means ‘a road out’ and is generally understood to mean death.
But it doesn’t simply mean death because the Exodus from Egypt was an experience of salvation for the People of Israel and now the Exodus of Christ, by which we mean the events of his passion, death and resurrection, is to be the definitive act of salvation for all mankind.
One could go on and on uncovering layers and layers of meaning but we have to stop somewhere. The longer we look at the Transfiguration the more we realise it is of great significance in the life of Christ and is intimately connected to the other important events of his life.
They were overawed and as it says, ‘The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.’ Perhaps for us too that is the most appropriate response; just to keep silence and contemplate the mystery and leave the talking till later.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket