Two striking revelations of God’s presence.
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
The background to this selection is Abram’s desire for an heir for up to now he has been childless, and if he came to die, his slave would get his inheritance. He has hoped for a son, but God in showing him the numberless stars assures him of a long line of descendants. (Abram was the original name; later to mark a change in his life, God will change it to Abraham, the form familiar to us.) His trust in God’s promise ‘justifies’ him, that is makes him acceptable to God.
There is a further promise: his line will inherit the lands over which he has wandered as a nomad. This time Abram asks for reassurance. We have a scene very strange to us, but scholars have found the background in ancient texts from the Middle East. The ritual of cutting animals and walking between the parts was a way of making a solemn contract (‘covenant’ is the usual biblical translation). It seems a way of swearing, ‘If I don’t keep my part, may I be cut apart like these sacrifices.’ Here the covenant is being made with God, and God’s presence is signified by the smoking brazier and fiery torch that pass between the halves. God as spirit could not appear but his presence is symbolized by the fire. These symbols are found in magic texts, so would have an aura of something beyond natural to listeners at that time.
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 one 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.
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 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 some disciples seeing Jesus so changed. A reminder that where Christ goes, we are to follow, perhaps first to the cross but eventually to resurrection.
This scene appearing, also in Mark and Matthew, is usually called from the Latin word the ‘Transfiguration’. Luke, unlike the other two, does not use the Greek word for that, the source of our word ‘metamorphosis’ meaning ‘changed in form’. He however gives us a vivid description of the surpassing brilliance of Jesus’ face. In the three gospels, this takes place shortly after Jesus had predicted his passion, death and resurrection, which puzzled and upset the disciples.
Luke, who more than the other gospels mentions Jesus praying, first 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 later be the ones selected 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 his ‘passing’ to come in Jerusalem. The Greek word here, exodos, is the root for the ‘Exodus’ experience of the Hebrews, of coming out of slavery to encounter God and receive his promises. That exodus was led by Moses, who had prophesied that God would send the people another prophet like him, who was expected by End Times. Elijah was the first great prophet, who was also 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 seem to be a way of saying that Jesus is the one they had expected as God’s ultimate messenger.
Peter is overcome by the experience, and speaks in a spontaneous reaction, 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.
The voice from the cloud is similar to the words at Jesus’ baptism, ‘You are my beloved son,’ spoken then only to Jesus in Luke’s gospel. 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 expected some other heavenly messenger, but when they saw no one else, recognized the voice spoke of Jesus. But it may simply mean that such revelatory moments in this life are not meant to last. The event may have been to prepare the disciples for the coming passion and death, but may also have been a personal moment for Jesus to strengthen him for the ordeals he knew were to come.