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What is going on in our first reading? It is a strange, almost hallucination-like scene depicting an ancient and mysterious ritual: Abram, not yet renamed Abraham by the Lord, is instructed by him to gather together various animals and then cut them in two pieces. Birds of prey start swooping down but Abram keeps them away. And then when it gets dark, Abram falls into a trance, and sees a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the two halves of the animals. To us, thousands of years removed from this event and the culture of the ancient Near East, this seems kind of incomprehensible and strange.
In that ancient world, society was structured into tribes consisting of extended families. Often these tribes were at odds with each other. But sometimes two tribes would come together to form a covenant: a binding, permanent agreement between them that would make them essentially each others’ kin. Often there were specific promises about how the two parties would now treat each other and how they were now considered family. And their covenant was established through this strange ritual of cutting certain animals in half and walking between the two halves. This action was a symbolic way of saying, “If I ever violate this covenant, may I be divided in two like these animals.” Imagine if we made promises this way; it was serious business.
In this scene from our first reading, God himself is entering into a covenant with Abraham. He uses the cultural context of that time and place to do this. The smoking fire pot and the flaming torch manifest his presence. And what solemn promises does God make to Abram? He promises to give him this land for himself and his descendants: the Promised Land, a similar promise He later makes to Moses and the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants. And our first reading actually omits a few verses (which I wish the Church would have left in there) in which the Lord prophesies to Abram that one day He will free his descendants from slavery: a prediction of their exodus from slavery in Egypt.
Our Gospel reading also alludes to an exodus, although a different one. This too depicts a mysterious scene when Jesus leads his three closest disciples – Peter, James, and John – up a mountain, where he prays. And then suddenly a great cloud descends upon the mountaintop. This recalls the cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai when Moses went up and the Lord entered into a covenant with him and the Israelites, giving them the Ten Commandments. And Moses’ clothes and his face became dazzling white, similar to Jesus on Mount Tabor. Jesus here is the new Moses, but it becomes clear that he is even greater than Moses. The three disciples suddenly see Jesus conversing with two men, and somehow they know that the two are Moses and Elijah. To the Jews, Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets – the Law and the Prophets, this is the Jewish name for what we call the Old Testament.
What does Jesus speak with them about? While Matthew and Mark also wrote about the Transfiguration, only Luke tells us what they are discussing: Jesus’ upcoming “exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” What is this exodus? For Moses and the Israelites, their exodus was leaving slavery in Egypt on their way to the Promised Land, the same land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. And their exodus included a Passover meal – the final meal they ate in Egypt – and crossing through the waters of the Red Sea. For Jesus, his exodus in a sense began with his baptism in the waters of the Jordan River, and would lead him to Jerusalem, where he celebrated his final Passover meal with his twelve apostles, the night before he died on the Cross. Jesus’ exodus was his departure from this life on the way to his heavenly glory.
These readings are kind of a summary of the history of the salvation of the human race: mankind had fallen into sin, a state from which he could not exit on his own. So God in his mercy entered into a series of covenants with humanity, including the covenant with Abraham which we heard about in our first reading. He entered into another covenant with Moses when he freed the Israelites from slavery. And God established a final covenant with humanity though his Son Jesus Christ. Only in this last covenant, Jesus was the one who was sacrificed. And it is the final covenant because it was perfect, since Jesus himself is perfect. What is the final covenant between God and the human race? He promises to free us from our slavery to sin, to lead us to a new promised land – heaven.
Back to Mount Tabor, where Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah. Suddenly Peter, James, and John hear a voice from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” And then they found Jesus alone; Moses and Elijah have disappeared. The Law the and the Prophets – the old covenant that God had established – is now fulfilled in the person of his Son Jesus. The Old Covenant has given to the New.
What does all this mean for us? I want to focus on those words spoken by God the Father Himself: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. Jesus came to free us from sin. He came to lead us to heaven. St. Paul tells the Philippians in our second reading that some people make a god of their stomach: i.e. of their physical desires. That could be food, or drink, or sexual pleasure, or even any material thing that can be indulged in in a disordered way. Vices like gluttony and lust and greed can and do enslave; that can take over and rule our lives. But they are false gods and, like all false gods, they will not treat us well; they will abuse us and keep taking from us. God wants to free us from this, so that we are no longer controlled by physical desires and things that lead us to do destructive or harmful things. St Paul also tells us that our citizenship is in heaven; it’s in the land to which Jesus wants to lead us. In other words, we don’t belong here. This place – Planet Earth, the 21st century – this is not our homeland. That might sound strange, because it seems like this is the only world we know. But there is implanted deep within each of our hearts a desire for something else, and that desire is for our true homeland.
How do we get there? By listening to Jesus, God’s Son whom He sent to earth. And how do we listen to Jesus? By going up the mountain with him, i.e. through prayer. Like Jesus, we must take time to withdraw from our busy, noisy world, constantly demanding our attention, never satisfied with how much attention we give it. We must take some time each day to be with Jesus in silence, aware of his loving presence. It is absolutely necessary; there’s no other way. Start by creating the silence: turning off the screens, the radios, the podcasts, the music, the talking heads. Enter into that mysterious cloud of prayer where we can encounter the Lord. He wants to speak to us; He wants to prepare us for our own exodus from this life on our way to the next.