Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14
Throughout the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent there runs a common thread: life-changing encounters with God.
In the First Reading from Genesis, we listen as Abraham complains, reminding God that he was promised a son, but his wife Sarah still has not conceived. God then promises him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, and Abraham believes that God will give him a son, for a dynasty begins with a single child.
But God also tells Abraham that his descendants will become slaves in a foreign land and when liberated centuries later they will inherit the vast land between the Nile and Euphrates rivers. And Abraham, perhaps a little less trusting, asks, “But how am I to know this will happen?” So God makes a formal covenant with him and seals it with bodies of sacrificial animals split in two. This is the way covenants used to be made between kings and equals. If one party should then break faith, the other could do to him what was done to those animals. At this point, Abraham probably regrets pushing God into a covenant.
The story continues and we see Abraham and Sarah breaking the spirit of that covenant. Unwilling to wait for God, they take matters into their own hands and use the body of the slave woman Hagar to bear a son for Abraham. This did not turn out well – not for Abraham, or Sarah, or Hagar, or her son Ishmael – but God shows mercy, and Abraham and Sarah return to waiting for the Lord to act – the birth of their son delayed for more years, perhaps, because of their lack of faith.
In the Second Reading, Paul writes in tears to the Christians in the Greek city of Philippi, grieving that so many who say they follow Christ are busy with earthly pursuits that only lead to destruction. Unwilling to rely on Christ’s promise, they, too, have taken matters into their own hands. They seek fulfillment in earthly delights, instead of waiting on God.
Paul then rejoices over those who heard God’s word and are living according to the example he gave them. They have encountered God through a life of prayer, holiness, and obedience, and in the end, Paul says, they will receive a glorified body and eternal life. This promise is for us, also. Every day we encounter God. Every morning we are given the chance to begin again and do it better, to see God more clearly and love each other more dearly. And like the Philippians, we often are distracted by the day’s work and go astray.
From these two different ways of encountering God – through covenant and a holy life – we turn to the Gospel reading. This encounter is on a completely different level – a mystical vision of Heaven itself. Jesus takes his friends Peter, John, and James up a high mountain and – something happens. What his friends experience is beyond their comprehension, so far outside normal life that there are no words to describe it. Something is going on, but they aren’t sure what, only that it transcends anything in the created world. When they try to describe it many years later, they take images from Hebrew Scripture: a dazzling light, a brilliant whiteness, the impression of Beings, the face of Jesus transformed and unrecognizable, darkness and terror, and a voice that speaks in their heart.
Completely out of his depth and babbling, Peter offers to set up tents so they can all celebrate Sukkot, the harvest festival going on at the base of the mountain. We don’t know how to respond, either. In Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she also encounters something unexplainable. She says, “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until, at that moment, I was lifted and struck.”
When we sit at the side of a loved one dying, we touch the transcendent. The death is not a sudden absence but a bright Presence, a deep joy that pierces through our tears. We are in the presence of God and “the veil between earth and heaven is suddenly so thin we could reach through it and touch God’s face.”
In the Monastery we end every month with Exposition and Adoration. Through it we experience the Transfiguration. The gold monstrance and the candlelight symbolize that heavenly glory glimpsed by the disciples. We sit or kneel in the divine Presence and pay attention. We meet God without needing to understand, which is the only way to encounter divinity. Thomas Merton wrote, “I sit and gaze at God, and God gazes back at me, and we are both happy.” For Annie Dillard it is a question of being present: “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
We emerge from these mountain-top experiences changed, but it takes time and a lot of work to allow them to transform our outward behavior. Look at Peter, John and James: shortly after seeing Jesus transfigured, they are busy arguing with the other disciples about who is the greatest. Personal transformation will not be a personal victory but a surrender to the will of God, who does not wish us an easy life but one that challenges us and transforms those around us.
Look at the figure of the crucified Christ that hangs by the tabernacle. It is carved from wood. Do we ever think that for this to happen a tree had to die? Death and transfiguration: every vital change is marked by blood or water or both: from fetus into breathing infant, from childhood into womanhood, from life through death and into new life. We all die and our body and blood return to the earth, but our spirits will be transformed. This is the blood of the covenant God made with Abraham and with us all. It is the promise and heart of the paschal mystery.
In closing I would like to share a sonnet on the Transfiguration by Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest, mystic and writer:
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
Transfiguration of Jesus by Armando Alemdar Ara