God Uproots and Transfigures
(Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9.)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel this Sunday a small number of the apostles witness Jesus being transfigured, as St. Matthew calls it: appearing in a way that reveals his unique sharing in God's nature. The first reading shows that whenever God "speaks" to us and calls us it usually involves an experience of uprooting on our part, a leaving-behind of one way of life and the start of a new life.
At the beginning of Mass, we acknowledge the ways we resist God's impact on us, and we ask God to forgive us, and change us.
"Leave your country, your family and your father's house," God says to Abraham in the first reading, "for the land that I will show you."
The story of Abraham being told to uproot himself and set out for some unknown destination, and an uncertain future, is the story of the beginning of the Hebrew people, the beginnings of the Jewish faith in God. It's the story of the origins of the community that held that faith.
But like many of the other incidents and events recorded in the books of the Bible, the story isn't important as history.
Whatever the actual historical details of the story of Abraham were, they were already lost in the mists of time before the story came to be written down. The stories in the Bible aren't records of facts and figures and dates and so on: ordinary history as we understand it. The Bible is the story of God's relations with the human race. It's the history of salvation, not the history of human events.
So with the Abraham story, the details of the actual event – what actually happened when Abraham sensed he was being called by this God he had never heard of before? – are less important than the meaning of the event.
And there are two aspects of the meaning of this event that I think are worth mentioning.
One important aspect of the Abraham story is that it reflected a deep conviction on the part of the Hebrew people, based on centuries of experience, that the one true God took the initiative and communicated himself, his nature, to the human race.
At a time when human beings had no experience of God, no reliable knowledge about God, God himself reached out to us and "spoke" to us. He didn't remain beyond our reach, he didn't leave us to blunder around in the dark with some vague notion of cosmic powers beyond the realm of ordinary life - which was as far as many of the pagan religions got.
He revealed himself - and the great significance of Abraham was that he was the person God revealed himself to first. This was the founding event, the founding experience of the Jewish faith, and of course in one sense Christianity – and Islam – trace themselves back to this mysterious founding event as well.
It would be true to say that the rest of the Old Testament is the story of the gradual unfolding of God's revelation of himself. The community of people which traced itself back to Abraham's experience gradually increased their knowledge of God - as their creator, as the source of moral life, our conscience, values like justice and love. The Old Testament is full of references to the way that God himself is the origin and source of these realities.
So that's the first thing. But the second important aspect about the call of Abraham is what it actually involved. God didn't reveal himself and then leave Abraham to go back to his way of life exactly as it was before the revelation. God's call involves an uprooting, a break with the past. It involves Abraham having to "leave country, family, his father's house" to embark on a journey into the unknown - though trusting in God now to guide him and lead the way.
This was the same for the Old Testament prophets, the same very often for the great figures in the history of the Church.
With anyone who hears God's call or becomes aware of the reality of God and the way he draws us to himself - which should mean all of us at some level or other - it doesn't usually involve settling into a contented, comfortable situation. It involves uprooting, a shift of direction, the sacrifice of certain securities and attachments - in our spiritual lives, in our habits, in our consciences. "Leave your present way of life," God says to us, "for the new life that I will show you".
There is a sense, of course, in which God acts as a source of comfort for those who are afflicted. In the Bible God is often presented as a shepherd, looking after the lost or injured sheep. He's a gentle and loving Father to anyone who is wounded or broken-hearted or failing in life. That was often how the Chosen People experienced him.
But in the Bible that sense of God's gentleness is always balanced against a sort of anger in the face of spiritual complacency by those who are comfortable and secure and successful. The Old Testament prophets in particular were very indignant in rejecting any notion of God that encouraged self-satisfaction but didn't demand anything.
In the gospel passage this Sunday - Jesus' Transfiguration on the high mountain - the message is very similar, though not at first sight, perhaps.
The way Saint Matthew relates the event, by this stage Jesus has said what he wanted to say and he's done what he wanted to do. Now the time had come to go up to Jerusalem - to be killed. That's the context of his Transfiguration on the high mountain.
And above all else this is another event in which God communicates himself. In fact, St. Matthew's point is that in the Transfiguration Jesus was shown to be not only an other revelation of God, but the final and complete revelation of God.
What began with Abraham, carried on through the leadership of Moses, the preaching of Elijah and all the other prophets, was completed in the person of Christ.
But after this glimpse of the presence of God in Jesus, Matthew reminds us of the context. The bright light fades, Jesus and the disciples have to come back down from the mountain top. Jesus has to prepare to embark on the journey to Jerusalem and to Calvary.
I wonder if this is something we often overlook, in the Church today, where so much effort, it seems, goes into creating a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere, a happy community life - as if that somehow exhausted the reality of God, or the meaning of our faith in God.
I wonder if we lose sight of the fact that the God who had begun to reveal the nature of his divine love all those centuries before, finally revealed who he was, and what his divine love consisted of, by willingly going to his death as a sacrifice on behalf of those who wanted to kill him.
The disciples themselves didn't grasp this monstrous truth until after the Resurrection. It was only then that the real nature of God's love, and the fullness of his revelation of himself in Jesus, finally came home to them.
The transfiguration took place on the way to Calvary, and that's why we recall the event during Lent, as we commemorate that journey towards Good Friday and then Easter.
So with these readings in mind, maybe we can pray this Sunday that the reality of God will come home to us more forcibly. We can ask God to get rid of any false and complacent notions we might be entertaining of what it means to worship him. We can pray for a willingness to be uprooted and knocked about a bit by God, if that's what it takes to make us better disciples.