What would you do if you witnessed a phenomenon in the heavens such as has been reported at Fatima or Lourdes or Medjegorie? Would you fall down on your knees? Or would you turn away in disbelief? Even skeptics are often mesmerized by what they cannot explain. We profess faith in the power of God and in the possibility of a manifestation of that power, and yet many of us are too sophisticated to believe that it might actually happen. Others of us overlook traces of divine revelation in the ordinary events of life.
Today’s readings recount extraordinary displays of divine self-revelation. Scholars agree that the accounts themselves may include some degree of exaggerated description. However, this does not discount their profound theological significance. Nor should we be upset to discover that the events might not have happened in exactly the way they are described. The question that should be asked at Fatima or Lourdes or Medjegorie, or by Abram or the disciples of Jesus is the same in each case: ‘What does this mean?’
The first reading tells of God’s promises to Abram and the covenant made between the two of them. The ritual of ‘cutting the covenant’ was an acted out curse, signifying the agreed upon fate of either partner who might be unfaithful to the pact. It meant: ‘If I violate this pact in any way, you have the right to do to me what we have just done to these animals.’ Cutting a covenant was serious business. An aspect of the reading, often lost because it seems to be so matter of fact, is God’s self-revelation: “I am the Lord.” In whatever way the event occurred, Abram and his descendants after him were confident of God’s special concern and faithful care, regardless of how this and other events of their history unfolded.
This story leaves doubt in no one’s mind as to the origin of the covenant relationship. It was unconditionally initiated by God, who had chosen and called Abram in the first place. In like manner, God seeks us much more insistently than we could ever seek God. Like Abram, our role is to accept the favors that are offered us. These favors are really quite ordinary; descendants and a land in which to live. Furthermore, the covenant ritual was probably a well-known cultural practice. In other words, God attends to the very ordinary aspects of our lives and touches us in ways that we will understand.
The account of Jesus’ transfiguration describes one moment when the disciples closest to him glimpsed his true identity and the glory that was his. Here too we have an instance of divine revelation. The voice from heaven identifies Jesus as “my chosen Son.” Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets respectively, discuss the events that Jesus will soon have to face in Jerusalem. Who would not share Peter’s desire to remain in the midst of such a glorious experience?
Though this account describes the glorification of Jesus, its primary focus is his suffering and death. The fact that Moses and Elijah discuss it with Jesus well in advance of its occurrence shows that it was not some dreadful accident of fate. Rather, in some way, it brings to fulfillment the essence of Israelite tradition. The presence of Moses and Elijah testify to this. The transfiguration demonstrates the glorious value of Jesus’ suffering and death.
This story reminds us that the extent of God’s love for us is revealed in the suffering and death of Jesus, which, though painted in hues of defeat and disgrace, really present the image of unimaginable victory and glory. Realizing this, we must learn to look behind the faces of those who suffer defeat and disgrace in order to find there the unrecognized face of Jesus.
Finally, Paul speaks of a kind of transfiguration that occurs in those who accept Christ. They become conformed to him. And what might this look like? Paul risks being considered arrogant when he instructs the Philippians to be “imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.” In other words, God is revealed to us through the goodness of others.
This certainly has been our experience. We all know people whose lives are extraordinary examples of unquestionable integrity, unselfish service of others, generosity, and dependability. Usually, such people will not even recognize the glory that shines forth from them. They will insist that they are only living ordinary lives, and they probably are. However, it is the way that they are living these lives that makes them so extraordinary.
Today’s readings describe the glory of God as revealed to a wandering migrant, to newly converted pagans, and to simple fishermen, all living lives that were quite ordinary. The accounts remind us that God is revealed to us as well. The challenge today is the same as it always was. We must have eyes that see beyond what we usually see.