If you witnessed a phenomenon in the heavens like those reported at Fatima or Lourdes or Medjugorje, 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. And 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. But this does not reduce their profound theological significance. Nor should we be upset to discover that the events might not have happened in exactly the way they are recounted. The question that should be asked at Fatima, Lourdes or Medjugorje, or by Abram or the disciples of Jesus is the same: “What does this mean?”
The first reading tells of God’s promises to Abram and the covenant made between 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. 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.” Just think: God reveals God’s own identity, and then, for no apparent reason, makes a startling promise of land! In whatever way the event really happened, 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 no doubt 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 to us. These favors were for Abram 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 those disciples closest to him were granted a glimpse into his 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.” In addition to this, 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 this 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 testifies 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, is really an 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 face of the unrecognized 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 appearing 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. But it is the way 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 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 ordinarily see.