The Transfiguration, Titian c.1560, Church of San Salvador, Venice, Italy.
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A cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Luke 9:34-35.
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Well Titian’s marvelous painting of this event seen above certainly captures the fear the apostles felt at this remarkable happening. They had seen nothing like it in their lives (and would not see anything like it again), as they witnessed two towering heroes of the Bible, Moses and Elijah, conversing with the Lord. Moses is the central figure of the Old Testament, who conversed with God and to whom the 10 Commandments were given (as you can see above). And Elijah, so special in God’s eyes that he was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11-13):
Elijah and the Chariot of Fire, Byzantine & Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.
So here was the bearer of God’s law, Moses, and the representative of all the prophets of the Old Order, Elijah, standing beside the One who will unite all people under him, the Son of God, confirmed in that identity by the very Voice of God from Heaven. It was no wonder the three disciples were overawed and scared to death. But I ask myself, why Elijah? We hear more about Isaiah in our readings, I think, possibly because of his incredible messianic prophecies which seem exactly to prefigure the sufferings of Christ, especially in chapter 53. But it was Elijah who appeared with Jesus. This prophet is famous for his confrontation with the priests of the pagan god Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18-19. It was a contest between God and Baal, where the 450 prophets of the pagan god were aligned against the solitary Elijah. He and they would offer a sacrifice. The God who sent fire to consume the offering would be the true God. Baal did not, but God did.
The Triumph of Elijah Over the Prophets of Baal, Fetti c.1622, The Royal Collection Trust, UK.
Queen Jezebel (yes, the one of that name) ordered Elijah’s arrest, and the prophet hid on Mount Horeb, probably another name for Mount Sinai. There, God said: “Go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Suddenly there was a whirlwind, “tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks”. But God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then came a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). Immediately, Elijah recognized that this was the voice of God. This was a God unlike the fire-consuming God of Mount Carmel, but Elijah instantly knew God was in the still small voice. Then God told him to accept Elisha as his successor. The difference? Elisha was not a zealot; the “competition”, as it were, between him and the priests of Baal was a zealous act. Yes, Elijah won a battle with the pagan power with our all-powerful God; but God was truly in the still small voice, the God of the powerless not the voice of zealotry. Hence in the Transfiguration, the fiery Elijah acknowledged Jesus as the God of the powerless, the hopeless, the weakest – the God of all of us! The presence of Moses in that moment confirms, legally as it were, that this is God’s will, and then God’s voice puts a divine seal on the whole occasion, witnessed by Peter, John and James…..
The weird scene depicted in the first reading is a kind of prefiguring of both Elijah’s momentous event and the Transfiguration. It is an ancient confirmation ceremony of an agreement between two parties. Today we might sign a solemn legal document, perhaps even seal it, but thousands of years ago it was more dramatic, not to say over the top. The formal representation of a major agreement between two powerful individuals apparently required the slaughter of animals, each cut into two, separated to create a kind of pathway between the two halves. Then the parties to the agreement processed between the halves. The idea was, should either party betray the agreement, then they too would end up as these sacrificed animals. Brutal, grim, bloodthirsty but it certainly makes its point! Perhaps a brief mention of another blood ceremony in Scripture shows the importance of blood. God invited the Hebrew people to become the People of God when they were at the foot of Mount Sinai having escaped from being slaves in Egypt. They agreed, and the blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled over an altar representing God, and over the people. Hence the two parties, God and the people, were sealed in blood (Exodus 24:1-18). Note that here blood represents life, not death, symbolizing the life of God connected to the life of the people. All of the above culminates in the Lord giving us his flesh and blood at the Last Supper, where wine becomes the blood of God’s Son, consumed by us, the rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, the powerless, the weakest…… It is the fulfillment of all the centuries of waiting, of prophecy and hope. Enough for a quiet Lenten contemplation of God’s will for us, and ours for God, especially pondering on a suitable reaction to the generosity of Jesus seen in his life, his death and his continuing presence in the Eucharist.
God’s Will vs. Man’s Will, Real Talk Ministry.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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