On the Second Sunday of Lent this year, there is a strange juxtaposition between the covenant established by God with Abraham through the blood of animals and the transfiguration of the beloved Son in the Gospel of Luke. Yet, if we read the two texts together, we come to see that these two texts reveal the heart of the Christian narrative: that it is only through the sacrificial love of the cross that we can perceive the glory of God.
In Genesis, one must remember that the call of Abram is a gift that comes with significant cost. Abram is to leave behind his land and his kin and to trust that a couple well past childbearing age will become the father and mother of a nation with descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven (cf. Gn 15:5). The reading this week from Genesis begins just after Abram has asked God, “Lord God, what can you give me, if I die childless …” (Gn 15:2). Abram wants a sign that the Lord will remain faithful.
God responds by formally “cutting a covenant” with Abram. In the ancient Near East, covenants were a way to seal contracts in which parties would pledge loyalty to one another. The animals cut in half, their blood spilling out over the earth, are visible reminders that if one does not keep the covenant, then this same act of violent bloodshed should be perpetuated upon the contract breaker. Yet, this particular covenant was one in which a more powerful party rewarded a weaker party for loyalty. There was no further requirement but simply a pledge that the original act of loyalty must be honored. The Lord, made manifest in “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” (Gn 15:17) pledges himself to Abram. The Lord becomes vulnerable, entering into a permanent relationship with his beloved son, Abram.
The fulfillment of this pledge is revealed in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. Before today’s pericope, Jesus has told his disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). Jesus has reminded them that discipleship is a form of self-denial, entering into the cruciform love of the Son (Lk 9:23-27). And now, he appears before Peter, James and John in clothing that became “dazzling white” (Lk 9:29) on a mountaintop. To his left and right are Moses and Elijah, figures representing the Law and the prophets. Jesus, moving toward his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, is the fulfillment of all that has come before in the history of Israel. The Father in a glorious cloud speaks to the awe-struck three: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Lk 9:35). The presence of the Lord that once manifested itself to Abraham, to Moses, and within the Temple itself is now made flesh in the beloved Son, Jesus. A beloved Son who will reveal the dazzling white glory of God’s love on Calvary when he will say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
During the season of Lent, we remember that God has become the vulnerable one, who has pledged loyalty to us. So, too, the Christian life is about becoming vulnerable, revealing to the world that divine glory is not manifested in power and prestige but in the sacrificial love of the Son. We, too, become dazzling white with God’s very glory, a temple of divine love, when we give ourselves over to the cruciform love of the Son: “Listen to him.”
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.