“You're seeing things!” Any lifelong speaker of American English will hear in that phrase a judgment that the person addressed is out of touch, imagining what is not really there. But here I want to give that phrase a little spin to help us reflect that faith is, in a positive way, always a matter of seeing things in a manner that is not universally shared. Each of this Sunday's readings illustrates that fact.
Abram, a senior citizen and husband of a woman well past menopause, is told to look up at the stars and believe that, sterility notwithstanding, he and Sarah shall have descendants as numerous as those stars. Abram puts his faith in the Lord, who credits it to him as an act of righteousness. To confirm this promise, the Lord has Abram lay out some split animal carcasses to set up for a covenant ritual in which the two covenanting parties walk between the pieces as a sign of their commitment.
The meaning of the ritual: if I fail in this agreement, may I suffer the fate of these animals. Then Abram sees a smoking brazier and a flaming torch pass between the pieces—symbolizing, in an un-usual gesture of divine condescension, God's commitment to the promise. Because he allows himself to see the future God's way, with fertility coming out of sterility, God lets him really see things—a vision confirming the divine promise.
When Paul writes to his beloved Christian community in the Roman colony of Philippi, he calls them more deeply into the Christian way of seeing things. They have a mindset, a worldview, different from the culture around them. For those other folks, “their God is their stomach;
“… Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” “But our citizenship is in heaven,” he tells them, touching on a reality that is very much a part of their daily experience. For they are citizens of a Roman colonia. As Christians, however, they are a colony of heaven, members of a homeland whose shores they have not touched, yet whose citizens they already are. By embracing the risen Lord in faith, they can look forward to becoming transformed and sharing in his risen state. They envision a future that frees them even now.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. There they experience a vision even more dramatic than that given to Abram. Jesus' face and clothing are transformed into an apocalyptic brilliance. Moses and Elijah join Jesus “in glory” and speak with him. Peter wants somehow to “freeze” the scenario by setting up three tents. Then—in a way that recalls the divine presence overshadowing the wilderness tent of meeting (Ex 40:34-35) and the Solomonic Temple at its dedication (1 Kgs 8:10)—a cloud overshadows them all. Moses and Elijah fade; the three see “only Jesus.” Then the same divine voice that spoke at the baptism of Jesus announces, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
What Peter, James, and John are seeing they don't fully grasp until their understanding is illuminated by the light of Easter. We have the advantage of Luke’s post-Easter hindsight as we read his account. Luke alone stresses that the vision occurs while Jesus and the privileged three are praying. And Luke alone notes that the subject of Moses’ and Elijah's conversation with Jesus is “the exodus he is to fulfill in Jerusalem.” The mention of that key word is a powerful shorthand interpretation of Jesus' coming death and resurrection: what looks to be a crushing disaster will turn out to be the occasion of a liberation journey of which the first exodus is a foreshadowing. For the vision's Jewish viewers—Peter, James, and John—the presence of Moses and Elijah necessarily recalls the Law and the Prophets. For Moses is the mediator of the Sinai covenant and the leader of the Exodus, and Elijah is the prophet par excellence and the hoped-for precursor of the messianic age. Thus these figures stand for the essence of God's communication with Israel. And so, when Moses and Elijah fade and Jesus alone remains visible and the divine voice says, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him,” the message is clear: Jesus, in his Easter “Exodus,” is the fullness of God's word. He fulfills the Law and the Prophets.
It is no accident that the evangelists link this vision with the teaching on discipleship immediately preceding it. Jesus had been teaching, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:24). The vision of the Transfiguration hints how such a paradox can be true. This Gospel vision reminds us that we too are meant to be “seeing things” as we move through our Lenten journey.