How do you get yourself ready for a journey? I guess the most obvious answer is ‘it depends’. Before you start planning, you have to know a few basic facts, like where you’re going, for how long, what’s the purpose of your trip, who you’re going with… Only then you can start thinking about bookings, means of travel, things you need to take with you. If you’re going to a new destination, you probably try to find some useful or practical bits of information. It’s much harder to get yourself prepared for a journey, the basic details of which remain unknown. That’s the situation in today’s first reading: The Lord said to Abram: ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.’ The destination remains unknown to Abram, so he doesn’t know how long it will take to reach and consequently, there’s very little he can plan ahead. When I was moving over to Scotland I knew precious little besides my flight’s final destination: Aberdeen. Most of what I thought I knew turned out to be off the mark, like the assumption that the locals speak English…
If the Lord’s call of Abram, opening the first reading, is astonishingly thin on details, the closing sentence is even more astonishing: ‘Abram went as the Lord told him.’ Behind this seemingly dry statement is hidden a breathtaking attitude shown by Abram. It’s not recklessness, nor is it temerity or stupidity. Abram trusts God’s promises attached to the call. Abram leaves his comfort zone because he believes that God will fulfil them. Abram listens to the voice of the Lord and puts it into practice. That’s the connection between the first reading and today’s gospel.
It’s a spectacularly glorious but short-lived vision of Jesus’ glory, witnessed by three of his close followers he chose to accompany him. But to fully grasp the meaning and significance of this event we have to look at it through the eyes of a devoted Jew because it’s full of symbolism and references to the Jewish holy scriptures. We can try to do it now, though rather superficially due to a lack of time. Firstly, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain. Hillwalking and climbing is a modern invention; in ancient times mountains were the dominion and dwelling of gods and deities. In the Bible mountains are places where God meets man. The most obvious is Mount Horeb, where Moses received from God the Ten Commandments and Law. That leads us to another significant symbol in today’s gospel. Jesus talks with Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the Prophets; two branches of the Jewish Holy Scripture and tradition. Then the cloud shrouds the top of the mountain and a voice is heard from it. This is another very strong reference to the Jewish tradition. Cloud is a symbol of God’s presence. A pillar of cloud accompanied the people of Israel during their exodus from Egypt; Mount Horeb was covered with a thick cloud when God revealed himself to Israel. And here’s another reference I want to draw your attention to. On Mount Horeb God talks with Moses from that thick cloud and the people of Israel witness that. The spectacle is so powerful that the people are filled with fear – like Peter, James and John. Jesus calms their fear in the same way Moses did on Mount Horeb: ‘Do not be afraid.’
This entire glorious vision of Jesus serves two important purposes. The first one is to show Jesus’ disciples that he is a continuation of God’s plan of salvation; in Jesus, all old testamental symbols find their full meaning and prophecies their fulfilment. Secondly, Peter, James and John are called to listen to Jesus. It isn’t just a call to hear what Jesus says, but to accept it and trust his words, and to put that trust into action. That trust will soon be challenged when everything seems to fall to pieces when they watch Jesus being tortured and then crucified. Perhaps those calming words ‘do not be afraid’ keep their hopes alive when everything around them seems to collapse.
That call to trust God and his promises wasn’t exclusively given to Abram or Peter, James and John. ‘This is my Son […] listen to him’ is a call that applies to each one of us. But how can we listen to him if we don’t hear his voice? Let me turn that question on its head; how can we hear Jesus if we don’t listen to him? Perhaps we’ve given up trying too easily. Let me give you a practical example. I said earlier on that I first arrived in Scotland with the assumption that the locals speak English. On my very first day I despaired because what I heard barely resembled that language. My English had admittedly been quite rudimentary, but it couldn’t have been that bad. After my initial frustration, I persevered and the more I listened to people and talked to them the more I understood their language and them too. Now I can quite easily converse with people in the northeast of Scotland, missing very little. It’s something very similar to listening to Jesus. The more you do, the more your heart and mind attune to his gentle voice. And then you can trust him that whatever happens with you and around you makes sense. And even when nothing seems to make sense you can hear Jesus telling you ‘do not be afraid.’