Monday, March 05, 2007

On Swooping Birds and Transfigured Messiahs

I love Sunday's Lectionary readings (Lent II, year C), which link an Old Testament theophany, Abram's Covenant Making (Genesis 15:1-20), with a New Testament one, Jesus' transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). A theophany is an incident of God's self- revelation.
The Genesis account is incredibly earthy, even scandalous and humorous. It recounts God's instructions to Abram (his name change to Abraham comes later, in chapter 18) to lay out a sacrifice. Abram does so, but then is forced to wait all day, guarding the exposed carcasses which eventually attract carrion. The New American Bible translation here is anemic (what else is new?). For verse 11, NAB translates "Abram stayed with them." A better rendering (one followed by all other major English translations) is the infinitely more picturesque "Abram shooed them away."

What a testament to the scandalous earthiness of Abram's religion!
This YHWH is no mere God of the intellect, satisfied with a vague internal locution giving Abram bragging rights over the land. God demands physicality in the form of a sacrifice. What is more, that physicality becomes darned inconvenient to Abram. I visualize the elderly patriarch running frantically to and fro, trying desparately to keep the birds from making off with the sacrificial animal parts. Eventually, Abram falls into an exhausted sleep while only God himself completes the cutting of the covenant by walking alone between the sacrificed animals.

Likewise, in my mind, the Transfiguration is an earthy oddity in the New Testament. Recorded in all three synoptic gospels, it falls squarely into the middle of Jesus' earthly ministry, and, like an embarassing sore thumb, sticks out amidst the more pedestrian teaching and healing accounts. We moderns don't really know what to do with it.

The Transfiguration sits there, a solemn testament to the complex spiritual-physicality of Jesus' passion and resurrection. In all of the gospel accounts, this dream-like event is inextricably linked with the first direct prediction of Jesus' coming death to his disciples which follows. In fact, here in Luke that very passion is the very topic of conversation among Jesus, Moses and Elijah during the vision itself. How odd, how compelling, to find in the middle of the gospels something which both seems out of this world and yet so compellingly connected to it.

How like our God, the God of blessed bread and broken body, of shed blood and uplifted cup, of cleansing bath and clean conscience!

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