God himself has willed that Creation be a sign to us of himself. So it is not strange that the immensity of a starry night remind us of God’s immensity and glory. It is no surprise that the beauty of the heavens reminds us of the beauty of Heaven. It is not odd that the promise and mystery of the future remind us of the promise and mystery of eternity. This is, in fact, precisely the language in which God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15.
“Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” God tells Abraham, “shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). Not only the number but the beauty of stars is implied here. Abraham’s descendants will not only be countless, but they will be like stars, full of light and glory. But Abraham is quickly jerked back to earth by bills to pay and dishes to wash. How shall such a grandiose thing actually get done?
In answer, God “cuts a covenant” with Abraham. They each pass between the halves of several animals that have been chopped in two. The implication behind the gesture is “May the same thing happen to me as happened to these beasts if I break our covenant.” God commands Abraham to obey him and promises in return that his descendants shall inherit Canaan, be fruitful and multiply. In some mysterious way, says God all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham.
And so the whole history of Israel is set on foot. Through it all earthly fortunes rise and mostly fall. Success slides into failure over and over again. Hope is endlessly dashed in a pathetic cycle of human folly till Ecclesiastes writes of this idiotic round of futility, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Abraham’s descendants received the land of Canaan all right and they multiplied all right. But the question arises, “So what? What’s the point? Where do we go from here?” All the things promised to Abraham appear to have been fulfilled, but their fulfillment seems absurd, for the whole of earth (including that bit of real estate called the land of Canaan) seems pointless and “a chase after wind.”
Not that Israel gives up hope. But what the hope was supposed to be about is a real question. By the time of Christ, many are hoping for a Messiah or Prophet or Son of David or Day of the Lord or something that will Make It All Right. But in a curious sense, they are hoping for hope. They want, not so much God, as to bring back the glory days of yesteryear, when young David was on the rise and the world looked like a plum ripe for the picking. They hope for the future, they hope for the past, but they have lost sight of the eternity of which both these hopes are merely shadows.
That is why the Transfiguration is such a radical wake-up call (literally!) to Peter, James and John. They too share in Israel’s messianic hope, but they have to learn, as St. Paul says in today’s reading, that “their minds are occupied with earthly things” (Phil 3:19). They have to discover that our citizenship is in heaven, not in Jerusalem, Rome or any other cabin on this vast, beautiful and sinking Titanic.
Not that creaturely things are not beautiful, nor precious to God, nor signs of him. Indeed, the Law and the Prophets (embodied in the very Moses and Elijah who appear in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration) testify to Jesus Christ by the inspiration of the Spirit. But Peter cannot build shelters and make them stay. Our earthly hopes die with Christ so they can live again. And so, Abraham’s Son, the Star out of Jacob, is revealed to them in uncreated light to call them to a hope from beyond Creation. It is a glorious moment, and one could wish this instant too had been frozen forever. But Jesus entered this world, not to prolong it in its futility, but to save it and bring it into eternity. And so, as he had spoken with Moses, he allows the glory to fade and comes down the Mount of Glory to climb the Mount of his Exodus, where he will cut a new covenant and suffer the fate of the beasts that perish, not for his sin, but for Abraham’s, for yours, and for mine, that we might have the hope of glory.