This Sunday gives us several strange things to consider. First, we have the rather esoteric seeming sacrifice presented in the first reading, called by scriptures scholars, “the covenant of the pieces.” After this perhaps disorienting, and even a little unnerving scene, we have the story of the Transfiguration. Christ takes His three most trusted Apostles up the mountain to show them something of His glory. What are we to make of the connection between these scenes? And what do they have to do with the penance, fasting, and preparation of Lent?
First, let’s consider the covenant of the pieces. This moment presents to us a type of ritual sacrifice common in the ancient Near East, whereby the two people entering into agreement, becoming family with one another, would cut sacrificed animals in half, and each walk between the pieces. They are saying with the ritual, “if I ever break this covenant, may I be split in half like these animals.” In the first reading, God and Abraham make this agreement, but only God passes through the pieces, saying that if the covenant is broken, He Himself will take on the consequences, no matter who has broken it. Of course Abraham’s descendants, our spiritual ancestors, are the ones who broke the covenant, and God paid the price. Just as God passed between the pieces, animals on his right and left who had suffered the punishment for sin, so in Jesus Christ, God incarnate would hang on the Cross, between two thieves, suffering the punishment for our sins. We human beings broke the covenant, and God, faithful to His promises, took the consequence for us on the Cross.
This brings us to the Transfiguration. Christ is taking the Apostles up the mountain only a few weeks before He would suffer and die on the Cross. He knows that they will be shocked and horrified by the crucifixion, and, seeing Jesus’ weakness and death, be tempted to lose their faith. In order to strengthen them, Christ decides to show the three most important Apostles something of His true glory, so that they in turn could strengthen the others later. Christ shows them what He will be like after the Resurrection, so bright in His glory that they can hardly stand to look at Him, standing as the ultimate authority between the greatest figures of the Old Testament, and affirmed by the loving voice of the Father. God’s presence passed between the dead animals as a promise to Abraham, died between two thieves to repair that promise when mankind broke it, and now shines brighter than the sun between the ever-living Saints, who now enjoy all the benefits of that promise that first made God and humanity into family.
Why does this matter for us, and why do we consider this during Lent? Well, in the first place, this should remind us of the goodness of God, who is not afraid to carry our weakness, and will not abandon us, even at the cost of His own life, when we stray. It should fill our hearts with knowledge that God has loved us enough to make us family, and to call us into His own heavenly kingdom. This, in the second place, these episodes of the Scripture should remind us where we are going. The reason God made the covenant with Abraham, formed the Hebrew people, saved all humanity by taking on the consequences of our sin on the Cross, and rose from death, is to give us life forever in the glory and overwhelming joy of heaven. He offers us Himself, and a share in His own divinity. This is the point of Lent, and of our whole Christian faith. All our Lenten fasting, self-denial, and preparation are meant to clear away a silent space in which this one truth can resound: God has called us to union with Him, and made it possible by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. The only question in our Christian life is whether or not we will accept this mighty invitation.