We have just heard the Gospel of the Transfiguration. It has been the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Lent since at least the 5th century. Last Sunday we were in the desert, this Sunday we are on a mountain. Last Sunday Christ was under assault from Satan. This Sunday he is transfigured: “the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning”. It is a glimpse of the glory to come.
The account we have just heard is St Luke’s. Each Evangelist has his own touches. The three Evangelists who tell this story all mention that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. But only Luke goes on and says: ‘and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.’ Now, the word ‘passing’ translates the Greek word for ‘exodus’. Moses (who stands for the Law) and Elijah (who stands for the prophets) were talking with Jesus about his exodus.
‘Exodus’ is a loaded word. It is a key to what we are doing through Lent and Easter, to what our Lord accomplished in Jerusalem, and to our own lives.
So let’s explore this word a little.
It refers in the first place to the series of events that took place some 1300 years before Christ. The Exodus was the liberation of a group of Hebrew slaves from the grip of the most powerful empire in the ancient world, located in the valley of the Nile. It launched them on a journey over the Red Sea, through the desert and on towards the Promised Land. It brought them into a new relationship, a covenant, with God, sealed at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It made them into a people, bound to God and one another by a God-given Law. It grounded a new liturgy, Passover, and a new place of worship, the Tent of Meeting. It was all at once historical fact, epic story, a book in the Bible, and an extraordinary revelation of the name (the nature) and the power of God. Suddenly, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob remembers their descendants. He hears their cry. The Supreme Power intervenes in history in defence of the powerless, turning the world upside down. And over time this Hebrew, Israelite, Jewish ‘thing’ has become something that belongs, even unconsciously, to everyone. It’s still with us. It has shaped our mentalities and our history. Why is Palestine so fraught a place? Why is freedom the great ideal? Why do we demand justice for the oppressed? Why so much history of revolutions and movements of liberation and calls for emancipation? Many reasons no doubt, but first of all because the story of the Exodus is part of our collective memory, because once upon a time God freed his people from Egypt. To put it another way, no Exodus, no Israel, no Jews. No Jews, no Jesus. No Jesus, no Church. Without the Exodus, we wouldn’t be here and this cathedral wouldn’t be here. There’s an unbroken chain.
And, at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus about the ‘exodus’ he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Clearly there is more than one Exodus. One might suggest there are four.
Let me share a fancy of mine. It may be quite wrong. But if, as the current thinking is, humanity began to be in Africa, in East Africa specifically; if the geography was not utterly different from now: then when the first human beings migrated north, into the Middle East and Europe and Asia, they presumably anticipated more or less the route of the later Exodus – from the mouths of the River Nile round into the Levant. There would have been this first, prehistoric exodus. And it would have marked a major moment in human history. Perhaps…
Secondly, with no ‘perhaps’, there is Israel’s Exodus, commemorated every year at Passover. This was something more than a mere migration. It was liberation from slavery into a new relationship with God. It was the birth of Israel’s vocation.
Now, much biblical history, often far from happy, followed. There was exile, and there were new forms of oppression. The prophets spoke of a new exodus. And the thoughtful Jews of Jesus’ time shared such a hope. They were looking for social and political freedom, from Rome immediately, but for more too. They sensed that a closer, purer, less compromised relationship with God was called for. They had a feeling that their deepest need was freedom from the slavery of sin. And Moses and Elijah, great symbolic figures of Israel’s past, were talking with Jesus about the exodus he would accomplish in Jerusalem. They were speaking about the third exodus. This was the final and definitive one, the true and lasting one, completing what had gone before. On Maundy Thursday, we’ll hear the Gospel of John: ‘It was before the festival of the Passover, and Jesus knew that the hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.’ This is his Passover, his exodus, the one we commemorate in our Paschal Triduum and our Paschal Vigil. This is the exodus that went through the Red Sea of death, into the desert of the tomb, and then out into the sunlit Land of Resurrection. A passage from this world to the Father. An exodus from the ‘Egypt’ of sin and death to the Land where God is known and immortality reigns.
Already Israel’s Exodus was an exodus made by one people on behalf of everyone else. Jesus’ exodus, Jesus’ Passover, was one man’s, the God-man’s, made for all of us. It made possible the fourth exodus: ours joined to his. Life is full of little exoduses, surely. Each of us, as we grow up, leaves the garden of innocence and learns the sad knowledge of good and evil. Then, ‘a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife.’ Parents have children and children change their parents’ lives. We pass from place to place, situation to situation, even country to country. And in the end we leave this life. Exodus is part of being human. But all these little exoduses cry out for another – the exodus our heart most longs for. An exodus away from everything that weighs on us into freedom of spirit, an exodus from meaninglessness into meaning, from a chaos of desires into purity of heart, forgiveness and peace. And if we link our lives to Christ’s, this becomes our exodus. Our changing life is joined to his. We needn’t pass away with this passing world. Instead, we pass over with him from this world to the Father and find the world again transfigured by him. We begin this exodus here below. We begin it in two ways: by sharing in the sacramental life of the Church, crossing the Red Sea of baptism and eating the fruit of the Promised Land, the Eucharist, and by living lives of faith, hope and love, acknowledging our sins, taking up our cross and following him. We have a horizon now of a radiant Face and shining clothes, a glorified Body. And, please God, when the exodus of death is upon us, our faith will be speaking in our hearts of the exodus of Jesus, accomplished in Jerusalem, working out in us.
And the Church will be praying beside us:
‘Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian.
May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph and all the angels and saints.’