God often seems hidden, hard to find. Where is he in our lives? Perhaps in today’s readings, there are two clues.
“I am the Lord”, God says to Abram (later Abraham), “who took you out of Ur of the Chaldeans”. God is taking us out of something. Then “Jesus took Peter and John and James and went up the mountain.” The Lord is taking us up somewhere.
The Lord takes us out and takes us up. We may feel stuck; we may feel we are going downhill. But the Lord is at work.
St Thomas Aquinas, talking of God’s supernatural action in our lives, says that grace is twofold: it heals us and it lifts us. It’s the same two movements: taking us out of what harms us and up to what is above us. We might link this with Lent and Easter. Lent is a lot to do with healing, purifying, being forgiven and forgiving, putting things right – being taken out. And Easter and Eastertide is much to do with being taken up into a new life, to a new level. “By dying you destroyed our death, by rising you restored our life.” Taking out and taking up, Lent and Easter, death and Resurrection.
First then, what does the Lord take us out of? “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees”, God says to Abraham. For the year 2000, Pope John Paul II wanted to make an epic pilgrimage recapitulating the great journeys of the Bible. And he wanted to begin in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Ur now is no longer a great, living city; it’s a place called Tell-el-Muqayyar, near the River Euphrates, in southern Iraq. And this was the time of Saddam Hussein, who did not want the Pope around. So, that part of the pilgrimage was not possible. But, for Abraham, what did it mean to be taken out of Ur? According to Jewish exegesis, it meant leaving behind idolatry and the worship of many gods. It’s not really about geography; it’s an inner journey; it’s conversion. It’s a movement – our movement too – from error to truth, from dispersion (many gods in our lives) to unity, love of the one, true and living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And Abraham, we hear, put “his faith in the Lord”. When we’re young, we may want to be an astronaut and a scientist and a prime minister and a footballer, but reality hits home and we discover one thing to focus on. Or we pass through several girlfriends or boyfriends until we discover the one person we really want to share our life with. “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” Out of chaos and confusion into purpose, unity and peace. The Lord brings out. He brought creation out of nothing. Later, he will bring Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt. Later again, he will bring them out of exile in Babylon. And at the beginning of our conversion – and perhaps again and again in our lives – he brings us out of our Urs and Egypts and Babylons. Recently, I met a priest who was clearly a late vocation. I asked him what he had been. A gardener. But then, he said, I fell into alcohol and criminality. And then I met Jesus – and he was brought out. There’s a pattern here for us all: out of addictions, out of mere pleasure-seeking, out of uncertainties, away from our hang-ups and fears and resentments, and all the rest. The Lord is at work. “Abram put his faith in the Lord.”
But that is just the beginning. After bringing out, there is taking up. There’s a point in the Gospel accounts when, like Abraham, the disciples come to faith. They come out from the common opinions, and they affirm: “You are not just another prophet, you are the Christ.” And then, a few days later, the Lord takes them up the mountain and is transfigured before them. We might think of a vase that has been broken: first it is put together again, but then it is filled with flowers or fine wine. We are that vase. And the radiant Christ of today’s Gospel, his face and clothes shining like lightning, is an icon of this, our taking up. Even now, says St Paul, we “are being transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). And at the Parousia our Saviour will appear and “transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body” (2nd reading). We are shown the meaning of the grace within us and have a glimpse of the glory to come. On the mountain, too, we see a new community forming around the Lord: Moses, Elijah, three disciples. Here’s rescued humanity symbolically gathered round Christ, the fullness of the Church in embryo, and we admitted to it. A cloud, symbolising the Holy Spirit, overshadows the disciples, and the voice of the Father rings out, “This is my Son, my Chosen One: listen to him!” Here are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we believe, when we’re baptised (think of the Easter Vigil!), we are not just taken out of error and sin. We enter the Trinity. We are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, taken up into Christ’s risen body, declared beloved sons by the Father, and promised the land of everlasting life. Spiritual writers say we should each hear those words – this is my Son, my Chosen One – spoken to us.
Look at the stars, the Lord tells Abraham. Look up, look beyond. God hides under apparent weakness, evil makes all the noise and seems to have all the artillery. And as for ourselves, we carry this treasure, for now, in earthen vessels, and often feel stuck or heading downhill. But “my Father is working still and I am working”, Jesus says – taking us out, forgiving our sins, making us whole, and taking us up into more than we naturally are, more than we know.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 13 March 2022