Each year the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus comes as the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, taken in turn from each of the first three Gospels. But what I had never noticed until recently is that the first reading on these Sundays each year is about Abraham.
This year we heard how Abraham was called by God to leave his own country and travel into a strange land, which God would give to his descendants. In next year's reading, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, even though that meant he would have no descendants to inherit God's promise. And the year after we read of the sacrifice by which God pledged himself to keep his promises to Abraham.
This link between Abraham and the Transfiguration can hardly be an accident. The Abraham stories are not part of a sequence being read Sunday by Sunday. Indeed the first readings for the Sundays before and after come from quite different books of the Bible.
No, these stories seem to have been deliberately chosen to go with the Transfiguration. What could be the reason for that?
The Gospel of the Transfiguration is about the brief dramatic revelation of the glory of Jesus to the three Apostles on the mountain. It associates him with Moses and Elijah who represent the Law and the Prophets. In other words it is saying that Jesus is the expected One to whom Law and Prophets pointed. The story that began with Abraham finds its goal in Jesus.
This does not mean that the story ends there, any more than that time ended with Jesus. It goes on, but in a different way, because the One who called Abraham and who promised that he himself would be among us, has now fulfilled his promise. The 'Beloved Son' is Emmanuel, 'God with us'.
All this takes place on a mountain because, in Biblical imagery, mountains are places of revelation, above all with the self-revealing of God at Mount Sinai. Matthew's Gospel mentions three mountains: the Mount of the Sermon, where Jesus teaches the New Law; the Mount of Transfiguration, where he is seen as the Beloved Son; and the Mountain in Galilee, where he appears triumphant in his risen life and sends his disciples to preach the Good News to all people:
I am with you always.
So by linking Abraham with the Transfiguration, our liturgy clamps together both the beginning and the crucial turning-point in the history of God's dealings with us. Jesus did not appear out of the blue. He did not come to teach us timeless truths. He came to be the focal point of human history, a history of which we are part, which gives our lives a meaning, a sense of purpose and a goal.
Perhaps, too, the stories of Abraham and the Transfiguration are linked because they are both about the journey of faith. Abraham was called to set out on a journey, though he had no idea where it would lead; and he had to trust in God's mysterious promises to give him descendants who would one day inherit the land 'flowing with milk and honey'.
The Apostles likewise were called from their homely fishermen's life to follow Jesus; and though it was exciting at first, it soon became scary and bewildering. Where was it all heading? It is significant that in each Gospel the Transfiguration comes a week after Peter had confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus had told them that he will meet rejection and death.
We too are journeying in faith, both as individuals and as the Church. We may sometimes wonder where it is all going. Is it really leading to fulfilment, or to disaster?
Maybe like Peter we sometimes want to cling on to the good bits, not lose the 'highs'. But life can't always be on the heights. As we follow in the footsteps of the Beloved Son, our journey of faith will often demand of us the constancy of Abraham.
Jesus touched them, saying: Get up, do not be afraid. And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.