Previously in chapter 12 of Genesis we read that God spoke to Abram and told him to uproot and go to where God would lead him, and that his descendants would be many, although his with was barren. Today (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18) we have a second encounter between God and Abram, who is now in the land between the Euphrates river and the Mediterranean sea. God says that he will have his own offspring and the descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky; and this promise is sealed with what is thought to have been a traditional covenant ceremony usually symbolising that both parties stake their lives and their relationship together, but here it is a unilateral promise from God Who alone passes between the carcasses. These stories in Genesis are recorded after many decades of verbal transmission and inevitably after adaptation to different situations and developments in belief, but they are held as part of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people – and now part of the Christian Bible.
We read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians on the second of Advent last year where there is some background information about this letter. In this extract Paul seems to be addressing the problem that some of the Christians there, were acting as though what they did in their material existence on earth had no impact on their spiritual lives. So Paul wants to stress the reality of the Christ’s embodiment on earth and even his death on the cross – Paul himself is suffering confinement in prison as he writes, but he believes in the value of the physical because of the glorified body which we will have after death. He has a hope in seeing his Saviour soon; we do not know whether this is referring to his own death or to the climax and End of the world. Though he has to correct them, he still expresses his love for this mainly Gentile community of Christians that started in the house of Lydia.
The Gospel is the story of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), which links well with the second reading from Philippians. A few verses before our reading Jesus has spoken about the true attitude to have to life this side of eternity: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose or forfeit themselves?” Older translations use the word ‘soul’ but this misrepresents the meaning in our times when many think of a person as divided into body and soul, whereas in Jesus’ culture, the word referred to the whole self – its true value. These verses are suitably followed by a vision of Jesus in the after-life, where the body is glorified and the person will be in the company of all. In the stories about Moses, the end comes with him just disappearing from the scene, and as for Elijah the prophet, the story goes that he was whisked away to heaven in a chariot. The disciples are quite lost as to what to say or do, but the lesson in the context of today’s readings, is in some way about the grandeur of the human person (body and soul).