Thursday, February 21, 2013

Contemplation of an Infinite glory

Second Sunday of Lent Year C

Last week we got a small dose of hell and the devil in the scene of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. This week, its God’s turn – we get a glimpse of heaven in the Transfiguration story. God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell: these used to be the common themes found in almost everything ranging from cartoons, to fiction novels, artistic masterpieces to the Sunday pulpit, as if these two themes are ingrained in the fabric of society. Nearly every human being holds some sort of belief system regarding heaven, hell, or both.  But not everyone does. A scathing judgment came from Stephen Hawking who argued that a belief that heaven or an afterlife awaits us is a "fairy story" for people afraid of death. Perhaps you can recall these words by John Lennon from the song “Imagine": “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try. No hell below us–above us only sky.” Lennon seems to suggest that if we all agreed to imagine away certain unpleasant realities, we could create utopia on earth.

So what happened to heaven and hell? In generations past it seemed the message of salvation could not be preached without the poignant illustrations of the glory of heaven promised to those who remained faithful to Jesus Christ, their Lord and Saviour, whereas the lake of fire reserved for those who refuse to accept him. But heaven’s gotten a bad press lately. We don’t believe in it like we used to. We don’t think about it very much nowadays. We’re all too busy making a living to worry about what happens after we die. We live, interact, work, and fall in love without any second thought of whether we will eventually end up in heaven or hell. Both heaven and hell are now used as metaphors to describe our present state, rather than two states after our death. Belief in heaven has taken a plunge because we are caught up with a utopian dream of establishing an earthly paradise. Salvation is no longer the desired goal. It has been replaced by therapeutic earth-bound substitutes – inner peace, happiness in the present life, longevity, health, wealth, wholeness of being, and solutions to our problems.

Are the likes of Stephen Hawkings and John Lennons of this world right in disbelieving that there is life after death? Is heaven a mere delusion of those who cannot face death or the horror of this present life? Or is the belief in heaven rooted in reality and if it is, what has it to do with our present lives?  Our readings today seem to say so. They partly lift aside the veil that separates earth from heaven and in so doing they reveal the glory of the world as God created it. In the first reading, the ancient Abram who had lost all hope of producing a progeny who will ensure the continuation of his name is provided a glimpse of heaven. In the stars, he is shown the promise of God that his descendants would be beyond his present imagining. In the second reading Paul exhorts the community in Philippi to “not give way but remain faithful in the Lord,” by reminding them that their “homeland is in heaven” and that Christ will “transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body.”

Finally, we have in the gospel, Luke’s account of the transfiguration.  The transfiguration occurs in a context where Jesus has just revealed to His disciples that He would be put to death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ prediction of his imminent death was met with denial and even anger. They were shaken by the thought that Jesus, the awaited Messiah, would meet such a horrific fate. This is why Jesus took them up to the mountain where, "he was transfigured before them." This experience of the transfiguration was, therefore, God’s way of delivering the disciples from a crisis of faith by providing them with a glimpse into the glory of heaven. The cause of their crisis of faith was the way in which they saw people and things around them. Death, suffering, separation seems to be defining moments in our lives. The disciples needed a vision from God’s point of view, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over the head of Jesus, God was still with him, God was still in control of events, God would see to it that in the end he triumphed over his foes, even death.  In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw that there was more to Jesus than what they could see and hear and touch, they got a glimpse of the future glory of Jesus’ resurrection. His death would not mark the end; it would only inaugurate the beginning of eternal life. It would open the gates of heaven.

An important truth shines forth from the centre of this mystery. Glimpses of this transfigured world are not only good for our mental health but are essential for our salvation. They help us see through the illusions cast by the devil who constantly tempt us to store up treasures in this world and to place our hopes in projects which can only disappoint us. Our dreams of an earthly utopia, where we will be shielded from all pain, trouble, and disappointment is merely delusional. Christians disagree with Hawking’s conclusion – heaven is not “a fairytale”, it’s the Utopian ideal that proves to be so. Heaven makes the journey worth travelling. Heaven provides the strength to bear the weight of our tribulations. Heaven keeps us on course, away from the distractions that tie us to this earthly life and its lies.

Not a week goes by that I don’t talk with someone whose suffering seems to be overwhelming. It may be cancer or some other disease, it may be a broken marriage or a child in trouble, it may be financial disaster or trouble at work or at school. God’s people endure many hardships in this life. Most of the time we can’t fully understand why God allows certain things to happen to us. But we have this promise in Paul’s letter to the Romans, (8:18) that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” When the books are opened and the scales are balanced, we will discover that the things we went through in this life are nothing compared with the glories of heaven. No one will ever say to Jesus, “Heaven’s not so great. It wasn’t worth what I went through to get here.” When we finally get to heaven, the glory will be so great that we won’t even remember the things that made us weep in this life.  Heaven must exist, or our present suffering losing its meaning. Someone once puts it this way, ‘For the unbeliever, this life is the only heaven they will ever know. For the believer, this life is the only hell we will ever know.’

Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning, chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method involving identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about and imagining that purpose coming to fruition. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. After enduring the unimaginable suffering in these camps, Frankl validated his hallmark conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful and dehumanised situation, life has potential meaning and that therefore even suffering is meaningful. In the most disturbingly beautiful segment of the book where the academician waxes lyrical, Frankl narrates an incident where they were forced marched in the darkness through harsh terrain and how a vision of his wife gave him the needed strength to continue living and surviving:

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honourable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

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