Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Glimpse of the eternal

Second Sunday of Lent Year C

Sometimes, Lent seems to be an attempt at reconciling extremes or at least provides us with both ends of a spectrum. Last week, we had a taste of hell and the devil, in the scene of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness. This week, it’s God’s turn to deal His cards and we get a glimpse of heaven in the Transfiguration.

In fact all our readings today partly sets 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.” But heaven still seems to be a remote dream, an illusion, perhaps. This is where the gospel gives flesh to the dream, a mere idea gives way to reality.

The transfiguration occurs in a context where our Lord 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 the awaited Messiah, would meet such a horrific fate. This is why our Lord took them up to the mountain where, He was transfigured before them. This experience of the transfiguration was 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, and separation seem 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 and that God would be triumphant in the end.  In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John 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.

Only here in the gospel of St Luke, though missing from the present text we’ve just read, do we have an editorial note that the transfiguration took place about “eight days later.” Both St Matthew and St Mark mention “six days.” But what is the significance, of the “eighth day”? Some scholars believe that this may be an allusion to the feast of the Tabernacles or Booths, in which not only the first day, but also the eighth had special significance. This may explain as this feast commemorated the Exodus and the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness where they lived in tents. And, Peter’s offer to erect three tents or tabernacles to house our Lord and His two esteemed guests. But for Christians, the “eighth day” has a more powerful significance. It is the Day of the Lord, the day of His Resurrection, our new Sabbath: St Gregory calls this “the mystery of the Eighth Day, that is, of the future age, coming to be revealed after the passing away of the world created in six days.” The transfiguration is an anticipation of the resurrection.

St Luke is the only evangelist who gives an indication of the topic of conversation taking place between our Lord and His two esteemed guests – “they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word translated as “passing” here points us back to the Exodus. As the Jews passed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, so too Christ passes from death to the resurrection, He passes over the bondage of sin and death to the “promised land” of heaven.

An important truth shines forth from the centre of this mystery. The transfiguration was not only good for the apostles but also good for us. 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. It is not an earthly utopia but heaven, that makes the journey or passage through this life worth travelling. Sometimes our faith faces a particularly tough challenge and we need a special grace to endure. 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. 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.’

Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to 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.” And St Paul assures us in the second reading that when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, “He will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body, He will do that by the same power with which He can subdue the whole universe.”

I find resonance in the works of Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. In his semi-autobiographical book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recalls an incident where a group of Jews were forced by their Nazi captors to march in the darkness through harsh terrain and how a vision of his wife gave him the needed strength to continue living and surviving. In a way, the transfiguration, a glimpse of heaven and what or who awaits us at the end of our earthly journey, a vision of our Beloved, is the true motivation to endure the pains of this life:

“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.”

We know the face of our Beloved, He is the Chosen One of the Father. Listen to Him!

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