Earlier this year I gave three talks to mark the centenary of the Apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, under the title of “Visions of heaven and hell”. We looked at some of the reported apparitions of Our Lady and of Jesus over the last several hundred years, and the series attracted great interest. It seems we are fascinated by the whole idea of people having visions or hearing messages from God, the saints and angels, and that is very much the subject of our readings today: the prophet Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man coming to the one of great age and being given a kingdom, and above all, the Transfiguration of Jesus, which happily falls on a Sunday this year.
Visions and apparitions raise all sorts of questions for us. Why does God give them to certain people at certain times? How do we know they are true, and not just the product of an over-active imagination, or, worse, of insanity? And if they are true, what are we supposed to do about them?
C.S. Lewis tells the story of a man who had an overwhelming experience of God while serving in the desert in Egypt during the Second World War. As Lewis had just rediscovered his Christian faith, he eagerly asked the man what difference it had made to him, and was very deflated when the man replied, “Oh I just forgot all about it when I returned to normal life.”
What about us? While some of us might be unsure about the message of Fatima, even though the Church declares it worthy of belief, the visions reported in Scripture have divine authority behind them, but do they really make a difference to us? It is all very well saying that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but is he in reality the authority in my life? Do I make an honest attempt to shape my life by his teaching, or rather by the example of celebrities and famous people, of the fashionable trends of thought and behaviour in the world today, or the influential thinkers I come across in bookshops and on the internet?
The visions of Daniel, and the experience of the Transfiguration are in a way about where true authority and kingship are to be found, but at a deeper level they are about who God is and how we human beings can have access to him. They speak of the relationship between the one of great age, a symbol of God the Father, and the one coming on the clouds like a son of man, that is Jesus. They tell us that Jesus is God’s beloved Son to whom we should listen. In other words they tell us about the Blessed Trinity, that God is for all eternity not just the one and only God but a blissful communion of persons.
They tell us also that this God, this blessed Trinity, wishes to enter into communion with his creation, human beings, indeed that is why he made the world with human beings as the crown of his creation. In the first reading, Jesus is called the son of Man, that is a true human being. He is so fully human that in the Gospels, his divinity is hidden except at this moment of the Transfiguration.
People today are suspicious of all authority, and of all institutions. We suspect that all institutions just conceal a desire for power over others – politicians, the police, professionals such as teachers and doctors, and, yes, the Church is suspect too of just wanting power. God knows the temptation to abuse power is always there in any institution or profession.
But when it comes down to it, the Church does not claim authority because we are better than anyone else, but because Jesus is the only Son of God. Only he can say, with total simplicity and authority, I know the Father and I can reveal him to you. All other ideas of God found in other religions and philosophies, though not without value, are largely guesswork and full of errors along with genuine insights. Jesus alone can show us God the Father as he is, because he is one with him in the Blessed Trinity. Only he can tell us with total assurance: this is what God is like: like the father of the Prodigal Son, like the Good Samaritan, like a good shepherd searching for his sheep.
And this Jesus, this Son of Man, chose certain men, 12 of them, to be his authorised witnesses: the apostles. They tell us what they saw and heard of him, and we believe their witness. And if we truly believe it, we will come to the one they speak of, to Jesus: we will listen him, worship him, and invite him to be the one who guides our own lives and shows us the way to heaven.