C.S. Lewis once said that if we could for a moment see our neighbour as they will be after their death, we would either fall down in awe before them, as they would be a glorified be-ing in heaven, or shrink with horror from one consigned to hell. Lewis was, of course, a master of the imagination, with his powerful stories such as the Narnia series, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which appeal both to children and adults, and his saying illustrates the power of what we see with our eyes, or at least with the inner eyes of our imagination, to change our attitudes and our behaviour.
We often feel this with the teachings of our faith. If only we could somehow see God or heaven, it would all be so much easier. Many teachers of prayer suggest that when reading a passage from the Gospels, we try to enter the scene with our imagination and picture the details in our mind’s eye and put ourselves there in the scene. I was reminded a few weeks ago on a visit to the Holy Land, of how St. Ignatius, who taught this way of praying, took it to amusing lengths at times. On the top of the Mont of Olives, from where Jesus ascended into heaven, are preserved a couple of footprints set in concrete in a Church, which are said to be the footprints of Christ as he ascended. St. Ignatius was so keen to keep this image in his mind for later contemplation, that he realised half way down the Mount of Olives that he couldn’t remember which way they were pointing, so he climbed the hill again to see – and it’s a very steep hill!
The event recorded in our Gospel passage today, the Transfiguration, took place just after Jesus had been talking to his disciples about the way he would suffer and be put to death before rising again on the third day, events which of course are the climax towards which this sacred season of Lent is leading us. But Jesus realised that just hearing this prediction from him wasn’t enough, so he decided to take three of them, Peter, James and John, up a mountain, and show them the glory that would be his after his Resurrection, so as to strengthen and encourage them.
And today he wants to give us a similar experience. He wants to show us with the inner eyes of our imagination, the glorious destiny we are headed for if we follow him, the goal to which all the sufferings and difficulties of our life are leading to, so as to save us from the dangers which always threaten us in our Christian life of becoming discouraged by our trials, and above all of settling for a mediocre kind of life.
St. John Paul II, when speaking to young people, used frequently to say to them, “Do not be afraid to desire to be saints.” We might put that another way: don’t settle for a life of mediocrity, don’t limit yourself to being a Sunday Christian or a half-hearted one; believe that God can do great things for you if you give yourself whole-heartedly to him, just as he has done through countless others. Perhaps that is why Pope John Paul canonised so many saints from all sorts of different ways of life, so as to give to the eyes of our imagination all sorts of different heroes and heroines of Christian life to inspire us.
When the apostles saw Christ’s glory, and heard the voice of the Father speak, as it had earlier when Jesus was baptised, what they heard him say was: “This is my beloved Son – listen to him.” Christ wants to be heard by all people, he has a message of life and hope for everyone, not just for those who are already in the Church. And of course those who are not already in the Church, who need to hear his voice just as much as we do, will not hear it in Church. They will only hear him through you and me. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”
If we are to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the world of today, there has to be something about us which reminds people of him. It has been said of Pope Francis that his words and actions remind people of a figure who used to be at the centre of our civilisation and our world, but has now been banished to its margins and its forgotten past, Jesus Christ himself. This is not the result of learning a series of techniques or of a business plan put into operation; it flows from who he is. And so with us, if we are to remind the world of Jesus, and be his hands and feet in the world of today, there must be something about the way we love that reminds people of Jesus. This is what we mean when we speak of holiness, an indefinable something which comes from within and radiates Christ to others. And the trials we experience in this life are the means by which this holiness is brought about in us. So let us embrace them with trust in God, for the sake of the glory they will bring to us, and please God, to many others through our witness of love.