Every now and then, most people are given a vision of God. Sadly, they often do not recognize it for what it is, and almost always it is after the event, often long after the event, that a fuller realisation of their experience dawns on them.
Let me give you an example. I was 12 and had just been introduced to Jesus as a real inspiration for my life, and through him was beginning to have a rather wobbly idea that God might exist. I was on holiday on the Isle of Man at the time. Sitting with a friend beside a river, I was suddenly gripped with a beauty that was beyond words. “Oh look” I said to my friend; but all he saw was a pretty rippling river dappled by sunlight coming through the trees. I couldn’t explain to him, or to you, how I saw so much more than that; but the experience, which I now believe was of God, has stayed with me ever since.
Now you might say “Ah, so that was the moment when you first really believed in God.” or “Ah that was the moment when you first thought of becoming a priest.”; and I would have to say a firm “No” to both those ideas. My belief in God was very shaky all through my teens, and despite my vision of glory I could well have lost my faith altogether; and I certainly had no notion at all of becoming a priest.!
The three disciples were surely in a similar position, when they had that vision of Jesus transfigured and glorified, which we heard of in our Gospel today. (Matt 17:1-9) They clearly had no idea what to do with the vision. Peter has a bright idea, but has to listen to what Jesus says, and is told to tell no-one about the vision he and his friends have seen. It’s a bit like me trying to share my vision with my friend. I realized almost immediately that he did not and could not understand. Peter and James and John however clearly kept the memory of it in their hearts, and only shared what they had seen after others had experienced the risen Jesus in the days after his death on the cross.
Putting visions into words is an almost impossible thing isn’t it? Daniel attempts it in our 1st Reading today (Dan 7:9-14) piling images of fire and snow and light and clouds on top of one another, and confusing many to think that God IS an old man on a throne with white hair, when this is only one image, and never the fullness of what God really is. Others have had visions of angels, or of Our Lady or one of the saints, but the Church wisely tells us not to rely on the vision itself but on what it does for us. So, if people ask me if a vision they think they have had is real, I ask them if it has made them a more loving caring person, if it has brought them closer to God. If it has, then the vision is of God, but if it has brought them into some cranky idea that they should impose their vision on others, then I warn them that they may have been deceived.
It’s worth noting that Jesus often went away to pray alone, and my view is that on each occasion his glory would have been seen, if anyone had been there to see it. It reminds us that Jesus was one with God from the beginning, way before he rose from the dead, and it was this union with God the Father that gave him the courage as a flesh and blood man to face the suffering and death that he knew he had to undergo. The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us of this, as it must have reminded him. For these two great prophets also faced immense difficulties and dangers as they tried to do God’s will. Indeed, in Luke’s story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) they actually speak to Jesus of his “departure” – meaning his sacrificial death on the cross.
Maybe you can look back on your life and see moments when you too had a vision that has helped you to be a better Christian? Perhaps you haven’t thought like that before? It’s worth doing. Your vision, your realization of the presence of God, may have come to you in a beautiful way, like the one I described to you from my life; but it may equally have come to you at some moment of great sadness or suffering when somehow you were given the strength to get through ; and now looking back you can say “Yes, God was with me then, even though I might not have realised it at the time.”
In the prayer that the priest says at the end of Mass today, we hear what such visions are for. The Priest asks that we may be “Transformed into the likeness of God’s Son whose radiant splendour you Lord God willed to make clear in his glorious Transfiguration.” Each of us, whether we know it or not, is hopefully on the road to that oneness with the glory of God that Jesus showed on that day.