Three old friends were out at sea. As they were together in the boat enjoying their weekly fishing trip, they saw a floating bottle. They took it and opened it. A genie appeared and profusely thanked them for his freedom. He told them, “As a reward, each one of you may now say what you wish and it will be granted.” Jim said: “I have long wanted to go to Rome and see the Pope!” “No problem,” the genie said. And in an instant Jim was in Rome. Roger said, “I wish to see the place where Jesus lived.” “Well, of course,” the genie replied. And off Roger goes to the Holy Land. Bill was left all alone in the boat. And he began to cry. “What’s the matter?” the genie asked him. “I miss my friends,” Bill said. “I want to see them again.” The genie said: “Your wish will come true!” In a wink of an eye, Jim and Roger were back in the boat. For Bill, true paradise is not in going someplace else; it is in being with his friends.
We all want to go to heaven. But if we think heaven is a place or geographical location, we are mistaken. Heaven is a state of being – being with God, being with Jesus. This is what the apostles Peter, James and John experienced on Mount Tabor. For a very brief moment, though it seemed like eternity, they experienced heaven. They saw Jesus not anymore as an ordinary man. They saw his glory as God – his face was brighter than the sun and his clothes dazzling white. Then they also saw Moses and Elijah conversing with him. And the voice of the heavenly Father was heard: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” This experience filled them with such an overwhelming and indescribable joy and all that Peter could say was: “Master, let us erect three booths here.” They had a glimpse and taste of heaven and they wished to remain there forever. Being with Jesus, who revealed himself to them as God, was truly an experience of heaven.
Why did the Lord reveal his glory to the Apostles in this way? St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that this grace was given to strengthen the Apostles for the forthcoming scandal of the Cross by giving them a glimpse of the glorious Resurrection. He said: “For a person to go straight along the road, he must have some knowledge of the end – just as an archer will not shoot an arrow straight unless he first sees the target….This is particularly necessary if the road is hard and rough, the going heavy, and the end delightful” (Summa Theol.,III,q.45,a.1). When a traveler gets to know how delightful and desirable the destination is, he is willing to embark on the long and difficult journey.
This is precisely the case with the apostles. Jesus has just made his first prediction of his passion and death: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). Definitely this is disheartening to his apostles. Many of them must have begun to doubt if Jesus really is the Messiah. Some must have already entertained the idea of giving up, thinking that following Jesus was a big mistake. So Jesus decided to give the leaders of the apostles – Peter, James and John – a sort of a preview of the glorious end, a glimpse and a taste of heaven so that they will persevere in the journey.
There is an interesting story in the sixth chapter of the second Book of Kings about the prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 6:14-17). The king of Aram sent his army to capture the prophet of God, Elisha, because he was aiding the king of Israel by providing crucial military intelligence through his prophetic powers. That night, the Aramean army surrounded the city. When the servant of Elisha woke up in the morning, he was terrified to see the Aramean army, with its horses and chariots, encircling the city. He ran in fear to his master: “What shall we do, my lord?” The prophet calmly told him: “Do not be afraid. Our side outnumbers them”. Perhaps he noticed that his servant did not believe him, and so he prayed: “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” And God opened the eyes of the servant, and “he saw the mountainside filled with horses and fiery chariots around Elisha.” That day, the enemies were easily defeated.
How often do we get afraid and discouraged? How many times did we ask, “Where is God?” When we see the many helpless women and children butchered by terrorists and criminals, we ask, “Why did God not do something to prevent it?” When we experience illness, financial problems, loss of job and loss of a loved one, we ask, “Does God really care?” When we see good people suffering while the evil ones go unpunished and are enjoying life, we begin to think that God is unfair, insensitive and powerless, or that there is no God at all!
Every time we come to Mass, let us imagine ourselves like the apostles going up the mountain with Jesus. The Mass is always an experience of being with Jesus, being with God. We do not see or hear anything extraordinary, not because God is not here, but because God wants to reveal Himself in the ordinary ways and things that we are familiar with. He speaks to us and makes Himself present through the priest, the lectors, the ministers and the entire worshipping community – all ordinary men and women. In Holy Communion, we receive His Body and Blood in the form of simple bread and wine. Like the servant of Elisha, we do not see God’s presence because our eyes need to be opened. So we pray, “Lord, open our eyes that we may see.”
St. Paul said, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” It is the eyes of our faith that need to be opened so that we can discover God’s hidden presence in the simple and ordinary things around us. It is our faith that will help us realize that despite all the pains, sorrows, violence, problems and evil in the world, God is very much living, loving and active, continually “writing straight with crooked lines.”
During this season of Lent, Jesus invites us to go up the mountain with him. The mountain experience is being with Jesus in prayer. It is prayer that strengthens our faith and opens our eyes to see God and have a glimpse of heaven. Let us have more quality time to pray and to listen to Jesus. Then there is nothing to fear for we know God is with us now and for always.
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002