The closer we come to the core, the center of the gospel, the more clarity and the more mystery we encounter. On the one hand, the story is straightforward. A child’s board book would show Jesus and the disciples dusty and tired, wiping sweat from their brows as the come to rest at the summit. Another page would have Jesus shining bright, two shiny-shadowed men beside him, the astonished disciples wiping sleep from their eyes. Peter thought-bubbles booths, tents. A loud cloud descends and speaks with the voice of God. Then, with a turn of the page, all is back as it was at the beginning, and the men start down the mountain.
It seems beyond much doubt that something strange happened when Jesus took three of his disciples up a mountain about halfway through his ministry. Something sort of straightforward as the story goes; but there are many questions left unanswered.
Such as: how did the disciples know who these two strangers were, who had appeared either side of Jesus? Why jump straight to the conclusion that this is Elijah, and this one Moses? What do we make of the detail that he and his brother disciples were weighed down with sleep? Was this a vision, or a dream, or an objective happening, or something else, of a category we have yet to understand?
One way of framing the question might be to ask not what Peter saw, but how he saw it.
A couple of weeks ago, a young person asked me, “How will we see things in heaven?”
Not, “What does heaven look like?” or “What will we look like in heaven?” He gestured around the room: “You see how we see everything around us. Will we see things in the same way in heaven?”
Which is a much more interesting way of looking at it.
We talked back and forth a little bit about what we might mean by heaven, and how we might know how it works, and we stumbled across the phrase, “heaven on earth.”
You know those moments when the light breaks through, when the voice from heaven rivets your mind into place. Those moments when the mundane is transfigured, and the sacred shows itself clearly. You can see back through creation into the heart of God. Or if not that far, at least you can see the crack on the wall where the light might shine through.
Those moments are what we call heaven on earth.
The next day, I was with a group of much older individuals, all living in a place they hadn’t necessarily chosen to be, in circumstances that they had never planned for themselves. I asked them, “Where did you last see heaven on earth?” One woman replied, “Here.” I looked around at the bare, institutional walls, the contraptions everywhere, reminders of human frailty and decay. “Here?” I asked her. “Yes. Everyone who works here is here to take care of us. They care for us.” Heaven on earth. A different way of looking at things.
The young person and I talked about practicing spotting heaven on earth, about noticing when we were able to see it, strengthening our ability to find it, to glimpse it, taking down the clues of what brings it closer to our senses. The theory being that if we practice, we might find that we see it more readily, and come a little closer in our everyday lives to seeing things as we would see them in heaven: transfigured.
Of course, that elder saint then reminded me that I have far too little practice; in her vision of heaven around her, she saw far further than I ever had.
If we had been on that mountaintop, slumbering with the disciples, which of us would have seen what Peter saw, or heard what he heard? I wonder if I have had sufficient practice to see God’s glory even when it is shining me full in the face.
Of course, Lent, beginning this week, this Wednesday, is a time to practice seeing clearly, through the eyes of repentance, the lens undistorted by sin, undistracted by the world, to see the undisguised image of God, shining through.
We’ll do a couple of Wednesday soup suppers, as usual. We’re going to space them through Lent, and use the time to undertake a couple of service projects, ones that can be done sitting down, around a table; always a little piece of heaven. And we’ll take a couple of trips out, to the Art Museum; for a contemplative run (I am interested to find out how that works. Breathing and contemplation go together beautifully; heavy breathing and contemplation? We’ll see). We’ll take a trip out to volunteer at our local hunger center, and anywhere else that will have us.
We talked just briefly last week about the program, Growing a Rule of Life, which is being undertaken across the diocese, and across the world, by those wanting to nurture their relationship with God and the world this Lent, who want to practice seeing heaven on earth. If you take a book, you can use the program on your own, starting on Wednesday. There’s a link to sign up for daily video prompts, which relate to the questions in the book. You can also choose to come together, on Tuesday nights at 7pm, or on Sundays after church, to view the videos and share your progress, your insights and visions.
We will practice in any way we can seeing with the eyes of heaven; finding heaven on earth. Because when we declare on Ash Wednesday that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, we tell the truth. But we know that there is more to life than the earth can contain. We have seen the mountaintop. We have glimpsed the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; and it is our light in dark times, and our joy in times of celebration: heaven on earth.