Our opening prayer talks about spiritual sight. Our first reading and our gospel share a theme of the beloved son. How does this relate to Lent?
One of my favourite books on art is called Seeing the Invisible. The book is on the artist Wassily Kandinsky, but the author – a French bloke called Michel Henry – makes the more general point that the job of art is to make the invisible visible. What does he mean by this? Well, I think this sounds more complicated than it is. Let me give a couple of examples of how I understand this.
When I was in high school and was trying to work out what university courses to do, I asked my dad why he chose law. He said studying law was really useful for seeing how things work. He mentioned being able to walk down a street and realise why cars drove on the left, how it was that businesses could get started and transactions occur, how society could organise itself more generally. He was talking about being able to see all these invisible realities because of what he had learned in law school. They had become part of his vision when he interacted with the world.
Something similar happened to me when I was going through an art gallery with a friend. The gallery had on exhibit some very famous Van Gough paintings. Not sure if The Starry Night was one of them, but there was definitely one which had a similar sky to that painting, a sky made up of what looked like different rivers of light. I remember my friend being transfixed by it. She stared at it for ages and when I came over to try to see what she was seeing, she said, No-one saw skies like this before him. Somehow he had been able to communicate a vision that enabled others to see what he saw.
I think we can probably say the same thing about science. If we think about all the great leaps in science, whether they be the Copernican revolution, Maxwell’s equations on electromagnetism, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity or even the nuclear model and quantum mechanics, they all involve imagining a new way of seeing – perhaps mathematical – a new way of seeing how things work and fit together. And the fields of science or art or law in some way metaphorically extend our vision to see what we had not seen before.
We can reflect on the Transfiguration in the same way. And it is interesting to do so by making a comparison between the gospel of the transfiguration and that of the Baptism of Jesus, something that some early Christian writers did.
As we know, in the Baptism of Jesus, the Father proclaims: “This is my beloved Son.” The same thing happens at the Transfiguration. However, the difference with the Transfiguration is that the cloud also envelops the Apostles who are with Jesus. So, some of the early Christian writers saw in this the beginning of the Church, in that the Father now identified the Apostles as part of the Son. What might this mean? How might this help us think about rendering the invisible visible?
Typically, the Transfiguration is understood as a revelation of Christ’s divinity. Following on from Peter’s confession of faith, the vision of Christ with Moses and Elijah and the transformation of his appearance confirmed Christ’s divine identity for his Apostles ahead of the Passion. This speaks to seeing what is invisible in Jesus. However, the comparison with the baptism that I just mentioned might point to a further interpretation. Perhaps it is also about seeing the invisible in each one of us.
In the Baptism, Jesus enters into solidarity with sinners. We know he undergoes John’s baptism of repentance even though he is without sin. Perhaps this is part of the revelation of the divine life. This is part of his being the beloved Son. Jesus sees each one of us as worth dying for. Is this what we see when we look at each other? When we are walking down the street do we see the other person we encounter as someone who is of more value than the whole of the universe? Do we really believe that the person next to me right now means so much to the Son of God that he would die for that person?
And the Transfiguration takes this even further. God the Father, when he identifies the Apostles with Christ, tells us that each one of us is not only worth more than all of creation, but that our true identity is in Christ. Each one of us is properly understood as one in the Son of God. Do we believe that? Do we see that? Do we act like that to each other?
Last week, I gave one definition of the Church: as Christ’s life perpetuated and growing through space and time. Another definition of the Church is creation transfigured. That is: it is precisely our job as Christians to give witness to the truth. We are to see the invisible. We are to see the truth of one another. That each one of us is of infinite value. That each one of us has been chosen by God as worth dying for. That our destiny lies in God, to become fully divine.
Lent then becomes a time for purifying our vision. We must polish our hearts in order to see the truth. We must see this light in each other, and in doing so let this light into the world through our witness. Let’s pray that God will transfigure our vision so as to see God’s glory in our brothers and sisters.