Lent II, 5th March 2023
Dick Whittington was an orphan and very poor, living centuries ago out in the rural sticks of England. He had always wanted to go to London because he’d heard the streets were paved with gold (as we all know, of course, my brothers and sisters!). And off he went. There were problems while he was there, needless to say, but eventually Dick Whittington became Lord Mayor of London, which had been foretold by the bells of St Mary-le-bow, just down Cheapside in between St Paul’s Cathedral and Bank Station. Aspiration is an important propellant which drives many forward. We are geared towards seeking a better life, it would seem.
But what does the good life look like? You may recall the 1970s TV series where Tom and Barbara Good decide to throw in the city job and instead try to live through bartering and growing their own vegetables: self-sufficiency was seen as the ideal to which all should aspire. Did we all over the decades become much more money-crazed, which meant one of the great architects of New Labour, Peter Mendelssohn, felt he needed to say that his party “was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”?
What is the best life possible? It’s a question some of you may remember we spend part of a session considering in the Confirmation Classes: what is the best life possible? What does it look like? By the end of Lent we should each have a clearer answer to the question because denying ourselves these things we’ve given up in Lent is about having a clearer sense of the beauty of the life we are called to live here and now. This Lent we’d do well to recall too that if life is so wonderful here, think how much greater it is going to be in Heaven. And this mindset is precisely why the Church has for a few decades now read during Lent the Gospel we’ve just heard of the Transfiguration of our Lord.
Jesus goes up the Mount. He’s just warned the disciples that the Messiah has to suffer and Peter has responded with his often slightly foot-in-mouth approach by saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” The prospect of suffering wasn’t great. Jesus needs to tell Peter he is wrong though and does so by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” but there’s no lingering anger for now we see Jesus taking Peter, along with James and John, to receive this wonderful revelation of the Lord’s glory which is always His. How amazing it must have been, more glorious than the finest sunset, shimmering more than the most beautiful of oceans. The Lord is transfigured: “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light.” We will see this same glory in Heaven and then everything will be put in its proper context: that vision of glory is what we were created for, that’s our story.
But we will also be reminded through our Lenten disciplines and through our hearing of this Gospel that it is possible to get a glimpse of that glory here on earth. We are given foretastes here in our daily lives, the curtains are just pulled back occasionally so we can see it. Perhaps in the wonder of a newborn child, the release from pain experienced when there seemed to be little hope, the reconciliation or rediscovery of a loved one, the love between two people, the rehabilitation of one thought beyond the pale, a beautiful landscape. And to be held before us later on in Mass, the chief revelation of the Lord’s glory we have on earth is the bread and wine offered following the Lord’s command. Yes these simple everyday substances are transformed by the Holy Spirit into being for us the Lord’s Body and Blood, His ongoing physical presence in the Church. We see there too the Lord’s glory concealed under earthly things and we are invited to be part of it. As the Psalmist says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in Him,” (Psalm 34:8).
St Peter the chief apostle up that mount can see this is wonderful: “Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here,” he exclaims (words we’ll sing in the hymn later on). But his response is too materialistic: “If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The cloud envelops them though as if to make the divine response; it incorporates the three apostles in to the glory that is then revealed. The cloud is a sign of God’s presence in the scriptures, such a cloud descends on Solomon’s Temple as part of its consecration as a place of worship, a house of prayer (I Kings 8:10-12). And centuries earlier, God’s people had been led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21) away from the bondage of Pharoah and off to the freedom offered them by the Lord. The Apostles share in the divine life, as the cloud enfolds them.
But Peter’s response is too materialistic: this is a glory that cannot be prolonged by building tents! And perhaps our versions of what the best life is are too materialistic too. Often our response will be about health, what’s best for our family and loved ones. We might even use the word “success” or something a bit humbler like “enough to get by.” We might say happiness. We might - if we’re going through a rough time - say something like “surviving.” (Yes, life can feel like a marathon or an assault course with no clear end in sight and when all we need to go is keep going.) But these things - good though they may be - are not definitions of the best life possible.
Perhaps part of the origins of the word “Lent” is the word for “slow.” We take things hopefully a bit slower in this season, liberated by not having so many material things to do, less coffee to make or fewer cakes to eat or whatever it might be, and more time for prayer, for considering and offering ourselves in thanksgiving, for what’s really important. For sometimes we probably don’t even stop to to consider what the best life looks like and how our life compares to that. This encourages unsatisfactory states to persist, be it abusive relationships, habits of sin, unfulfilling work. Wondering what the best life looks like can move us to a greater experience of the freedom God calls us to.
So, what does the best life look like? Well, it will involve a Cross, I’m afraid. Jesus has said in the verses prior to the Transfiguration: “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’” (St Matthew 16: 24-26). When we’re aware we are carrying Crosses, this is not a sign of failure. Often they are signs of love: we may be carrying the Cross of the awareness of sin and we lament those sins and this is because we love the Lord our God. We carry the Cross of mourning the loss of loved ones but this Cross springs from our love for them. These are Crosses that spring from love, not from hate, apathy or failure.
And we should be mindful, my friends, that God does actually want us to have the best life possible. God knows what the best ‘me’ - the best ‘you’ - looks like and He longs us to be that person. Jesus declared that He came that we may life and have it in abundance, to the full (St John 10:10). The Kingdom of God is where the blind can see, the lame can walk and the sins of those who are weighed down are forgiven, this is the ushering in of a most excellent life indeed and it’s one Jesus came to bring.
So, are our priorities too materialistic? Do we consider whether our holidays or the place we intend to live will mean we can’t honour our commitments to worship? Do we take jobs or start education courses which will similarly diminish our capacity to serve God and neighbour? Do we realise the difference it is almost certainly going to make if we start dating someone who isn’t a practising Christian? For yes, on the one hand we must use our skills and talents to the best of our ability and that will mean taking the promotion we’re offered; but equally if the pressures will stifle our charity and our prayer life, it’s really not worth the money. Often the saints are those who are very reluctant to accept prominent positions within the Church: consider St Ambrose’s reluctance when the See of Milan was offered him. Often the saints were those who got rid of their wealth in pursuit of that perfection encouraged by the Lord: consider St Francis of Assisi in this regard. Some, like St Martin de Porres, celebrated in our churches, really had pretty grim lives throughout, facing prejudice, poverty and thankless tasks. But these are the holy ones of God, they lived the supremely good life.
So, my friends, may our Lenten disciplines give us fresh understand of what the good life looks like: it’s not just about gorging on material things, but nor is it just about shunning them. It is about having the Lord’s glory always before us and surrendering ourselves to the cloud - as it were - the cloud of God’s presence. Our decisions must seek to cooperate with God’s purposes and we should look to His eternal gifts as we seek to do this. The things of this world - the pomp and the successes - will pass but St Paul reminds us what will endure: Faith, Hope and Love. May these be our treasures as we seek to live a life that is good.