One of my favorite (perhaps most favorite) stories or scenes in C.S.Lewis' powerful book The Great Divorce is that of the lady in the grand procession. The narrator sees a glimmering like a river flowing his way; yet it is not a river of water, but a stream of saints, angels and animals that form an elegant train around a beautiful and revered lady. Thinking that a person of great renown has drawn near, the narrator asks his guide to identify her. The teacher replies, "'It's someone ye'll never heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green...Aye. She is one of the great ones."
On earth she was an ordinary woman. Her face was plain and she was poor. Her accomplishments were few and she was not well known. In the everyday course of events, she was insignificant, forgotten and even belittled. Even her faith was small. But... she was redeemed, she had been "bought with a price." When she was "yet a sinner, Christ died for [her]", and that made all the difference. For in the eternal now of Heaven, she had become extraordinary, beautiful, rich beyond all telling, and known by God!
This tale leapt into my memory last month, as I was writing a eulogy for my stepmother, who died three days short of her 90th birthday. Her life, though filled with a variety of experiences, was ordinary. Her influence, though kindred with that of the Greatest Generation, was limited. Her contributions, though many, were limited to her small circle of friends, family and church members. My Mom was intelligent, but not thoughtful, a hard worker, but not industrious, friendly, but not intimate. She was firm in her faith, but not deep in her theology. She made plenty of mistakes, which, thankfully, I learned to let go of long ago. But all of that is now but a shadow of the greater redeemed reality that she has become.
You see, when we exit this body with its crushing limitations of old age or disease or suffering, we are set free to be not only all of what we could have been without sin, but also all that we shall grow be in the world to come. The Apostle John wrote (vaguely) of this: "...and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1Jn.3:2) Ordinary people may enter Heaven, but they will not stay that way. The truth behind this, one that defies all explanation, is that the soul of the Christian is now fully redeemed, but our other faculties -- our minds and bodies and relationships -- await a greater redemption that will only find fulfillment in the life eternal with God. And this will be the journey, the telos, of Heaven.
After the narrator in The Great Divorce is introduced to the Lady, and learns of her paradoxical story, he witnesses a dramatic encounter between her and someone she knew on earth. Although she is radiating joy and goodness, she stoops to ask for forgiveness from this individual, who now looks ghostly and dwarf-like. We would think that in her holy state she would have forgiven him, and not the other way round. Yet this is the picture of the true process of redemption, the occupation that will fill our heavenly days -- every relationship that we have here on earth will be slowly, deliberately and thoroughly redeemed, conforming us continually into the likeness of Christ, who forgave us all our sins.
No Christian, however well-known or revered is immune from the ordinary life. We all have failures and broken relationships as well as negative life experiences that we cannot control. But God has placed us on a trajectory that will sweep all of those things away as we enter the resurrection life of the Kingdom. We are destined by grace to be victorious over sin and death. Jesus said, "I am making everything new!...He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son." (Rev.21:5,7)
But in spite of the certainty of the wonder of the redemption to come, we are given the opportunity to begin this journey in the here and now. In the passage mentioned above, after the Apostle John marvels at the future possibility of our transformation into the likeness of Christ, he urges us to seek the present formation of our life in Christ: "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." (1Jn.3:3) Although we are so ordinary, we are given with each new day the invitation to do something extraordinary -- if we will only surrender ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who enables us to do (more often than not) the greater works of the kingdom in humble, almost insignificant, ways.
Thus the Christian creed confirms the transforming power of the resurrection: "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." The Apostle Paul likewise declared: "...the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1Cor.15:52) But the power of that change is not merely the body reborn and impervious to illness and decay, it is as well the reality of the soul liberated from sin and evil, so that our entire being, body and soul, will finally live fully and completely as the true humanity we were meant to be.
For the Christian, this change begins the moment we die. "It is sown a natural body, it is raised an spiritual body." Death is the beginning point of eternal redemption. Through physical death we enter into a new and greater life made possible because the death of Christ defeated soul-death and his resurrection guaranteed our everlasting life. So, if we understand death this way, it should change the way we prepare for our own passing, because we will want to see to it that our redemptive actions (done to the best of our ability) begin today and lay the groundwork for who we shall become and all that we must redeem in the world without end. We must live every day with a view to dying well. As Paul reminds us: "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body." (2Cor.4:11)
A favorite song of mine says, "We the redeemed, hear us singing, You are holy, you are holy!" Although we often sing it now as looking back at the Cross, we sing it forward,too, as we anticipate Heaven. And sometimes when I sing that song, I almost see it; I, trembling, touch the boundary of knowing... I, too, along with so many saints in my family, am an ordinary person with an extraordinary future.
Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce, HarperOne, c1946, 1973. Print.