There is often something essential about seeing, times when hearing by itself won't do. When I was a little boy the Queen was driven through our town, and the entirety of the primary school was led down to the high street to welcome her. I was the only child, so my teacher said, who managed to be looking in the wrong direction when the car, at quite some speed to be fair, passed through. 'What will you tell your grandchildren?' Mrs Louchrin asked me. I had been there but might as well have been anywhere.
I remembered this when I was at the papal Mass in Bellahouston Park on the first day of the Holy Father's visit to the UK. Being slightly below average height (only slightly), I had my view impeded by a couple of rather tall priests in front of me, and I had to settle for only hearing the Pope but not seeing him. There were no trees for me to climb - I was there but could as well have been anywhere.
There's something about seeing that anchors you in the event, that makes you more than a feature at the fringe of the crowd. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He could have listened to his teaching and had the same benefit as everyone else. But longing to see for himself, he climbs a tree. And swaying in the branches, hanging on for a good view, he finds that he himself is seen. 'Zacchaeus come down, for I must stay at your house this day.' And with great joy he rushes down to welcome Jesus. What began as curiosity flowers into a joyful homecoming, as Zacchaeus finds himself to have been already seen, known and understood.
What happens next shows that Zacchaeus has started to see everything in a new way. If he can be seen directly, not hidden by the crowd or lost in the tree's foliage, then nothing in his life can every look the same every again. The conversion he embraces is not a way of getting Jesus onto his side or earning his attention. It is the fruit of finding himself in the gaze of his Saviour, and that the life he has lived is too small a thing to contain the promises and the blessings Jesus brings.
So salvation is as easy as climbing a tree. It's about not settling for merely hearing. Jesus is our teacher and tells us how to live a new life. But he is more than a teacher. He is the great event we have been waiting for, the thing we must not miss. Our faith is not just that Jesus tells us what to do or how to live, but that in seeing him we pass beyond the old way of seeing, in which we are the centre of all things, to the real world where God is the true centre, the alpha and the omega.
The life of sin flattens reality around us, makes everything into an object for our use or our gratification. And God too can become like another object in the world, to be weighed up, evaluated, and put to one side. But coming to see Jesus is an experience that changes our whole way of seeing. As one great poet puts it:
If you came this way,
taking any route, starting from anywhere,
at any time or at any season,
it would always be the same: you would have to put off
sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
or carry report. You are here to kneel
where prayer has been valid…
Our salvation begins in the encounter with someone who is not another object in the world, but who reveals the personal depth of the life of God. In him we learn to see ourselves as called to live in a world which is the great event of divine love, and not an empty space for our own needs and desires to be projected.
Salvation is as easy as climbing a tree. Which is what of course our brother Jesus does for us on the cross. He climbs the tree of life, to open to us his own way of seeing the resonance of the sound and shape of the triune love shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in all things. The cross reveals that we are not so much called to look at Jesus, as to see all things in him, with him and through him. He is the light of the world, and in his light we see light.
So climb the tree, see Jesus in the light of faith, and begin to see how the world is not the empty impersonal echo of blind forces, but a place of encounter between lovers, a tree of life where birds of the air find shelter and where we discover that all along we have been seen and known and loved beyond measure.