Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Light For the Dark Ahead

Mountaintops are glorious places.  I remember one summer day climbing to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.  We set out from Pinkham notch in the sun, climbed to Tuckerman Ravine, and started up the Lion’s Head Trail.  When we reached the Alpine Garden, clouds came in to shroud the summit, and so we did the final mile going from cairn to cairn, at last reaching the Summit House, and a chance to rest and put on dry clothes.

While we were sitting by the windows, eating our lunch and planning how to keep everyone together for the foggy descent, a wind came up, and in a space of less than ten minutes the sky cleared, to reveal a view a hundred miles in all directions.

The truth is, we’d have been happy to stay there for the rest of the week, but we knew there was more for us to do, and with our new vision we could see where we’d been, what the trail down was like, and looking carefully we could just make out the location of the trailhead that would mark the end of the journey.  Though it was still a rugged four-and-a-half miles down, we were uplifted by the view, and steadied in being able to match landscape with our maps.

That experience doesn’t come close to what happened to Peter, James and John when Jesus took them up on a mountain, but it helps us understand why “mountaintop experiences” are such powerful images in our lives, and also in the lives of the Israelites.

Remember that Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to talk with God, and when he comes down, his face shines with such a glory that the people can’t bear to look directly at him.  When the time of his death comes, God leads him up Mt. Nebo, where he looks over the Jordan, and sees the Promised Land, confirmed in the assurance that Joshua will lead the people to their new home. 

It is on Mt. Carmel that Elijah confronts the priests of the fertility gods, known as Baals, and wins a decisive victory over them.  Then, when his life is in danger, he flees to Mt. Sinai, where he seeks God.  There is fire, but that’s not God’s voice; there is wind, but that’s not God’s voice; there is an earthquake, but God’s voice isn’t there either.  Finally Elijah hears a “still, small voice,” and in that voice, God calls him to return to his prophetic vocation.  Hold those mountaintop experiences in mind as we think about the Transfiguration. 

First, note where it falls in Luke’s gospel.  It comes at the mid-point, as the time of the Galilean ministry draws to a close.  A few days earlier Jesus asks the disciples who the crowds think he is, and who they think he is.  Peter speaks the words, “You are the Christ,” the confession upon which Jesus declares he will build his church.  With the knowledge that his circle of disciples know who he is, Jesus also knows it is time to begin the final journey to Jerusalem.

But first, a time to strengthen these three.  Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a mountaintop, and while they are there a stunning experience unfolds.  What we call “The Transfiguration” served these disciples in several different dimensions...and “dimensions” is the right word. 

Some scholars dismiss it as an Easter experience read backwards into the preEaster ministry of Jesus.  A big problem with that theory is that in none of the Easter stories do we see Jesus illuminated and shining, and in none of them do we see him in conversation with spiritual giants like Moses and Elijah.  If it is a misplaced resurrection story it is utterly unlike any of the others.  A second problem with that theory is that Jesus is discussing his coming death with Moses and Elijah, something he would not have been doing after the resurrection.  In short, it just doesn’t fit as a misplaced resurrection story, so it must be something else

The “Something Else” is a particular revelation to three key disciples.  Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of two characters who are central to Israel’s past, and both are associated with mountaintops.  Moses is not only the great lawgiver, but also the leader of the Exodus, and it is the word “Exodus” that is used to describe Jesus’ coming death.  Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, knows a thing or two about mountaintops himself.  So here we have the two greatest figures in the Israelites’ past in conversation with the newly discerned Messiah, discussing the strange and fearsome journey he is about to undertake.

Peter, beside himself with this unexpected occurrence, wants to erect tents, and stay on the mountaintop forever, but that’s not why the vision was granted.  The Voice, speaking in the cloud states the real purpose: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”  Peter, James and John, will become major figures in the early church.  This moment is to show where their journey with Jesus is going to lead, as Jesus moves forward to meet death and resurrection.  They are being confirmed in their conviction that Jesus is Messiah, strengthened for the very difficult days just ahead, and reassured that all will come to a glorious end.

In the details of the Transfiguration, we learn something of how God chooses to redeem the human race.  Jesus is to follow the path of healing the world’s wounds through love that suffers on behalf of others – that’s what he’s discussing with Moses and Elijah.  But isn’t just plain love enough?  Why does he have to get mixed up in all this suffering?  A good question - one that Peter has already asked.  The answer is that if the Messiah comes and just loves people, or if he leads a successful military campaign against the Romans, he won’t do anything any other good teacher or smart revolutionary couldn’t do.  At best he’ll have a successful career and then die.  They may talk about Him for years after, but in the end they'll also despair, for there is none like Him.  “If only we had Him back,” they’d say, “there might be some hope.”

Jesus, by contrast, is preparing Peter, James and John to understand what real love is like – he models it, indeed embodies it, and after the travails and struggles that lead to Golgotha, in the upside-down new world of resurrection, they recall this time on the mountain, and in the memory find the key to understanding what it all means.

When it’s time to leave the mountaintop, they find themselves plunged into the events on the road to Jerusalem.  All four gospels recount an immediate immersion in the tasks of ministry.  A man comes seeking healing for his possessed son, and from that point on the pace picks up.  The time on the mountain was to fortify for the journey, and the journey is over rough and difficult roads.

What, then, does this experience hold for us?  Why did all four gospel writers consider it important to include?  You and I can make do without having such experiences ourselves, but perhaps we need Peter, James and John to have had this one for us.

It was a moment of grace: an unearned gift given for a purpose.  Grace is never deserved, and certainly cannot be commanded.  God does not owe us such moments, but if they come, they come as a strengthening for whatever days and challenges lie ahead.  Whether or not we personally have these experiences, the record of them in scripture, and in the lives of others, can point us to the deeper truths they embody.  First, that living as God calls us to live is a struggle with real stakes - the struggles of our lives are important.  Second, that God will be with us in the struggle, providing what we need to carry it through.  Third, the essence of the struggle is for us to learn how to love as Jesus loved, and for that love to have a real impact in the world.

Last, though the road is long and rough, the end is not in doubt, and when we finally see it from the vantage point of journey's end, we will be astonished to see that we were never alone, and that in the critical moments especially, we were surrounded and supported by a host of companions, the full light and brilliance of whom we could not fully bear if we were to face them unblinking in the present

Howard MacMullen
© February 2013

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