Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas.
Whatever mountain we may have ascended, and whether we hike to the top or arrive there by less strenuous efforts, we often have a sense of being close to the divine, closer to God. The views of the world we gain from that perspective can approach a profound religious experience. Sometimes we even call them “peak experiences.”
In taking on sacred significance for so many, it is like many other mountains throughout human history. Mountains have been the focal point of human religious imagination. They seem to be a point of contact between the world of the gods and the world of humans—Mount Olympus, for example, the home of the Greek gods.
Our readings speak to us of two mountaintop encounters with the divine. The first is that of Moses on Mt. Sinai. We receive a brief glimpse into the complicated and lengthy story of the Hebrew people’s experiences at the foot of Mt. Sinai. To summarize, after fleeing from the Egyptians, the Israelites have come to this place to worship God. They have already experienced a theophany—thunder and lightning, earthquake, and smoke. They have received the 10 commandments directly from God—God speaking to them—and what is often called the Book of the Covenant, and now God calls Moses back up the mountain to receive these laws in written form, inscribed by God on stone tablets.
Elements of this story recur in the story from the Gospel—the transfiguration. There’s the chronological echo—the reference to six days; there’s the cloud that descends on the mountain. Not mentioned in the brief excerpt from Exodus but another important connection, is that Moses’ physical appearance was transformed by his encounter with God. We’re told that his face shone.
It’s a mysterious story, the Transfiguration, one that makes many of us in the twenty-first century uncomfortable with its miraculous aspects and special effects. It’s especially jarring because we are hearing it after spending some time with the Sermon on the Mount. While Jesus’ teachings there may make us uncomfortable, the notion of Jesus as a teacher of ethical precepts is much more in keeping with our sensibilities than his metamorphosis (that’s the Greek word used here), his face shining, his clothes dazzling white, and the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah with him.
There’s a great deal in this story that could focus our attention. But I think it’s important to note when we are reading it, on this last Sunday after Epiphany. One of the gospels’ versions of the transfiguration is read on this Sunday, even though the Feast of the Transfiguration is a separate observance, on August 6. We read it now because it’s a fitting capstone to the season after Epiphany, a time when we consider the ways God makes Godself manifest to us through Jesus Christ.
It directs our attention backward to Epiphany, to Christmas, and especially to Jesus’ baptism, as the voice that spoke from heaven then, speaks again, saying almost the exact same words, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” Now it speaks for the benefit of Jesus’ closest companions, Peter, James, and John, but something is added, “Listen to him!” The experience of seeing Jesus’ glory, and the figures of Moses and Elijah with him, is meant to underscore the importance of his teaching.
While looking back, the story also propels us forward. Just as we are about to enter into the season of Lent, to draw our attention slowly and inexorably to the cross, to prepare ourselves for the events of Holy Week, so too does this story foreshadow the cross and Jerusalem. But it also foreshadows the resurrection—not just in the dazzling appearance of the transfigured Jesus, but in his warning to the disciples not to speak of this event until after his resurrection. There are other echoes of Jesus’ last days and resurrection. The three disciples who accompany him here also accompany him when he prays in Gethsemane and when he comes to them after they’ve collapsed in fear, Jesus says to them “Get up” using a form of the same word that’s translated as “raised” in the last verse.
When we read and reflect on this story, we often focus our attention on the fickle disciples, especially Peter. This comes a week after he made his great confession that Jesus is the Christ, and here he seems unable to make sense of this experience. Many commentators see his desire to construct booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah as an effort to normalize and perpetuate this miraculous encounter. But “booths” or dwellings should remind us also of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, one purpose of which is to remind the Jewish people of their experience in the wilderness at Sinai. And the mention of Moses and Elijah draws our attention to their importance in the Judaism of this period as eschatological figures, whose reappearance would usher in the Messianic age. Fascination with them in particular was partly due to the circumstances surrounding their departures from earth. Moses is said to have died after his final encounter with God, who buried him, while Elijah didn’t die at all, he was carried off to heaven by chariots of fire.
In any case, the disciples and Jesus descended from the mountain and began the journey to Jerusalem that would end at another mountain: Mount Calvary. Whatever effects that profound religious experience may have had on Peter, James, and John, its power would not carry them through to the end; their doubts and struggles would persist. Peter would ignominiously deny Jesus in his hour of greatest need and all of three would abandon him when he was crucified.
In fact, something similar happened during the forty days that Moses spent in God’s presence at the top of Mt. Sinai. While he was there, down at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites began to complain and worry and Moses’ brother Aaron would fashion a golden calf for them to worship.
We are familiar with that dynamic as well. Whatever deep or powerful religious experiences we have, those moments when we feel especially close to God, often are quite fleeting and leave us thirsting for more even while we mourn their passing. We may even find ourselves seeking such experiences as reassurance, or view them as central to our religious lives.
But there’s more to our faith than that. The voice that spoke from heaven to the disciples, “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased” concluded with the admonition, “Listen to him.” Moses’ encounter with God at the top of Mt. Sinai was not primarily about his experience of the divine. Rather, the whole of the episode of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai was about the giving of the Law, the establishment of the covenant between God and God’s chosen people.
We are approaching Lent. It is a time, as the invitation to a Holy Lent encourages us in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, to “self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy word.” I hope many of you will take advantage of the opportunities that are offered in the coming weeks, to grow more deeply in your faith, so that through such growth, your experience of the love of Christ can expand and enrich your lives.