Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Significant things happen on mountains in many religious traditions, not least Judaism and Christianity. For instance, Noah’s ark came to rest on Ararat; Moses received the law on Sinai; the Temple was located on Mount Zion; and the mysterious Transfiguration of Jesus is traditionally located on Mount Tabor. High ground is, appropriately, the place for divine encounters.
Some of you may have read Bill Bryson’s book, Notes from a Small Island. In one passage, in his inimitable style, he writes that there are two kinds of walking in Britain: the everyday kind that gets you to the pub and back home again, and the more earnest kind that involves stout boots, ordnance survey maps, rucksacks and facing up to every kind of weather. Bryson tells of one occasion when he is invited for a so-called ‘amble’ up a hill with some of his English friends:
‘Well of course it was anything but an amble. We clambered for hours up vast perpendicular slopes, round towering citadels of rock and emerged at length into a cold bleak lofty nether world, so remote that even the sheep looked startled to see us….I gasped and ached and spluttered and realised I had never done anything remotely this unnatural and vowed never to attempt such folly again. And then just as I was about to lie down and call for a stretcher, we crested a final rise and found ourselves magically, on top of the earth….amid an ocean of swelling summits. I had never seen anything so beautiful before… “Jesus Christ!” I said, and realised I was hooked on climbing mountains.’
Well, inappropriate use of the name of our Lord apart (or was it?), I guess many of us can relate to that experience – not totally dissimilar to that of Peter, James and John. There is something incredibly memorable about climbing a mountain, even a relatively small one that only claims the title ‘hill’. Two that stick in my mind are Mount Nebo in Jordan, traditionally the place from which Moses looked out over the Jordan valley towards the Promised Land (but we went up by car!) and, closer to home, but no less majestic, Mount Snowdon in Wales. Getting to the top feels like both an achievement and a revelation and, while it lasts, that feeling can be quite heady and emotional. Then you realise, of course, that you’ve got to go down again – and that, perhaps ironically, the journey back down can often present more challenges than the climb up.
Throughout Scripture, these mountains and hills, and the journeys up and down, are vivid pictures of our human pilgrimage to find God both up there in mysterious transcendence, but also down here among us in the ordinariness of the plain.
The chosen three disciples climb the mountain holding the memory of all they have witnessed since they chose to leave everything behind to follow this man, Jesus. They have seen so much: the sick being healed; the possessed set free; storms calmed; situations transformed. He seems to turn things upside down and re-orientate life and lives, creating a new sense of justice and order. Jesus is a man who sets others free to do the kinds of things and be the kinds of people they never believed possible. It’s like the barriers that bound them have been broken down and, from the top of these metaphorical mountains, they catch a vision of new horizons and possibilities. Small wonder that the three disciples want to preserve this transfiguring moment on the mountain, because it is a long way down from here. At this stage, they apparently still have no idea just how far down they will have to go with Jesus as Jerusalem comes in sight.
I guess all of us have, at rare moments, sensed the glory of the mountain top, when what seemed a half-formed hope, longing or impossibly idealistic dream was suddenly there, present, real and within our grasp. But, of course, you cannot sustain those moments indefinitely. Despite Peter’s good intentions in wanting to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, such moments can’t be contained or preserved in a booth or a tent.
A Buddhist writer calls his book on meditation: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Here’s one reflection from it: ‘Most spiritual accounts end with illumination or enlightenment,’ he writes, ‘but what happens after that? What happens when the Zen master returns home to wife and children? What happens when the Christian mystic goes shopping? What is life like after the ecstasy?’ And it’s true, isn’t it? After any sublime experience, you still have the washing up to do and the rubbish to dispose of. The ordinary, the habitual and the routine continue. Likewise, the Gospel story does not end with the glory of the Transfiguration: there is much further to travel yet.
This week, the Church calendar will take us into Lent, a time where we must face the desert experience, a wilderness which will eventually lead to a place where apparent failure, suffering and death will have to be confronted. Much as we would wish to avoid it, we can’t, for this part of the deal of being human, too. Another hill will have to be climbed soon, but this time it will be one outside a city wall, and a cross must be carried there, making the journey hard going, costly and painful.
This is the paradoxical nature of Christian faith. Just when the moment of revelation leads us to believe we possess the answers and have it all sussed, we find we have to set those answers down and move on. Just when the disciples thought they had reached the pinnacle of glory with Jesus, they had to go down and start all over again: they still did not grasp that they would have to lose everything to gain everything. This is the God who calls us to let go, again and again, and to move forward in trust. Our journey might occasionally take us to the mountain top, but much of it will take us to the sometimes cold realities of the plain, the desert and the valley. Yet the moments of transfiguration are not wasted. St Ignatius called these moments of grace ‘consolation’. And he believed we should store up the memories of these moments and re-member them in times of desolation, rather like grain stored up in times of plenty to sustain us during the time of famine.
A priest writes of a visit to Israel, and the climb up Mount Tabor in the very early morning, before the crowds arrived, seeking his own quiet moment of transfiguration. ‘I found a narrow pathway curling down into a field of red poppies among trees, and there discovered concealed in the grass on the Mount of Transfiguration piles of litter, plastic bottles and wrappers, the discarded rubbish of years of tourism: transfiguration side by side with the garbage of our world; God’s glory side by side with human mess.’
Ultimately, the Transfiguration is not about the esoteric splendour of mountain tops. It’s about the transfiguration of all of our lives – not least our own concealed rubbish. A useful insight as we step in to the wilderness of Lent this week. Remember, though: there is a long way to go, but the journey won’t end in the desert. It will begin again in a garden where we will find the stone has been rolled away, and the tomb stands empty – perhaps the ultimate place of Transfiguration, where life will triumph, even over death.