Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God,
and worship upon the LORD’s holy hill.
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Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?
We use the phrase to speak of a spiritual high, a time of clarity, when our connection with God feels direct and our life feels full of meaning.
From Machu Picchu in Peru to Mt. Fuji in Japan to Mt. Olympus in Greece, mountains are places of spiritual power in cultures all around the world. And in the biblical story there are lots of mountains with special significance. Mount Sinai, where Moses spoke face to face with God and received the Ten Commandments. Mount Zion, the hill where Abraham was said to have received the revelation that he was not to sacrifice his son, and which later became the site of the city of Jerusalem and the location of the Temple itself. And of course the unnamed mountain in today’s gospel, the Mountain of the Transfiguration.
We read this story each year from one of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke, on the last Sunday before Lent. It’s the culmination of the season after Epiphany, which is all about the revelation of Jesus’ glory in the world. From the star that led the Magi to the Christ child, to the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism, to Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding at Cana, and through the calling of his disciples and his early miracles, the time of Epiphany is like one big coming-out party for, as the hymn says, “God in man made manifest.” So on this last Sunday after Epiphany the manifestation is more spectacular than ever. It’s what you might think of as a classic mountaintop experience: Jesus’ three closest disciples get to witness him shining through with the glory of God. His face shining with radiance, just as Moses’ face did so many centuries before at Mt. Sinai. And Moses himself is here as if to prove the point—along with Elijah, the other greatest prophet from the history of Israel. And finally the very voice of God is heard. Glory, hallelujah, amen!
Now the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they can be habit-forming. Youth ministers and church camp directors know how common it is for people to go away on a retreat or spiritual weekend of some kind and have a life-changing experience, only to end up seeking to repeat the experience over and over, never quite recapturing the incredible feeling of the first time. It’s hard to come down from the mountain. And maybe that’s why Peter makes his strange, awkward suggestion about building dwelling places, as if to say: let’s set up camp here and stay. It seems Jesus pretty much ignores him. And in the very next passage, Jesus and his disciples are back down the mountain, in the thick of real life, with Jesus healing a possessed young child; and just a few verses later, Luke tells us that Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. It’s a transition moment in the gospel story. From this point onward, Jesus is no longer in the coming-out party; he’s on the journey towards Jerusalem and the cross.
But we miss the point of the Transfiguration if we think of it as just a beautiful moment, a kind of escape or respite from the troubles of the world, when Jesus gets to go off and socialize with the greats of the past and the disciples are treated to a vision of loveliness to hopefully sustain them all on the tough journey ahead. Because in fact, there’s the closest possible connection between the Transfiguration and the crucifixion; between the mountain of glory and the hill of Golgotha.
Jesus was crucified, the scriptures tell us, at a place called Golgotha, or Skull Hill. Tradition has it that it was a small rocky outcropping, part of a disused quarry just outside the city walls of Jerusalem to the west, close enough to be seen by people traveling to the western city gates. If you were a Roman government official who wanted to make a cruel point, it was a good place for a public execution. And on this sad, rocky little hill of execution Jesus’ mission of love and liberation took him straight onto a collision course with human power.
What happened there was a sad little scene of casual brutality designed to impress passers-by with the danger of crossing the Roman authorities. It certainly didn’t look particularly glorious. In fact, if you were looking for a revelation of glory, for a mountaintop experience, the crucifixion is about the last place you would look. And yet this was the pivotal moment where, unseen and unknown, God was working through Jesus to conquer evil and defeat death itself.
In one sense the crucifixion and the Transfiguration are about as different as two scenes can get. And yet in another, deeper sense they’re intimately connected. At the Transfiguration we see visibly the glory that’s invisible at Golgotha. In a way, the Transfiguration is like a kind of transparent overlay God gives us to lay over that other scene. Instead of this mountain, that rocky hill. Instead of Moses and Elijah on either side of Jesus, two ordinary thieves. Instead of Jesus stripped naked, Jesus in clothes dazzling with God’s light. These two scenes are a matched pair, and here in the waning moments of Epiphany we get a glimpse of the glory that we can see in the cross only if we have eyes to see past surface appearances, into the truth of God’s plan.
The Transfiguration is an overlay, or a set of goggles, if you will. It trains us to see God’s glory in places where we might not otherwise notice it. At the cross. And in other places, wherever Jesus’ love and liberation are at work. It might be happening right now at a flood evacuation center, or a homeless shelter, or in a hospital room. It might be happening this week at your breakfast table or in your workplace. The more ordinary the place, the better. Because it turns out it doesn’t take a mountaintop to glimpse God’s glory. It just takes the eyes of faith. May the glimpse of beauty we’ve received today train us to see that glory where we least expect it: today, and all through Lent, and beyond.