First off, I want to say thank you to all of you for your love and concern for me and my family over the last few weeks. I had scarcely shared the news of Dad’s death before emails and messages were coming in from you all, and later, flowers and donations and offers of help. It was a gift especially to know that I could just stay out in Washington with my mom, that everything was so well handled here at church and that my family here was being tended to. So thank you.
It is good to be back, but I hope you’ll understand when I say a big part of me didn’t want to come back. I wanted to stay where the memories of Dad are sharpest, and where other family members who knew him are, and where I didn’t have to deal with anything else of life going forward. But that’s not how it works – the living do have to keep on living. I had to come back and reengage.
In a strange sort of way, I guess you could say my time out west mourning my Dad was a kind of mountaintop experience. Unique, unrepeatable, a watershed – and not a place I could stay. Mountaintop experiences aren’t always fun. I’ve had plenty of miserable, fearful times on actual mountains, after all, times of altitude sickness, cold, getting lost, what have you. But mostly the mountains are a place I find solace, inspiration, healing. While I was in Washington I took one afternoon to myself and drove up into the mountains to see Snoqualmie Falls – a place our family always used to go, and quite spectacular with all the rain they’ve had this year – and then further up to the mountain pass that you drive on your way into central and eastern Washington, to marvel at the piles of snow and the busy ski lifts. So I got a touch of the real mountains while I was there, when I needed it.
This Sunday in the church year is one time we all get a little time together on the mountaintop. By a quirk of the lectionary the gospel story we just heard is repeated not only every year at this time, but again in August in the feast of the Transfiguration. And all three synoptic gospels include this story, so it’s clearly an important one. It’s important, we know, because it shows the disciples and us who Jesus really is, a glimpse of his divinity before the resurrection makes it crystal clear. It’s important too because it tells us something of our own tendencies in response to that revelation – seen through the behavior of Peter, humanity’s stand-in in the gospel stories. But what we in the western church sometimes forget is that it is perhaps most important of all for what it tells us about what God intends for us, the process that God is engaged with on us even now. Transfiguration is not just about Jesus; it’s what God is drawing us all toward.
Jesus and his close friends go up a mountain. But this is not the first time he’s gone up mountains. The devil takes him up the mountain in his 40 days of temptations, to show him all the kingdoms of the earth. In Matthew, Jesus preaches the famous Sermon on the Mount from, of course, the mountain. He also retires numerous times to the mountain to pray and commune alone with God. Every gospel has Jesus feeding the multitudes on the mountain. And at the end of the story, after his resurrection, Jesus will ascend from the mountain. There are a lot of mountains in Israel, but Jesus seems particularly drawn to going up them, each and every one of them. (I knew I loved this guy.) So on this trip he takes Peter, James, and John with him, ‘up a high mountain.’ Does he bring them along because he knows what will happen there? Or does he just want them to spend time with him in prayer? We don’t know. But there he is transfigured, suffused with radiant light, dazzling the disciples’ eyes, with Moses and Elijah standing alongside and speaking with him. If they had any doubt before this that Jesus was something special, they can’t doubt now.
And yet of course the disciples can’t make head or tail of what they’re seeing. Here is a vision they did not expect. Here is the presence of the holy, Jesus alongside other great figures of the faith. So Peter’s first instinct is to set up camp. Jesus has taken them, the inner circle, up that mountain, and he has shown them this amazing vision of himself and Elijah and Moses (who also went up mountains, of course), and Peter is convinced that this powerful epiphany is for them alone, the full revelation of what Jesus is for. So he wants to build some booths and stay. This will become a place of pilgrimage, a shrine, he thinks, and we’ll be your temple servants and this is so great, how wonderful that we’ve got the inside dope on what’s really true. But a voice from heaven interrupts him: stop, Peter, this is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him.
Of course they fall to the ground in fear. But Jesus comes to them and touches them, saying, don’t be afraid – get up! Or as the Greek could be translated, ‘be raised.’ It’s one of many times in the gospel when the disciples or others are told not to be afraid. It has to be said over and over again, because when God is standing there before us, we are afraid. That brief moment of thinking they were in control and understood the whole thing – gone. They are overwhelmed all over again.
And then the bright light goes away and they go back down the mountain, because that is where the work is waiting for them, and Jesus tells them to keep this vision quiet to themselves because the resurrection, the real revelation, is still to come. There’s still a lot of work to do. People are waiting for them at the bottom, and when they get to the crowds there will be arguments, and failure, and high anxiety – the crowds will all be mad at the disciples because they can’t heal a boy with a demon, and Jesus will have to wade in and sort them out yet again. They’re not there yet. There is still a long way to go.
And here’s where the truth of the story comes in for us. Not only do we see Jesus as the Christ, transfigured and radiant, a sign of how he is and will be at his resurrection and ascension; not only do we recognize in ourselves our paradoxical impulses of fear and desire to control; but here is a sort of roadmap for where we are going in the spiritual life. We are on this spiritual path not because we are aiming to be better citizens, more moral people. We are on this path to be transfigured, to be made, ourselves, into God. And we have a long, long ways to go.
Maybe this feels startling to hear, that our aim is to be become like God. The early church called it divinization, part of the process of salvation. For whatever reason, it is something the western church mostly left behind and downplayed, but it remains central to the theology of the eastern Orthodox church. One of the most notable theologians to outline it was Gregory of Nyssa, one of the three we now call the Cappadocian fathers, 4th century bishops and writers. Gregory said that as we are created in the image of God, our purpose is to attain union with God, to be God-like. Our purpose, our essence, is to ceaselessly stretch ourselves, climb from height to height, go from glory to glory towards that union. That language is there in our collect prayer today: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be… changed into his likeness from glory to glory. As one writer notes,
How do we go from glory to glory? Glory to glory is not moving from one state of euphoria to another… To go from glory to glory – to be ever-increasing in glory – is to continually be changed into what you were created to be. It is to be conformed to His likeness. It is increasing in the character and nature of God.
There’s a Greek term for this, of course, epekstasis – a word that encompasses striving, stretching, climbing, expanding – and that echoes language of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he talks about ‘straining forward to what lies ahead.’ But here’s the hard part: the process continues throughout eternity. We never actually get there. Every step we take up the mountain leads toward a higher step. There are always more summits to climb. Our spiritual life is one of perpetual desire and longing – and yet, paradoxically, of total joy, because in every moment we are receiving God into ourselves as well. We are fed and longing all at the same time. We never get there; we are always on the road; and yet we are feasting all the way.
In just a few days we will begin the season of Lent – a season of preparation and expectation, like the season of Advent. But for many of us, also a season of attempts at improvement and purification, and penitence for all the ways we have messed up along the path. There’s some good in that, of course. A little honesty is essential for our growth, a little clear-eyed looking at our own faults and failings. If you haven’t done much of that lately, take some time for a reality check with a trusted confidante, or a mirror and your journal, or the practice of private confession with a clergyperson. Lord knows we all get lost in the weeds of our fear and control issues – we need to move up higher to see our temptations clearly.
But that clarity isn’t the only reason for climbing mountains. Lent is a good time to reengage with our longing, to take steps to move toward what we love. Stop all the busyness and distraction and mental junk food and get in touch with what you are longing for. Go for where you find peace. Seek out what truly feeds you.
And if part of you feels like you are having to do this all the time, every year, remember this: we never get to the top of the mountain. We keep climbing anyway. Gregory of Nyssa said that the soul always feels like a beginner, no matter how far advanced we may get on the spiritual path. It is endless. The climb itself is life, from glory to glory.