|Mount Tabor, southern Galilee|
The high mountain where Jesus is transfigured in front of his three closest disciples does not have a name in any of the gospels, but for centuries it has been thought it was Mount Tabor. Somewhat of a landmark in the area of southern Galilee, which is where Jesus and his disciples were travelling at this point, Mount Tabor is one of the highest mountains in southern Galilee. At almost 2000 feet above sea level, it was visible from most locations in the area. People could plot distance and direction with it on the horizon. In addition to that, it has a broad, almost flat summit. It could be climbed fairly easily, yet was high enough to be actually in the clouds some days.
Besides the fact that mountains are often, in many religions and cultures, associated with leaving the mundane world below and having an close experience with the divine, mountains also help people get their bearings. My parents have a house in the North Carolina mountains that is perched, facing westward, at the very edge of the Blue Ridge. When I’m up there, I spend a good bit of my time glancing back and forth between the wondrous view in front of me and Google Earth on my computer, trying to find out where I am on this earth in relation to the mountain peaks I’m seeing.
Richmond is just far enough east not to have any real peaks from which to survey the area, unless you count that strange, giant dirt mound just off 288 and I-64 at the edge of Short Pump—what is that thing? I remember that when I first arrived here I spent a good bit of time one day looking out of one of the windows down at MCV hospital while I was visiting someone. Looking out over the landscape, I tried to make sense of where Shockoe Bottom was from where I was standing, how downtown slopes off suddenly around 14th street, how the James River starts to curve a bit more southward past downtown. A newcomer to the area, I was getting my bearings.
I think that’s a large reason why Jesus takes his disciples up this mountain. He’s getting his bearings, and he’s giving them theirs. They’ve had a string of good experiences with healing and teaching. Peter has just started to put two and two together about Jesus’ identity. Like the vantage point offered by any high spot, this transfiguarion on Mount Tabor will now give them perspective. It gives them the chance to see their own location—their own relationship to him, their own call to discipleship—in relation to where they’re going. Although the Scripture here doesn’t mention anything about what they can see off the side of the mountain—where, for example, the Jordan River starts to flow southward out of the Sea of Galilee—it’s clear that they’re given some sort of glimpse of Jesus’ final destination.
|"Transfiguration of Christ" Giovanni Bellini (1455)|
The specific events of this transfiguration may seem a little otherworldly, but if you put all the images and visions together for a moment, you start to realize that one perspective they gain has to do with Christ’s being at the center. All the focus is on him. That’s what the dazzling white clothes are for. Appearing together with the two biggest heroes of Hebrew history underscores it. The voice of God, which had also occurred at his baptism, is now heard by others for the first time. And even though Jesus strangely silences them about what they’ve heard and seen, we get the idea that they come down that mountain with a slightly greater appreciation for who he is and for how important he is.
This is all a very helpful but sometimes jarring remedy to any spirituality or religion that ends up being too “me-focused.” I know I spend hours wondering how God is speaking to me, or how God fits into my life and consider, for example, whether there may be signs intended especially for me from God that I am misinterpreting, or—worse yet—missing altogether.
Maybe you have the same struggles, too. The perspective from the mount of Transfiguration should shake us out of all that. This voice from above hones in to say, “Listen to Jesus. It matters more to you, Phillip Martin, that I speak through him than if I ever speak to you.” Said differently, while it true that God is present in each of our lives, speaking here and there through this or that person, nurturing us through prayer, none of us is ever the complete center of God’s activity. That position has been given to Jesus, and ultimately faith in Christ means that we should be more interested in how God is present in his life. Ultimately our time and energy are better spent, spiritually-speaking, paying attention to Jesus and the life Jesus leads. It is better for us to listen to Jesus and the words Jesus speaks, because eventually Jesus—not any of us—will die and rise as a ransom for many.
Notice as soon as that mysterious voice stops speaking, the disciples saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. The point is driven home: only Jesus. All the world gets its bearings in him and the love he has for us.
Another way that perspective comes into focus on that mountain of transfiguration has to do with the place Jesus is ultimately going. The disciples do not appreciate it at the time, but they have received a glimpse of the glory for which Jesus is bound, a glory to which he will bring them, as well. Like a sunrise that is visible from one mountain summit to another, but not noticeable in the valley below, the transfiguration is a glimpse of the resurrection, the dazzling, beautiful light of Jesus’ risen glory. It is the consummation, the completion of all that God had hoped for God’s people through the words of the prophets like Moses and Elijah. It is a life where all of creation will be given a bright, dazzling new existence because of its relationship to Jesus.
|"Transfiguration" Fra Angelico|
This is the perspective that Jesus gives the disciples, and it is vitally important, because they will come down that mountain. They will watch Jesus come down from that high point into a real shocking bottom, and it will be crucial that they remember that glorious, transforming light is still the destination. Of course, they won’t really remember. The darkness of Good Friday makes it easy for them to lose their way. Indeed, all perspective is lost as Jesus climbs that lonely dirt mountain of Golgotha nestled in that valley of death. And yet, in the distance, the rising sun will pierce that gloom. The transfiguration is a reminder, a promise that greater glory does call us onward, that our end is in Christ, because Christ holds the end.
I read a piece by a school headmaster and long-time counselor of teens a few weeks ago who wrote about the three most important questions parents these days should be asking their teenagers. The first one, he said, is, “Who tells us who we are?” Could you imagine that conversation happening around the dinner table? I think the transfigured Christ would like to tell us who we are. The second question was “Where do we want to go with our lives?” As it turns out, the article was written in response to the millennial generation and their emerging signs of ennui, their sense in young adulthood of being lost and without purpose. According to this writer, it’s if we’ve raised a generation (or more!), that is well-educated, well-heeled, and well-prepared, technologically-savvy and well-resourced, but with precious little sense of who determines their identity and even less sense of what the ultimate goal is. They’re good in the moment…but they suffer from lack of grand perspective.
It was really an article about all of us, truth be told. With no one like God speaking out of the cloud of our sin and our waywardness, we don’t know who we really are. With no one like Jesus leading us through the shocking bottoms of our lives, we have no idea that God has descended to the valley eventually to take each one of us to the top. With no promise of the glory that God grants Jesus Christ, it is easy to forget that we are bound for greater things. We, too, are promised a great transfiguration when we are finally rid of this weight of sin that clings so tightly.
A lot of people have been waiting for this day, Lucia. Plans have been made, parties organized, family gathered. And people have already been talking about the family you have, the roots of faith and love and hope you’ve been given. There is no doubt the foundation is strong and you’ve got a lot going for you here at the beginning. Both of your parents are ordained pastors. (Well, on second thought, start praying now!!). Your grandfather is a beloved bishop in your branch of the church. All of your grandparents are living and healthy, involved in their communities of faith and wanting to hold you every moment they can. You’ve got aunts and uncles who love you and model Christ for you.
But, Lucia, it’s not really your beginning in faith that we’re celebrating today—as strong as it is—and the greatest gift of this baptismal journey is not the wonderful roots your parents are giving you as they bring you to that font. The biggest gift is that today they're giving you an ending. It’s your destination that we’re focusing on. For in this water you are claimed by that Man who climbs all mountains for you. And the man who descends the darkest valley for you. Today you are claimed by the promise that this Savior will welcome you home, transfigured, whenever your life here comes to an end. Lucia, little burst of light, you get perspective today that no one else in the world can give you. Life-giving, life-saving perspective...a perspective that will help you answer any of the questions life throws at you.
And we rejoice partly because your baptism gives us the opportunity to ponder again our own journeys in light of this perspective. We lean in a little closer…listen a little harder to his words…cherish the light a little more. We are transfixed by the glimpse of glory today, but trust all the more that God’s beloved Son will walk down this mountain with us and then ascend--Alleluia, Praise Him!--to an even greater mountain Son-rise in the end.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.