Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Matthew 17:1-2
Sunday’s festival of The Transfiguration of our Lord is a bridge between the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle that comes to a close and the Lent-Easter cycle that begins on Ash Wednesday.
On a high mountain, Jesus’ identity is revealed and proclaimed, as the same voice that spoke at his Baptism announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him!”. This vision of glory sustains us as Jesus faces his impending death in Jerusalem. We turn this week to Ash Wednesday and our yearly baptismal journey from Lent to Easter.
We often speak of mountaintop experiences as those joyous times we look forward to with excitement and look back upon fondly, such as summer camp or an annual hiking trip. But actually climbing a mountain can have profound effects. On a simple level, to go up the mountain is to risk one’s balance: our ears might pop, we might get dizzy, and we might trip. Or we might hear or see something we cannot handle. Making the climb is the first step and is already a commitment. Staying on the summit and realizing we could do even more requires more courage, and letting that experience transform us, transfigure us, is scarier still. But the effort is worthwhile. The vista is gorgeous.
Similarly, the mountaintop moments in today’s readings were awe-inspiring, yes, but also full of devouring fires, clouds, and fear. Vision is obscured, the familiar becomes unknown, and nothing is the same. People get lost in fires, clouds, and fear, unable to find their way, but God’s presence is where we get both lost and found.
Many biblical encounters with God involved fear. On this festival Sunday, we are reminded that God is not always the tender shepherd or the mothering hen that brings comfort and peace. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis employed the lion Aslan as a representation of God. When little Lucy asks if Aslan is safe, she is told, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The truth is, we can no more plan or control our mountaintop times with God than we can stay there forever, as much as we think we would like to. God’s place is to invite, ours to respond; faces bowed to the ground.
Eventually, of course, the time comes to leave that mountain, walking with Jesus down to the valley and getting dusty with the ashes of daily life. At the end of our worship on Sunday, we will symbolically “roll up the Alleluias,” recognizing that this is the end of a glorious season celebrating Christ’s light and the entrance to the “valley” season of Lent. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do down in the valley. On the contrary, the traditional disciplines of Lent—fasting, prayer, and gifts to the poor—help us maintain the eyes, ears, and heart to see and hear God whenever and however God appears.