SJF • Last Epiphany a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.+
Last week we ended a series of Gospel readings and sermons about the Sermon on the Mount. In one of those sermons, I pointed out that Jesus was acting as a new Moses in his teaching on the mountain. And today we hear in our first reading a reference to that original mountain: Mount Sinai, the place where God bent the heavens, came down in the appearance of a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain and Moses went up into the cloud. There it was that God gave Moses the law upon which Jesus would later expand his teaching in his own sermon on that other mount.
In today’s Gospel reading we come to yet another mountain: the mountain of transfiguration. Jesus takes that trusted trio, Peter, James (our own patron saint) and his brother John, up a high mountain. Once there the three disciples witness a dazzling spectacle, a transformation and a Transfiguration. Jesus’s face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. As if that’s not enough, two others join the spectacle: Moses himself and Elijah the prophet. Peter is so awestruck he thinks he’s died and gone to heaven — and in a sense he has, for what he sees is a vision of Christ in glory. All Peter can say is that it is good to be there; so good he’s willing to build three houses for Jesus and these honored visitors from Israel’s past, the giver of God’s law and the prophet of God’s truth.
But suddenly, before anything else can happen, the cloud enshrouds them and the voice of God rings out: This is my Son! This is, of course, by way of contrast. Though Jesus was to some extent a new Moses, and hailed by many as a great prophet, God wants no confusion: this is not just the giver of God’s law nor the prophet of God’s truth but God’s own Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Moses showed God’s way, Elijah proclaimed God’s truth, but Jesus brings new life as well.
In is perhaps good to remember at this point the first, the Number One of the Ten Commandments that God delivered on that other mountain: “I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me... you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” It is good to remember that and contrast it to what is happening on this other mountain. If we ever needed evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, here it is: for the jealous God, the One who wants no one to bow to anyone or anything but him, here tells the three disciples who Jesus is and what they are to do regarding him. This is God’s Son — Way, Truth and Life — and the commandment this time is that they — and we — are to listen to him. They have seen Christ in glory, and are to do as he says.
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The ancient Greeks had the idea that by beholding beauty and greatness people could be made better. Whether it was in the noble tragedies of their theater or in the beauty of architecture or sculpture, they had the idea that beauty could elevate one’s heart and soul.
In is an idea with some staying power. Christians had the same idea when they built the great cathedrals and composed the soaring music of the liturgy. Who could fail to have their hearts lifted as they raised their eyes to trace the vaulted ceilings of those great cathedrals, or allowed their ears to be filled with the sound of an echoing choir in one of those vast spaces, dappled with the sunlight from glorious stained glass windows.
The idea was still at work in the middle of the 19th century. The great Anglican priest Edward Bouverie Pusey anonymously funded the decoration and repair of a parish church in Leeds, in the heart of a region affected by the Industrial Revolution, in a city that even today seems to be drawn in coal-dust tones of charcoal and whitewash. Every art was lavished on the creation of this place of worship, so that those who worked among what William Blake called “these dark satanic mills” might at least, on the Lord’s Day, have a glimpse of the beauty that might lift their hearts and make them better men and women. Pusey believed that a vision of heaven here on earth could point people in the right direction. He wrote, of heaven itself: “Where shall there be an end of loving, where love is endless, infinite? or of gazing on Beauty Infinite, where that very Beauty by our longing and its Sight shall draw us more and more into Itself.”(Sermons 280-81)
In a more modern context, religion professor Jacob Needleman writes of witnessing the night launch of the Apollo 17 mission. Before the take-off, people were joking, drinking, crowded together on the lawn, jostling each other in the twilight, waiting for the giant rocket — 35 stories tall — to take off. He put it this way: “The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of what you can bear to look at. Everything is illuminated with this light. Then comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. [When it does] you can practically hear jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans on it. And then there’s total silence. People just get up quietly, helping each other up. They’re kind. They open doors. They look at one another, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder had made them moral.”
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Maybe, maybe. For even as I tell this story, I am keenly aware of the danger in being so uplifted by the beauty of a man-made thing, the work of our own hands: whether a Greek temple or a stained-glass window; or a noble tragedy or a rocket bearing the name of a pagan God — do we fall into the danger of idolatry, the very thing warned against in that first commandment from that other mountain? Is this impressive beauty and wonder truly making us better and raising our hearts to God, or just impressing us with the kind of awe that our ancient ancestors must have felt in viewing the starry heavens or the sun and the moon and thinking they were gods, rather than the work of God’s hands. When we see the glory of nature, when we look down from lofty mountain grandeur, or hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze... do we always remember that the beauty and inspiration are meant to lead our souls to sing to God, and to proclaim, How great thou art? There is all the difference in the world between the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty!
For there are mountains and there are mountains, and various sorts of mountaintop experiences. Do all of them make us better people? It depends on whether we are willing, after our hearts have been lifted, to bow in humble adoration, and to do as God said at the end of that mountaintop experience on that one particular mountain: to listen to his beloved Son to follow him on his Way, in his Truth, by his Life.
For after the spectacle, after the glory, Jesus left the mountain; he descended into the Valley — eventually not just of the shadow of death but of death itself — and he took his disciples with him. This is where we will follow him through the next six weeks on our Lenten journey. We will be with him through his temptations and the challenges he faced — on up through the greatest of those challenges: to sacrifice himself for us upon the cross. That is where he was lifted high, so that he might draw the whole world to himself.
On the mountain or on the cross, he is the one to whom we should listen, the one whom we should follow and adore, Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, to whom we bow in humble adoration and say, How great thou art!+