Seeing what's there

In the middle of Luke’s gospel there is this mountain; it simply appears, without name or introduction: Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. Not a mountain, but the mountain.

Luke is not talking about geography, but rather about the inner landscape of prayer. It’s like Alison Krauss singing, As I went down in the river to pray: not only can any river be the river – in the singing the song can become prayer, and the prayer becomes the river. Our prayer with Jesus is the mountain.

Jesus went up and the three went with him, their feet were sore, and their legs, weary. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases, setting food before thousands and gathering baskets full of leftovers. They were tired. Jesus went up on the mountain, and they stumbled along behind him. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun was rising inside of them. Everything the three looked at was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with two of God’s great servants of the past, Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or the fullness of time had been crammed into that moment. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were talking about his death on that hill outside of Jerusalem, at the end of the way he was on, but they did not use the word death. And they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him, but something he would accomplish.

The word translated as departure is the Greek exodos, and with Moses right there, no other hint was needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. This time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh, and it wouldn’t be Caesar; the struggle was against sin and against all the powers that keep God’s children in captivity, against all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign and finding the peace of God. It would be another exodus, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and rising on the other side, the firstborn from the dead. Elijah was the prophet whose coming meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus – everything was coming together beautifully on top of that mountain. They saw the glory of God illuminating the body of Jesus and confirming his way to be the way of Christ.

The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light, and all they could think of was, abide. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Don’t let this end; abide, and let us behold this beauty for good.

Prayer has the power to bring us into God’s presence; and the glory of God can erupt anytime and anywhere. When it does we can mark the spot with a rock like Jacob who saw a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. “How awesome is this place!” he said. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I, I did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.[1] We can mark the spot with a cairn or a rock or a temple or three dwellings or a sanctuary, but God’s glory will not stay on our map.

On the mountain, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified. In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they could see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and orderly, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. It was as if they had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of trembling fear. And that’s when they heard the voice. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. Just one commandment for the journey across the plains of life: Listen to him.

They didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to where the needy crowd was waiting, down to the lowlands of life. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”

His cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain top, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness. This is where we long to see transfiguration, down here in the valleys and plains where demons need to be cast out and children wait for healing. Down here we work and watch and pray for the transfiguration that illumines all the earth with the light of heaven. Down here is where we encounter God’s Chosen One among the people who are hurting, in the places where despair threatens to smother all hope. Down here is where we listen to the One who embodies God’s grace and compassion, calling us to repentance and challenging us to follow him all the way to the cross in our quest for the glory of God and the wholeness of life.

The mountain is there for us, not to settle down on it, but to let its glorious light illumine the way ahead. Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of spiritual splendor, but deeper into the world. The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It begins with seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus, not only on the mountain, but also on the cross, and it continues with recognizing Jesus in the faces of every man, woman, or child. The light of God shines in our hearts, and this light, the complete and unconditional love of God, opens our eyes to see what is there, what is really there, in every human face and in every creature great and small, in every embodiment of divine love.

Seeing what is really there is of course no simple matter. I have looked, but I still haven’t found a lovelier set of lines that capture with proper sincerity and wittiness the difficulty of “seeing what is there” than Elizabeth Barret Browning’s four lines from her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh. [2]

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

I love the elegant rhythm of the third line, and how it all quickly collapses in the fourth. No, nothing’s wrong with noticing the sweet, shiny blackberries amid the prickly branches, nothing’s wrong with sitting round and plucking them – but what is it that keeps us from seeing the fire in the bush and in each berry? Browning’s lines speak of heaven not as a far-away reality in terms of space and time, but rather one that crams the everyday and shines through everything. We have microscopes and other instruments that allow us to look deep into things, and we have built powerful telescopes that give us glimpses of cosmic events that happened millions of years ago, but we also sense that even the most advanced technology will not necessarily open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven, the love and light of God in all things.

John Ames, in a letter to his son, wrote,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life and then it sinks back into itself again and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light. (…) But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.[3]

On Wednesday, we enter the forty days of Lent with ashes on our foreheads, and we each have our own ways of nurturing that little willingness to see how constant and extravagant the Lord is. Perhaps you know a song that takes you to the river, and you listen to it just once each day, and for those few minutes, you do nothing else. Perhaps you follow Jesus up the mountain by turning off your phone for ten minutes of silence every day.

The journey takes us from the mountain of light to the hill outside the city where Jesus was crucified, and the journey prepares us to see the love and light of God even there, especially there, in all its extravagance.


[1] Genesis 28:10ff.

[2] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857)  p. 275-276

[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 245