Friday night, I watched the opening ceremony for the Olympic winter games in Vancouver. I was mesmerized by the play of light and sound, celebrating Canada’s cultures and regions.
I watched with awe as ice turned into water, and I saw whales gliding across the bottom of the stadium – as if we all sat in a giant glass bottom space ship hovering above the sea.
I saw a boy flying like Peter Pan, carried by the wind, across the undulating prairie. I saw mountains rising from the plains, giant trees dwarfing the men and women dancing around their trunks. I saw towers of glass, athletes on snow and ice, I saw thousands of flickering lights and faces reflecting the wonder.
I heard drums and fiddles, poetry and chant, songs and hymns – it was amazing, beautiful, deeply moving, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to call it a spiritual experience.
NBC, however, made sure I didn’t get too carried away. Whenever I got close to jumping up from the couch and joining the dance or whenever I was being pulled in so completely that I started to forget where I was—they cut to commercials.
In the blink of an eye, I found myself transported from the heights of imagination and creativity back to the van with the two guys at Sonic discussing the benefits of the value menu.
Friday night was the first time I remember that I got angry at actors in a commercial for completely ruining the moment. It was just like you and your sweetheart enjoying a romantic dinner at home; across the flames of the candles you are looking into each other’s eyes, and the moment is filled with all your happiest memories and your sweetest dreams. And then the phone rings, and you do let the machine get it, but you can still hear the voice of some stranger eager to talk with you about something that’s missing in your life – when the only thing missing is the beauty of the moment that abruptly ended just seconds ago, the moment you wanted to last, the moment you hoped would take you away like a ride on a magic carpet.
Two obvious lessons:
One – turn off all phones and stick a sock in the door bell before you light the candles tonight.
Two – don’t count on tv to take you anywhere without trying to convince you that fulfillment awaits those who purchase more stuff.
We are near the beginning of Lent, only three days away from Ash Wednesday, and during Lent we practice and proclaim the Christian counter argument to our culture of consumption: Fulfillment awaits those who know God, and that knowledge is acquired in an entirely different way.
In the middle of Luke’s narrative of the 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. What mountain was that? I don’t believe it’s a matter of geography. Just like the river in the song, As I went down in the river to pray, any river can be the river – and ultimately, prayer itself is the river. Any mountain can be the mountain, because ultimately prayer itself is the mountain.
Jesus went up and the three went with him, with sore feet and weary legs. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases everywhere, setting food before thousands and gathering the left over pieces into baskets. They were tired. When Jesus went up on the mountain, they stumbled along behind him.
And while Jesus 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 weighed down with sleep, but they saw Jesus, talking with Moses and Elijah. They saw their master and friend in glory, talking with the lawgiver and the prophet.
What were they talking about? Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were in fact 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 set God’s people free, leading them from bondage to freedom. This time the great opponent wasn’t pharaoh, it wasn’t even caesar; the struggle was against sin and death and all the powers that cut off God’s creatures from abundant life, that keep God’s people from entering the joy of the kingdom and from knowing fulfillment in the presence of God. It would be another exodus, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and the Risen One being the first on the other side.
Elijah was the ancient prophet whose reappearance meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus; everything was coming together perfectly.
The light they saw was the glory of God illuminating the way of Christ and confirming it to be the way of God. They were only watching, but it was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light. They knew God like they hadn’t known God before, 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.” Master, don’t let this end; abide, and let us behold this beauty for good.
Prayer has the power to mediate divine presence; the mountain can be any mountain, the river can be any river. God’s glory can erupt anytime and anywhere, and 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 did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.
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 abide in our dwellings, 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 road ahead. Just one commandment for the search for the glory of God in the lowlands of life.
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 top of the mountain, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness in the face of shrieking, unrelenting demons that maul and abuse us.
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. This is where 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, who teaches us to pray and watch and work, always trusting in God’s presence and promise. Down here is where we listen to the One who embodies God’s boundless grace and unceasing compassion. This is where we hear him, calling us to repentance and challenging us to follow him all the way to the cross and to Easter in our search for the glory of God.
The mountain is there so we can climb to the summit and catch a more complete vision of the valleys and plains below and the land beyond. The mountain is there for us not to settle down on it but to come down from it.
In her novel, Gilead Marilynne Robinson tells the story of John Ames, a minister in a little town called Gilead in Iowa. The novel takes the form of a letter that this old man begins to write in 1956 to his young son, and just before the letter ends and the novel closes, the author has John Ames write,
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 [Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 245]
That little willingness to see is what we nurture during Lent with simple disciplines like turning off the phone for thirty minutes of prayer every day; or leaving work early twice a week for a walk through the neighborhood; or trading tv time for reading time; or preparing food for strangers.
And we nurture more than just a little willingness to see.
We nurture our courage to trust that the Lord never ceases to breathe on this poor gray ember of creation.
We nurture our desire to be present when the Spirit blows away the ashes to show us the glory in the gray. [ With thanks to George MacLeod for the beautiful expression, “Show us the glory in the grey.”]