You don’t have to bring a thing

Last Sunday, Free Solo (2018) won the Oscar for documentary feature. The movie invites viewers to follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000 ft high El Capitan wall. Free meaning without ropes or safety gear, solo meaning just that. Spider Man comes to mind, but Spider Man gets to shoot sticky lines of silk. And he scales imaginary obstacles in the Marvel universe, not a 3,000 ft granite wall in California.

“Mountains rise out of the lowlands in a massive show of power,” wrote John Mogabgab. “Ancient, solid, imposing, they permit only the most minimal human footprint.”[1] Humans have long been drawn to mountains. Moses entered the presence of God and received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Elijah encountered God in sheer silence at Mt. Horeb. Bill Bryson wrote about hiking the Appalachian trail, beginning with the mountains of northern Georgia and North Carolina.

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see what’s to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come. Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs—nearly there now!—but this is a pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?[2]

Alex, Moses, Elijah, and Bill — three mythic heroes who inspire admiration and awe, and a guy who sounds more like the rest of us.

There’s a mountain in the middle of Luke’s gospel. 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 the Galilean landscape, but rather about the topography of faith and discipleship. Jesus went up and the three went with him; this was no free solo spiritual quest.

I imagine that 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. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun. Everything was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or all the fullness of time had been crammed into that one 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 is needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. And this time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh; the great struggle would be with the powers that keep humans in captivity under sin, with all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign. Jesus’ departure would be another exodus from the house of slavery, 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 for Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. They saw the glory of God shining forth from Jesus. They heard the great prophets affirming the way of the cross as the way of redemption. The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light. “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. Let us mark this moment and make it last. Don’t let this fullness, this glorious beauty, slip away.

Perhaps they wanted to 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.[3] Perhaps they wanted to mark the spot on the map of divine encounters; perhaps they simply wanted time to stand still. But a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they were able to see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and together, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. They had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of disorientation. And in the darkness they heard the voice: This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. Just one commandment: Listen to him.

The three didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to the lowlands of life, down to where a great crowd was waiting. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you, look at my son; he is my only child.” This father’s cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain, 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 life is broken, wounded, fragmented; down here where despair threatens to smother all hope; down here where we work and watch and pray for the light of heaven to illumine all the earth. This is where we long to see transfiguration, and this is where we encounter God’s Chosen One, calling us to follow him on the way of the cross. Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of spiritual splendor, but deeper into the world.

And because we follow him, our journey is never a free solo quest. We stagger on together, trying to remember that this is the one in whose face we recognized the face of God, the one in whose life and death and resurrection Peter, James and John, Mary, Martha and Mary of Magdala recognized the redeeming presence of God, the fulfilment of ancient promises. The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world.

The first followers tell us that with the wondrous light of the resurrection shining in their hearts, their eyes were opened to see Jesus in every man, woman and child, to see the image of God in every person, regardless of what labels had been slapped on them, to see what is there, what is really there, in every human face, in every creature great and small, in all that God has made.

Seeing what is really there is of course no simple matter. I still haven’t found a lovelier set of lines that capture with candor and wit the difficulty of “seeing what is there” than Elizabeth Barret Browning’s four lines from her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh. [4]

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.

Nothing’s wrong with noticing the sweet, shiny blackberries amid the prickly branches. Nothing’s wrong with sitting round and plucking sweet fruit – but what is it that keeps us from seeing every common bush and each berry afire with God?

Browning’s lines speak of heaven as a reality that crams the everyday and shines through everything. We have built powerful scanners that allow us to look deep into things, and 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 open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven, the love and light of God in all things.

John Ames told his son, “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.”[5] He makes it sound simple, because it really is. A little willingness to see. A little willingness to listen. A little willingness to follow Jesus across the plains of everyday. It really is simple, and, of course, it’s not.

[1] John Mogabgab, Weavings, XVI: 4, July/August 2001, 2.

[2] Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 35.

[3] Genesis 28:10ff.

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

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

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