Hearing God on the Mountain

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. During this feast day we are reminded of the encounter of three of Jesus' disciples, Peter, James, and John, with the full majesty and glory of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, and His fellowship with two of the saints of old, Moses and Elijah. 

This encounter takes place on a mountain, upon which Jesus took these disciples so they could pray. Why is this detail included in the story? After all, St. Luke, in recording this event, could have chosen to include or not include any number of details, as a result, this detail of going to a mountain to pray seems to be important. Let us think back over some other mountaintop encounters throughout Holy Scripture. We have Moses encountering God in the burning bush while he is pasturing the flock by the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1-2) and later encountering God on Mt. Sinai to receive the law and to see the glory of God Almighty pass by (Exodus 34:17-34:28). We find Elijah being compelled to the mountain top to hear the whisper of God speaking to him (1 Kings 19:11-13). We hear the psalmist cry, "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1). We have Jesus teaching the gathered masses of people from the mountain side (Matthew 5:1ff). And here, in the transfiguration, we have Jesus revealing his glory and might to His closest disciples on the mountain (Luke 9:28-36).

What is it about mountains as places where God interacts with humanity? Historically, for the ancient world, mountains were that place where the realm of the divine and the realm of mortal man met. It was on these high places that humanity felt closest to God. Ancient temples throughout Mesopotamia, known as ziggurats, were essentially man-made mountains to help achieve this closeness to the divine. But what is it about mountains that does this? Why did God commune with Moses and Elijah on the mountain? Why did the psalmist look up to the mountain as the source of hope and security? Why did Jesus reveal himself, through both His teaching and His transfiguration, on a mountain? What is it about a mountain that helps man to commune with God?

There are two elements, likely more, that I would contend make mountains prime real estate for divine encounters, and if you have ever been to the top of a particularly rugged mountain you will likely have noticed these two things. First, you will notice that you are alone. Even if you are with people, there is a tendency when on a mountaintop to speak in hushed tones and whispers. You are removed from the bustle of life. The noise of others is muted or absent altogether and there is a sense of being alone. Second, you will notice you are small. When the whole of your human experience is splayed out before your feet but in miniature; when you stand towering hundreds, if not thousands, of feet above the tallest trees, the highest buildings, the streets and the struggles and the turmoil of life; when you see the great expanse of distance stretching out to the horizon, then all of the worries of life seem to take on a different perspective. You realize how small you are compared to the majesty of this mountain that you had no part in making and over which you have no control.

I would contend, then, that these two elements, being alone and feeling small, are two elements that are vital to our ability to commune with God. We need to encounter God on His terms, not our own, and we need to see Him as He really is, not how we have made Him to be. To do this, we need to take time to be alone and away from the pressure of expectation and the fear of being judged that comes when others are around us. We also need to recognize who great and powerful and awe-inspiring God is and how wholly dependent upon Him we are; He created, not I, and His glory and majesty surpasses all understanding. We need to achieve these two elements if we want to open ourselves to the voice of God.

You might not have a mountain that you can ascend, but we all have places and ways in which we can be alone and intentionally allow ourselves to feel small. Whether it is a place of natural beauty and wonder, such as the ocean or other expanse of water stretching beyond sight, or a manmade place, such as the towering ceilings of a cathedral or the heavy intimacy of a eucharistic chapel where you can sit before the grandeur of the real presence of Christ, we benefit from taking time to remove ourselves from the busy babble of life to seek solitude before the the bigness of God. It is in these times that we can be alone and feel small before the grandeur of the King of Creation and can begin to open ourselves to His voice speaking to us.

Wherever or whatever your mountain is, take time to journey to that mountain to meet God, and when you enter that place, take time not to speak to Him, but to let Him speak to you.

 

(as published in St. Luke's Weekly Newsletter, 8/01/18)