Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
- Isaiah 6:5
Not many people realize that the Garden of Eden was on a mountain, which is understandable; the Bible is not explicit on this point. It was there that God established His original covenant with man, and every other covenant was forged on a mountain peak, so it just makes sense. Geographically, we are told that there were four rivers - at least two of which are extant - that flowed from it, implying that it was higher than its surroundings. Understanding Eden as a mountain is key to interpreting much of the scriptures. Mountains are important to us; on their heights, we experience something that makes us tremble.
Much of my wife's family lives in North Carolina, one of the states on my short-list of eventual long-term residences. It's a beautiful place where you can hike mountains and swim the ocean all in a day and that excites me. I think it would excite most of us. An amatuer photographer, I took every opportunity on a recent trip to catch myriad scenes, but nearing the end of our journey, I didn't have many shots of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. My in-laws, with whom we were staying, recommended a short journey up to a favorite spot of theirs, an amusement park at about 3500' above sea level. (By contrast, my home is 230' above sea level.) As our van climbed from town to town, we experienced all the exhilaration - and nausea - common to us flatlanders in such an environment. The surroundings were breathtaking; pretty little shops and wide-open vistas lay on either side of us, and the twists and turns could be forgiven on account of the awe we experienced at the views.
To be - as it felt to us - on top of the world is an exhilarating experience. With the physical rise in altitude comes the ability to see the flatness of your normal surroundings in a new light. "There's more than just that flat landscape I'm used to back home; there is depth and height, a whole new dimension." As you survey the valleys, you begin to realize how truly flat they are and it becomes as though the world from which you came before your ascent is no more real or contoured than a paper map, no matter how real it seemed to you up to this point; "this mountain, this is the real thing." So also spiritually, to climb a mountain makes you reflect on your life, to see the everyday, mundane daily tasks as flat - almost meaningless - in the context of this great new vantage point. To climb a mountain is, for this reason, almost sacramental.
It is surely for this reason that the ancients of the Bible so often sought God on mountaintops; they even once tried to build their own. Yet, what would they do when they reached the top, when they were so close to heaven? Would they be ready to see God's face? What would you and I do if we saw God's face?
Throughout the Old Testament, whenever a man sees an angel, he throws himself to the floor and cries out that he will surely die. How much more afraid should we be to see the face of God? Yet scripture commands us:
Seek out the LORD and his might; constantly seek his face. - Psalm 105:4
How are we to seek out the face of the Lord if to do so surely means death? Perhaps we should try to learn from one who has seen Him.
No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him. - John 1:18
Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. - John 6:46
Among all the human race on earth, Jesus Christ alone has seen God in the face. It is He who is "God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God." The face of Jesus, a human face, is also the face of God. In the Incarnation, God made for Himself a body - a face - to serve as an icon of His divinity. There are two moments before Calvary when this divinity shines forth. The Transfiguration, about which we read in this Sunday's gospel, is the first.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen. - Luke 9:28-36
What it must have been like for Peter, John, and James to go up that mountain and come out of that valley near Mt. Tabor, to see with a new perspective, and then be hit by this! Matthew's gospel adds, predictably, that at the voice of God, "they fell prostrate and were very much afraid" (Matthew 17:6). They saw the face of God - or came as close to it as any man alive has - and lived. If climbing a mountain can change your perspective and bring new, crisp spiritual insight, how much more wisdom and insight would be brought about by reaching the summit and seeing the glory of God, even if it meant death? Yet they lived, and that was a mercy. The Transfiguration is about mercy. It is about coming in contact with God and living, which we ought not to be able to do in our sinfulness, because God took a human face so that we might see Him and yet live. "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). Mercy has come to dwell among men. God has revealed Himself in the face of Christ, so that we might love Him and serve Him, and so be sanctified to see Him in heaven, in the beatific vision, where "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2). We were made to encounter the face of mercy.
How could this encounter with mercy fail to cast our everyday life into a new light, to make it seem flat by comparison to the great heights of our Christian vocation? How could it fail to give us an indescribable yearning for the spiritual mountains, such that we would never return to our previous way of life? Yet these closest of Christ's apostles quickly forgot their new perspective, and so Our Lord revealed His divinity to them in a much deeper way, a way that surely unfolded slowly in their minds, staying with them throughout their ministry.
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.” -Matthew 26:36-46
For the second time, Jesus Christ took with him Peter, John, and James to go up a mountain to pray. For the second time, they were overcome by sleep. Yet on this occasion - also the second time Christ's divinity shone forth - they truly did fall asleep, and not just once, but three times! Why? Because Christ's divinity shined forth more subtly. There was, in fact, no actual shining. There was nothing to wake them from their stupor. Yet his divinity was there, clearly showing itself in his human face, when he sweat blood in His agony. The more central attribute - if you can call it that - of God is not the glory seen on Mt. Tabor, but the mercy seen on Mt. Olivet. God's greatness is not best proved by divine light and a thundering voice from heaven and all the signs of His infinite power, but by the fact that despite His greatness, He stoops down to us, takes our nature, takes a human face, and suffers it to bleed for the sake of us men, made from dirt. The proof of God is His mercy.
As we read, this Lent, of Mt. Tabor and Mt. Olivet, as we journey spiritually with Christ up the foothills of Zion, and even as we climb with Him, bearing our own crosses, the Mount of Calvary, may we be granted the grace of encountering the face of mercy, and in its light, of seeing the flatness of our own mundane, worldly lives. In this Year of Mercy, let us gain wisdom and courage to scale the heights of the spiritual life; let us seek His face.
In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. - Isaiah 2:2-3