The Impossible Possibility for an Impossible Time, VIII: Mountains Beyond Mountains
This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. The Season of Epiphany begins on the day of Epiphany, January 6 the 12th day of Christmas. During this season we look at various ways in which Christ’s divinity is revealed to his disciples and to the world. Today in the season of Epiphany is the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
When Jesus climbed a mountain to meet his God, he was following a sacred tradition as old as the hills, pardon the pun. Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Elijah all went there before him to meet God. Mohamed too. I guess this is because there is something sacred about mountains, right? Do you have a sacred summit? Denali or Rainier or Washington?
Perhaps this is because at the top of a mountain it feels like we are closer to heaven. We know this is not literally true, because from a cosmic perspective there is no such direction as ‘Up,’ but at the top of a mountain, at least we are closer to the distant stars, and—who knows?—maybe that’s where God lives.
We are closer to God at the summit of a mountain. The air is thinner there, literally, and figuratively; the curtain separating heaven from earth, and humanity from divinity is not thick velvet, but diaphanous gauze, a translucent scrim.
Or maybe mountains are holy because the surfaces are steep and pitched and vertical. A mountain reminds us that life, literally and otherwise, is not flat as the Illinois prairie or shallow like Lake Erie, but vertical as Half Dome, unapproachable as Everest, and deep as the fathomless trenches of the Stygian Pacific, literally and otherwise, and it is possible for the human spirit to soar to stellar zeniths but also to plummet to the inky abyss.
Jesus takes his three best friends to a sacred summit to pray. Perhaps it was Mount Hermon about 100 miles northeast of Nazareth on the border between Lebanon and Syria. It’s Jabal al-Shaykh in Arabic—The Mountain of the Sheik—and it rises to an impressive elevation of 9,200 feet, usually snow-capped, the only ski resort in Israel today.
Something strange and inexplicable happened while they were there. We call this event the Transfiguration of the Lord, but that comes from Mark’s Gospel. “Transfiguration” is the Latin form of the Greek metamorphosis, a radical transformation. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is a little more modest, Luke just tells us that Jesus’ face changed, and clothes dazzled.
Then a further mystery: Jesus, Peter, James, and John get company. Moses and Elijah, the two towering heroes of Hebrew history, stand there chatting with Jesus. Moses who represents the law and Elijah the prophets. —The law and the prophets—together the whole story of God with God’s people, the whole covenant of God with God’s people.
Luke tells us that Peter the Impetuous doesn’t know what else to say, so he blurts out a real estate development proposal. “Rabbi,” he says, “It is good for us to be here; let’s pitch some tents and preserve this experience. Yeah that’s what we’ll do; we’ll build a retreat center with dorm rooms and meditation chapel; we can charge admission. Let’s trap this euphoria; let’s tabernacle this glory; let’s ensnare the wonder by immobilizing it in resin for the enjoyment of future generations.”
But Luke wants to tell us that this is not the way it works. Just then an opaque, suffocating fog envelops the summit and a voice from above cries out, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” and when the fogs skitter away, the celebrities Moses and Elijah have absconded, and Jesus is left alone with his three fishermen friends like usual.
When Jesus and his friends descend from the Summit of the Numinous to the Valley of Need, there is an epileptic boy waiting for them. His convulsions make it look like he is possessed. The first thing Jesus does after his paranormal epiphany on the mountaintop is to attend to the forlorn without any other hope.
And that descent from the Apex of the Ineffable to the Slough of Despond might become the pattern for our lives as well. We climb to the Mountain of Mystery. Every seventh day we might repair to our own local sacred geography, this holy place, to hear a Voice echoing from the flinty ridge “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.”
And then we do, we do listen to him—in the preached word, the cherished hymns, the solace of prayer. But then, empowered and galvanized thereby, we leave the summit, the sacred geography, and next morning we sign up to sponsor an Afghan refugee family, or we gladden the hearts of the bereaved as a Stephen Minister, or we prepare dinner for the dying or for a new mother.
Did you notice that Paul Farmer died Monday at the clinic he founded in Rwanda? He was only 62. Acute cardiac event. Do you know about Paul Farmer? Founder of Partners in Health, which serves the poorest of the poor in Haiti and Rwanda?
His sisters say Paul was born with this huge brain, but he was also something of a geek. He read War and Peace when he was eleven. In the fourth grade, he started a snake-and-lizard club at school and invited his classmates to his home for the first meeting, but no one came, so his mother forced his brothers and sisters to stand in as his lizard club. He loved to announce each specimen by its Latin name. “We should just beat him up and go back out to play” his sisters often said. But they never did.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Duke and a medical degree from Harvard, he started a one-room clinic in Haiti that amplified over the years to a network of 16 medical centers and a staff of 7,000. Plus Rwanda.
Tracy Kidder’s book about Paul Farmer is called Mountains Beyond Mountains. It’s a Haitian proverb. Haiti of course, is a small island with large and endless mountains. When a Haitian says “The journey of life is mountains beyond mountains,” he means that just when you’ve scaled a peak and think you’ve reached your destination, you discover there’s another peak to scale just beyond. Life is one challenge after another; you’re never really finished; there is always more to accomplish, another hill to summit.
Paul Farmer once led Tracy Kidder on a three-hour hike up the mountains of Haiti to track down a single Tuberculosis patient who’d failed to show up for his appointment at Dr. Farmer’s clinic. Three hours up and two hours back. “Some people would argue this wasn’t worth a five-hour walk,” Dr. Farmer yells back over his shoulder at Tracy Kidder, huffing and puffing in his wake, “but you can never invest too much in making sure this stuff works.”
There are always mountains beyond mountains, but Paul Farmer never let us forget about the despondent, the desperate, the destitute, and the disconsolate.
Paul Farmer said, “I have fought my whole life a long defeat...I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing...We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our back on the losers, no it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.” Mountains beyond mountains.
At the Summit of the Sacred, we catch a fugitive glimpse of the lambent divinity within and beyond this carpenter from Nazareth. We hear a stentorian voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him.” And we do. We listen to him. And then we follow him down the mountain, or out of this sanctuary, into the Slough of Sorrow beneath, and we just get busy healing the sick, welcoming the refugee, befriending the lonely, consoling the bereaved, and gathering all of them in to the unfailing, unflinching, redoubtable mercies of the Almighty.