Just before his death in 1944, French science fiction author Rene Daumal began working on a novel about an endlessly high mountain. Mount Analogue, as Daumal named it, “unites earth and heaven. Its summit reaches the sphere of eternity, and its base spreads out in manifold foothills into the world of mortals.” The mountain is a mystery to almost all the world, though, as it is located far from any continent in the South Pacific Ocean and can only be seen at a certain time of day, when the sun rays hit the side of the mountain at just the right angle.
Sadly, Daumal died before he could finish his novel, and the story ends just as the eight mountaineers are beginning their expedition at the base camp of this eternal mountain.
When I finished reading Daumal’s shortened book, I was beyond intrigued about how he would have ended his story. Would all the climbers have died before reaching any sort of summit? Perhaps in frustration they would have given up and started their descent? Or maybe the story would have ended in mystery, with a few climbers refusing to carry on as they watched the others disappear up the side of the mountain continuing their ascent.
No matter Daumal’s intended ending, his idea of a mountain with an eternal summit captures much of the intrigue and mystery that mountains possess for many cultures and religions. It was Mount Olympus for the Greeks, the Andes for the Incas, Mount Kailash in Tibet for Hindus, and Mount Zion (among many others) for Ancient Israel. As religious anthropologist Mircea Eliade writes, “Every mythology has its sacred mountain. They are often looked on as the place where sky and earth meet, a ‘central point’ through which the axis of the earth runs, and are impregnated with the sacred, a spot where one can pass from one cosmic zone to another.”
If mountains are such sacred places, where humans can experience the divine face-to-face in this threshold of the heavens, then the setting for Jesus’ Transfiguration could be few other places than a mountain. Where else but a secluded mountaintop would we expect a story about Jesus stealing away with three of his disciples to be transfigured in front of their eyes, dazzling white such as nothing on earth could bleach him. The story is reminiscent of Moses in Exodus who encounters YHWH on Mount Sinai and whose skin was glowing from the meeting, so much that Aaron and the Israelites were afraid to approach him when he came down.
New Testament scholar G.H. Boobyer identifies three themes within the many modern interpretations of this mountaintop Transfiguration. The first is the Transfiguration as way of naming Jesus as Messiah. Both the gospel of Mark and the Epiphany season begin with the story of Jesus’ baptism, where God rips open the sky and speaks from on high, “You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” Appropriately, the Transfiguration bookends the Epiphany season, with God appearing in the clouds and speaking again “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
And Jesus has a great supporting cast; Moses the liberator of the Israelites, and Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in Judaism, stand side-by-side with Jesus to verify him as the Messiah, the anointed one of God.
The second theme of interpretation is the Transfiguration as a resurrection narrative. Now, to fully comprehend this, we must remind ourselves how most scholars believe the Gospels were constructed. Many scholars argue that Mark was the first canonical gospel to be recorded, sometime around 70 of the Common Era. The author of Mark used oral traditions, collections of the sayings of Jesus, and even possibly other extant Gospels as the sources for writing the Gospel of Mark.
Some scholars believe that the Transfiguration story in Mark was originally a resurrection story, where Peter, James, and John encounter the Risen Christ on a mountaintop, glowing in his resurrected state. Beside him is Elijah—who was taken up to heaven without dying—and Moses, who according to some ancient Jewish traditions never died on Mount Nebo but was taken up to heaven while still alive. At some point, this resurrection story got lost in translation, and what was originally a story about the risen Christ, was recorded by the author of Mark as the Transfiguration.
The third theme identified by Boobyer is the Transfiguration as an apocalyptic warning. All four gospels contain stories and sayings of Jesus that warn of a future time when the days will turn dark and the Son of Man will appear to usher in the kingdom of God. In verses 10-13, which we didn’t read for today, Jesus tells the disciples that Elijah has already returned to earth and that the Son of Man will soon go through suffering and be treated with contempt, both of which were signs for many 1st-century Jews of the coming of the apocalypse. This vision on the mountaintop was a warning to the disciples, and Mark’s readers, that the end times were near.
I find all three of these themes very compelling and rich with theological significance. But I think there is a fourth way we can look at the Transfiguration story: as a historical event. That almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish teacher from Galilee went up onto a mountaintop with three of his followers, and there they had an experience of God. It may not have happened exactly the way that Mark recorded it. Maybe Elijah and Moses weren’t standing in their midst, and maybe God’s voice didn’t boom from the clouds above them. But I don’t find it so hard to believe that someone like Jesus had experiences of the Holy on regular occasions, especially in a place like a secluded mountaintop. Away from the crowds that often followed him, Jesus and his disciples hear God’s voice on the deserted mountaintop, among the clouds, the thin air, and the silence.
I choose to see the Transfiguration as a historical occurrence; not just to challenge modern Biblical criticism, but because I believe that God comes to us, speaks to us, and listens to us in the real, physical, earthly landscapes of our daily lives. That if we are going to encounter the Divine, it’s not going to be only in our minds as an idea or metaphor, or in the stirring emotions of our hearts, but in the very stuff of creation, this earth on which we live. In the stark beauty of a snow-covered field, the calm and quiet of a lakeside on a summer evening, or the majesty of a purple mountain rising from the earth.
I recently read author David Abram’s book. The Spell of the Sensuous, about the connections between spirituality and the natural world. He begins by telling a story of a transfiguring experience he had on the island of Bali:
“Late one evening I stepped out of my little hut in the rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space. Over my head the black sky was rippling with stars, densely clustered in some regions, almost blocking out the darkness between them, and more loosely scattered in other areas, pulsing and beckoning to each other. Behind them all streamed the great river of light with its several tributaries. Yet the Milky Way churned beneath me as well, for my hut was set in the middle of a large patchwork of rice paddies…all filled with water… the river of light whirled though the darkness underfoot as well as above; there seemed no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of star-studded space falling away forever. I was no longer simply beneath the night sky, but also above it.”
Seeing the Transfiguration as more than just a metaphor but as a historical event, one that happened in real time and space, means it can happen again, here and now, to you and to me. That we can have our own transfiguring experiences and we can hear the voice of God in our own landscapes, the ones we walk across.
I recognize that the possibility of Transfiguration can be a challenging idea in our scientific age. It is a challenging anthropologically, ecologically, and theologically because it forces us to recognize the deep connection between humans, the earth, and the divine—a connection that so many in our urbanized, secularized, consumer-driven world want to deny.
It means recognizing that humans are of the earth, just like the mountains, trees, rivers, and animals. As Michael Novak writes, “Humans are as much a fruit of the earth as an apple is of a tree. Without air, water, soil, and fire, we could not survive; our destiny is linked with the earth’s.”
It also means understanding God not as fully transcendent, living outside of time and space, but as immanent, living and moving in the physical world that we inhabit. Theologian Sallie McFague writes about the universe as the Body of God, the material and kinetic way that God exists and lives. She writes, “The world is our meeting place with God…as the body of God it is wondrously, awesomely, divinely mysterious.”
Today is the National Preach-In on Global Warming, a day when faith communities around the country are speaking, listening, and praying about the effects of climate change that our planet is experiencing. This nation-wide faith movement recognizes the deep relationship between the teachings of our diverse religious traditions and the global movement to reverse the trends of global warming by ending our world’s dependence on fossil fuels and turning toward an economy that emphasizes green energy, re-use and recycling, and care for our many ecosystems.
If there was ever a time in history when we needed to listen to the voice of God in our earthly landscapes, it is now. The earth is groaning from the effects of global warming that are causing changing climates around our planet. Over the past 100 years, the Earth’s average temperature has increased only 1 degree, but that is enough for scientists at NASA to document unprecedented loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctica; heat waves through the Midwest and Northeastern US that are compromising methods of agriculture, fisheries, and forestation; and rising sea levels that are drowning entire islands in the South Pacific.
Even with statistics like these, there is still widespread denial that climate change is even happening, or that climate change is real, but not an immediate threat to our lives as humans or to the balance of our planet’s ecosystems. Why can’t we hear the earth groaning? How do we not see God in the clouds above us? Isn’t the scientific evidence, what we see happening on the news each evening, enough to convince us of our need to act?
Naturalist Robert Pyle writes of “the extinction of experience,” that humans in our highly urbanized, technology-driven lives have lost contact with the world around us, the animals that we live beside, the trees and bushes that cover the landscapes, the waters that run in streams and lap up on the shores of lakes. And as we lose these experiences, we lose our empathy. We cannot care for that which we don’t see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. We no longer go up to the mountaintop, and we are increasingly losing our abilities to hear God’s voice in solace of creation.
Where is your mountaintop? Where do you go to sit and listen for God’s voice? Not just for peace and calm or a sense of direction in your own life, but to listen for the many ways that God is speaking through the natural world, a place to experience the full, transfiguring presence of the Holy, to hear God’s groaning in creation and call to action? Is it the north woods? The Chain of Lakes? The Mississippi River running under the Stone Arch Bridge? The endless fields outside the city that stretch out on the horizon? Or perhaps it is sitting in your home, looking out the window at snow falling, the grass growing in the yard, or the sun setting over the horizon.
So come. Let’s go to the mountaintop, to the lakeside, to the open field. Let us listen for God’s voice, through the landscapes of creation. May we be transfigured by our experience and dedicate ourselves to preserving this sacred planet.