COMING DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN-TOP
Many churches today are not full. To the modern way of most people’s thinking, some parts of the Bible seem decidedly ill-suited for our secular age. Think for example of those accounts of a naked Adam and Eve wandering the Garden of Eden and meeting with a talking serpent, then Moses parting the waters, or the New Testament accounts having Jesus walking on water or being whisked up to heaven. This is just a very small sample of the accounts so otherworldly to be unacceptable as truthful reporting in the face of even the most basic scrutiny. And yet here we are in 2019 at the Sunday set aside to contemplate the so called Transfiguration.
Today’s gospel story is another that seems made for the derision of the skeptics. Weird apparitions of dead figures from the past, strange lights, a non human-like transformation of Jesus and suitably bewildered disciples…all rather more Psychic News than Time or the Washington Post.
One of the modern scholars who have help us grapple with such issues is the journalist and religious writer, Ian Harris. Harris in his book New World and New God points out that although the Biblical myths may not meet what we see to be the standards of modern objective reporting, in any case, the real purpose of such myths is that they contain stories that tell us, through symbols, how life is and how best we should make a response.
Harris also quotes the American Catholic Theologian and Church historian, John Dominic Crossan, as saying: “It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”.
So what should we make of today’s gospel passage? Luke (who presumably wasn’t there and writing some years after the event) is describing a Jesus, transfigured in shining splendour, watched by three of his disciples, John, James and Peter as he chats with Elijah and Moses, two great religious leaders of the past, who have just mysteriously materialized on the mountain top apparently to share some thoughts about with the upcoming climax to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.
Perhaps I need to state that I, for one, don’t feel any compunction in admitting that if indeed the entire story was intended to be taken literally, even at best, some parts do not sound plausible. On the other hand, if it is some sort of parable, the reality the myth seeks to describe, turned out to be grounded in total reality.
Perhaps it is significant that all three of the other gospel writers all follow their varying versions of this same ethereal account with the same difficult and down to earth challenge. And we might also wonder why in most forms of the lectionary, none of the three years of selected readings include that down to earth end to the story.
Let me summarize the “out of Lectionary” postscript for you. Jesus, no doubt buoyed up by what has happened up on the mountain, descends to find a scene of unhappy chaos and disruption. His disciples have failed to deal with a local tragedy. A small boy, who we conclude was subject to fits, has fallen in the fire. Jesus now must step up to affect a cure for the burnt child who we would now probably surmise to be an epileptic, and who we gather is in the grip of a seems to the observers to be a particularly unpleasant shrieking demon.
In short Jesus and his three disciples on the mountain have to make a forced return to the reality of a world very different to the ephemeral and temporary splendour of the mountain top experience. Tom Wright in his commentary of this passage (in his book “Luke for Everyone”) in an aside reminds us that many would be unlikely or even unwilling to make room for either the mountain-top type event or the unpleasant subsequent down-to-earth situation of the suffering boy down on the plains.
As I wonder with how best to make sense of both the mountain top experience and then the post-script of the return to reality, I find myself wondering if a life influenced by Jesus would make any sense for us as self-declared Christians if we tried to live such a life making no room for either type of experience.
While those strange and inexplicable encounters with the touch of miracle may be rare, I suspect most people have had thought provoking equivalents of the mountain top experience. At the very least I would not be surprised if most adults have ay least met a situation which left them feeling that they have been struck by unexpected wonder, perhaps even the realization that they are in the presence of something greater and more challenging than the mundane familiarity of the so-called “ normal life”. Well then, what should they do if the new perspective offers a change of direction – particularly if it seems to be a call to a journey with uncertain prospects and even perhaps glimpses of glory. Would such an experience be best quietly forgotten?
Or conversely should aspiring Christians then try to live their lives, too busy and too concerned with safety and with the familiar to even notice an unfolding tragedy.
Those seeking tranquility are certainly unlikely to be numbered among those who would first notice, then reach out to those whose lives figuratively found at the bottom of the mountain who are facing tragedy or danger. I suspect that there is a parable underlining the lesson in today’s gospel that should remind us the unexpected new ways of seeing only find meaning if they can also be applied, even in the grim or challenging aspects of life.
So what might we expect of our own equivalent of mountain top experiences – those life changing events – both good and disturbing? Our readiness for such encounters might need to allow that such an event might alter our world view and even transform our lives. Those who may well encounter the thought provoking or challenging have in the past come to include those as a consequence who reach out to the desperate and destitute, those who tackle the major scandals in the community, or those who seek very different experiences in life. Sometimes too the trigger experience is mysterious, even troubling and may be almost impossible to put into words, and not all who have such experiences allow themselves to be transformed.
So having the potential life changing experience is not enough by itself. Jesus came down from the mountain helped the epileptic child and then set out for Jerusalem. But don’t forget Peter came down from that same mountain but followed only later to deny his arrested Lord three times. Some tourists have been known to return from their trip to exotic places and sign up for child sponsorship programmes. Others see it merely as a chance to put five hundred cell phone photos together for a relentless data-show.
We may well derive our inspiration from our special experiences, including the highlights of Church experiences, but ultimately no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay ultimately we have to decide between real and artificial religion.
In a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in the armament factories, is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays and turning a blind eye to the multinationals as they lay waste to tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to satisfy economic needs with vast plantings of palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the natural world. In a world where the survival and well-being of the poor and elderly is dependent on health assistance, for the wealthy to be arguing for tax reduction may well be meeting the needs of self interest but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially in a nation that prides itself on its wealth and prestige.
The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective but it is rather inappropriate as a place to live. Jesus appeared to need periods of meditation and even the mountain-top experience, but we should be under no illusion that his life was all about these mystical experiences because he showed his work was where the people who needed him could be found.
We should perhaps acknowledge that prior to the mountain top Jesus was recorded as being busy with the realities of life beneath the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these must surely be the tasks of the valley. They were certainly the tasks to which he returned.
It is of course tempting to try repeatedly for the mountain top experiences and forget how they are related to relationships and living. Mountain climbing, hot air balloon flying, even dramatic experiences as part of church worship can all be immensely satisfying as a means to enhance a sense of wonder. Yet the high purpose of Church cannot be used as an excuse to keep ourselves above the world of the valley and the plain.
Nor does an incident of transfiguration witnessed mean that we ourselves no longer have a personal need to be transformed. That, even those close to Jesus might have simply got it wrong and misinterpreted what they were experiencing when they at least were supposed to be present gives us reason for reflection. We were not present and as a consequence may need to pause in thought before rushing to announce what it all means.
Which leaves us with the important question…When others look at the life we are living will they too see the imprint of our own personal mountain top experiences.