Two Mountains: 2nd Sunday Lent

Today the Church gives us two mountains to consider. The Transfiguration was traditionally thought to have been on Mount Tabor; there may be a better case that it was really Mount Hermon, but I’ll just say Tabor for now. You might have heard people talk about “mountaintop experiences.” There are a lot of Biblical referents for that phrase, and the Transfiguration is at the top of the list.

Transfiguration, Fra Angelico

It was one of those rare, privileged glimpses beyond the veil. Peter and James and John and the other Apostles didn’t have a really clear picture of what they were part of most of the time. They knew it was something profound and consequential; they knew it was a great divine work, maybe the greatest. But their reactions to the teaching and miracles of Jesus throughout the Gospels show that the whole truth of what was happening in their lives often eluded them. Even at the end of this story after the Transfiguration we find them, not happily enlightened with all their questions answered, but quietly wondering in confusion, “what does He mean, rising from the dead?”

You and I go about our lives in much the same way still today, even in our own walk with Jesus. Maybe part of us thinks if we were really good Christians, if we were really close to Jesus, well then we’d walk around with a peaceful certainty and serene understanding. The world would make sense; we’d see what God is up to and see the big picture behind the events of our lives. But I’ve never met a Christian like that - including among the writings of our greatest Saints.

Not to say that nothing makes sense; it isn’t all just one giant mess of confusion. I mean, maybe we have those days, but hopefully not often. No, it’s just that we know we aren’t seeing the whole reality. The story of the Transfiguration dramatizes that so clearly. Against the blinding light on Mount Tabor, we realize how dim things usually are. Here’s an analogy: have you ever been reading in a room that had grown dim without you noticing, and someone sees you reading and flips on a light? And you’re like “wow, I hadn’t realized how dark it was. This is so much easier!” The Transfiguration is sort of like that light: it makes us aware, makes us realize how dim our understanding, how difficult our faith.

Because these short moments on Mount Tabor are what we wish we had all the time. A big light and a big noise, a voice from Heaven, miraculous signs, a clear message with clear instructions. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Here's the kind of religion I’d like to go for... Fireworks. Clarity. In your face, undeniable, loud and clear. In fact, I’ve even heard atheists argue from the same feeling I can relate to so well: 'if God is real and wants us to believe in Him, why wouldn't He just make it obvious?'

But He doesn’t, not usually. We get some Transfiguration moments, now and then, moments when the light shines and the heavens sing and it’s all just so clear. But most of the time God asks us to believe in Him in a different way than that. Can we trust that He knows why, and that it’s better that way if He says so?

Isn’t there something beautiful and holy about following Him when it’s not so easy to see? That something beautiful is something He wants from us, and wants for us.

And that brings us to the other mountain, because the most extreme example you’ll ever see is Abraham and Isaac climbing together up Mt. Moriah.  Could God really be doing this? Is this the sort of thing God really wants? The answer - and a central meaning of the story - is emphatically NO. But walking up the path to the summit that day, Abraham could see only futility and horror and loss. It’s almost unbearable to imagine what that walk must have been like. Yeah, there's a 'happy' ending; so what? Why would God put him through that?

Abraham and Isaac, Ferdinand von Olivier
There was something God wanted for Abraham and for Isaac and for all of us that can happen along that painful, confusing path. And when God spoke to them on that mountaintop, Abraham and Isaac understood more than they could have before that climb. And God tells them what He plans to give - not take, but give - … blessing, posterity, holiness. At journey’s end, Abraham knew God better than he had before, and you know what? He knew himself better than he had before.

Here’s something you need to know. If God sometimes (or pretty much always) seems strangely silent and hidden, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have no faith. Maybe that’s exactly how God is giving you the gift of faith… real faith that can climb the long path. Maybe you’d rather have it in easy mode; of course you would, who wouldn’t? But God wants more for you. If you’re on Mount Moriah, it’s because that’s what you need.

Here’s something else you need to know. If you’re on Mount Tabor, that’s God’s gift for you, too; it’s because that’s what you need. But you need to know it won’t last forever and isn’t supposed to. That feeling of consolation and clarity and certainty… it’s so, so nice. It’s so great that, like Peter, we naturally get totally focused on making it last. 'Let’s pitch tents here!' he says, and I’m right there with him.

But this is not the way. Spiritual highs are well and good and they have their place. But we can make this huge mistake where we make our religion all about manufacturing and sustaining those emotions. We put our spiritual efforts into creating spiritual highs. We seek out whatever gives us that high… we switch churches, switch relationships, switch everything chasing the high because we’ve decided that feeling is the point of religion. But Jesus didn’t tell us, “If you want to be my disciple, close your eyes and raise your hand and feel overwhelming positive vibes.” He said “If you want to be my disciple, pick up your Cross and let’s go.”

This is one place where I think a little vocabulary can truly help us. Our tradition calls the Mt Moriah times “desolations,” and the Mt Tabor times, “consolations.” To be people of true faith, we have to be detached from both. In desolation, we must know and believe like Abraham did, against all appearances and feelings, that God is good and He’s on our side, and whatever’s happening, He can bring good from it. In consolation, we must know that this is a gift to thank Him for, but it’s not forever and it’s not ultimately the point. When it’s over, and it's time to come down from the mountain, we say thanks and get back to work.

I think it’s worth taking these words from the great tradition to heart: desolation and consolation. Being able to name these different times helps us rise above them, to not get totally caught up in the passing moment. When you’re trudging up Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, you can name that and acknowledge it: “Alright, this is desolation. It hurts and I hate it. But it isn’t forever, and it doesn’t mean God has abandoned me, and if God’s allowing it, He can bring good from it.”

When you’re up on Tabor with Peter and James and John, you can also name that, and acknowledge it: “Beautiful! What a great consolation. This feels amazing and I love it. But God wants me to truly love Him, not just to love this emotion, and when the time comes that God has something different for me, I need to let it go.”

In either case, we come down from the mountain with work to do. Abraham and Isaac have a nation to begin; the Apostles have a Church to begin. God speaks to them: “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” It’s not about whether you’re feeling spiritually high or low, it’s about whether you’re listening to Jesus. Is this a rough time in your life? The first question is: are you bringing it on yourself? If you’re living in contradiction to what God has revealed through basic Catholic moral teaching, those are the results you should expect. If you live like the unconverted, well, you can expect similar results, and I don’t know about you but I want better than that for myself and the people I love. But if you’re repentant and at least trying to live a Christian life, and desolation persists, don’t panic and don’t think it means you don’t have faith.

If you’re in a time of consolation, good for you, enjoy it! Those are fantastic, but don’t get attached. Don’t get hooked on a religious feeling. It’s not about staying on top of the world, but coming down and serving the world. It’s about listening to Jesus and following Him. Be ready and willing to come down from that mountain when the time comes, and to get back to your mission. The feeling is nice but you don’t need it, and you can bet that one day God will grow your faith by asking you to do without it.

Following Christ will take us to Bethlehem and to Calvary, to Tabor and to Gethsemene. Our greatest desire isn’t to have more highs or fewer lows, or perfect confidence, or perfect understanding… but simply to follow Him wherever He leads. We will meet him today on the mountain, and which mountain is for Him to decide.


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