The Mountain Top Experience
These past weeks I took part in two special events that offered a spiritual “mountain top” experience during the summer. Last week I talked about our group spending a week in Mexico and building a home for a needy family. Being around 100 volunteers from various parts of the United States, along with the summer interns and long-term missionaries living in Tijuana was an inspiring and renewing experience. This past week, I attended the last week of the Metropolis of Boston’s summer camp program for our youth. Again, another week with almost 200 young people who would begin and end their day in prayer, who focused a week of their summer on Jesus Christ and His Church, learning their faith, enjoying wholesome Christian fellowship, and encountering God in a beautiful way!
Both weeks were “mountain top experiences” for some people who participated. A few who went to Mexico told me that it was a “life-changing” experience for them. Others who went to camp shared with me that they really felt the presence of God and tasted a little of what the kingdom of heaven will be. Great experiences! Renewing experiences! Encounters with God! And yet, what next? What do we do when we are blessed to have such experiences?!?
Well, today we celebrate one of the major feasts in the life of Jesus Christ, which was actually a mountain top experience! Peter, James and John, three of the closest disciples of Jesus, lived and traveled with Christ for three years. They witnessed countless unbelievable miracles – incredible healings, wonderful teaches, crowds of people turning to God. They were starting to believe that this rabbi Jesus of Nazareth was maybe more than a teacher, more than even a prophet.
Shortly before they witnessed the miracle of Christ’s Transfiguration, Jesus had asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him. Some say a prophet. Some say John the Baptist come back alive. But when Jesus asked his disciples themselves “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So the disciples were beginning to believe that Jesus was more than a prophet, more than a great teacher, more than a miracle worker and a holy man. They were beginning to believe, although there were still great uncertainties, that Jesus may be someone different than any other great person in the history of Israel. He may actually be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God Himself.
Yet they didn’t fully understand what this means, because Jesus still confused them. Right after Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus started to talk to them about how He was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem. They couldn’t understand how the Son of God could talk about suffering and dying. And then Jesus even told them that if they wanted to follow Him and be His true disciples, they themselves would have to learn to deny themselves and take up their own crosses, and only then could they follow Christ.
This life of self-sacrifice and denial and death of one’s own will seemed confusing for the followers of the Messiah, the Son of God.
This is all the precursor to what leads up to the Lord’s Transfiguration, the feast we celebrate today. Jesus takes up His three closest followers – Peter, John and James – and they hike up Mount Tabor to spend the night in prayer. They must have done this from time to time, going away to a deserted place to keep a vigil of prayer all night. Yet on this particular night, something radically different happens! In the middle of the night, Jesus becomes transfigured. As He is praying, He becomes as bright as the sun, light shining forth from His face and entire body. He is not reflecting the sun, but radiates the uncreated light of God! And as this light is shining from Him, the great Old Testament Prophets, Moses and Elijah, appear with Him. Simultaneously, a bright cloud overshadowed our Lord, and the disciples hear a voice proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
What just happened? What did the disciples just witness? These followers of Christ who were wrestling with who Jesus truly was just witnessed an event that confirmed, beyond any words, that Jesus truly is not only the Messiah, the Christ, but is God Himself, “light of true light,” radiating the uncreated Light of Almighty God. The uncreated, divine light that shone forth from Jesus revealed His authentic nature, as one with God Himself!
Well, you can only imagine how overwhelmed the disciples felt. They got a glimpse of something no human can see. They experienced the unexplainable. What do you do when you experience something like this?
Peter, after his initial amazement, longs to bask in God’s glory and stay in divine ecstasy. He asks Jesus if he should make some tents for Christ to stay, together with Moses and Elijah. He doesn’t want to leave this ineffable experience. Yet moments later, after the light disappears and Jesus returns to his normal appearance, He tells His followers it’s time to leave the mountain top and return back to the villages of Israel. From the mountain top they have to return back to the normal, mundane, challenging life cycle. As long as we are here on earth, we will have moments of “mountain top” experiences,” but we will not stay in the “high” of Jesus divine light all the time. God blesses us from time to time SO THAT we then go and share His blessings with others. He gives us moments of renewal and enlightenment to empower us to go back and be His witnesses on earth, in the midst of all of life’s struggles. We experience the light, and then are called to go to the dark places of the earth and shine forth that light. This is the call of Christ’s followers!
Peter, James and John received an incredible blessing, but not to keep if for themselves; not for them to bask and dwell in that blessing. No! God blesses so that we can then share His blessings with others. This is the center of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian!
The feast of the Transfiguration reassures us of who Christ is, and blesses us in a unique way. Just remember, though, why we receive this blessing. We experience the mountain tops so we can be blessed, and then we go and share the blessing with others. We take the blessing from the mountain and bring it back to all the villages and places of the world.
Facing Our Uncertain Future
Love Until It Hurts
Our Orthodox Faith