I will never forget the mountain climb my husband and I experienced in 2009 while on pilgrimage in Italy. Even though it was an optional part of the pilgrimage, I found it to be both an exciting and terrifying prospect. It was exciting in that I have always been an adventurous sort of person, though I suppose as I have gotten older I am adventurous in theory more than in practice. And it was terrifying because I have always been scared of heights. But the adventurous part of me seemed to win out over the terrified part. Truth be told, when we got there I felt that I had gone all that way and needed to complete the pilgrimage. I knew that for me the mountain climb was really not an option, since I had promised to offer it up for the health needs of a special person. I could not chicken out, even though the temptation was very great at a few points. And deep inside, I knew that there was something in store for me on this vertical journey, such that I really needed to climb that mountain to find out what it was. After all, I was on a pilgrimage, and surprises from God are what pilgrimage is all about.
I suppose that climbing Mt. Mucrone is analogous to what it must have been like for the apostles. To follow Jesus was both an adventure that was exciting, and a terrifying prospect; it was very much a pilgrimage full of surprises. They were no doubt excited about John the Baptist pointing them to Jesus, saying that Jesus was the Lamb of God who was more important than he was, so they should follow Him. (John 1:35-37) But every time they thought they had Jesus figured out, he would do something terrifying like calm a raging sea, heal a blind man, teach some difficult lesson, or raise a dead man. The apostles really struggled to figure out what Jesus was all about because He said and did things no one else said or did. His lessons were not always clear to them, especially not the one about dying and rising on the third day.
For three of the apostles Jesus provided an especially surprising experience which involved climbing Mt. Tabor. Everyone knew that God revealed Himself on mountains, so just the thought of climbing a mountain with Jesus must have made them wonder. When this occurred, that they knew Jesus was God is highly doubtful. They had shown all sorts of signs that they really did not get it. In the three synoptic gospels where this event is recorded, Peter had already stated that Jesus was the Messiah, but did not seem to really understand what he had said. Nowhere does it indicate that anyone understood Jesus to be the Son of God at this point in time. Such a thought would have seemed blasphemous.
Nonetheless, Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to accompany Him up the mountain, and once to the top, He transfigured before them. That is, He changed in appearance such that He shone brilliantly with a radiance that they had never experienced before. Moses and Elijah appeared as a cloud covered everything, and all three conversed while the apostles watched in awe, not comprehending what they were witnessing. Then a voice from Heaven was heard who said: "This is my Son. Listen to Him." Suddenly everything went back to normal. Or did it? How could anything seem normal after seeing all of that? Yet as they trudged down the mountain, maybe still in a daze, Jesus asked them not to talk about it with anyone until after He had risen. More confusion! However, the men who went up the mountain were no longer the same, even though they did not yet realize it. Something had begun to shift within them, way beyond their ability to understand at that moment. But one day it would all become crystal clear.
In my own experience of climbing a mountain, I know that something did happen to me on the journey to the top. I did not see a transfiguration, but one did occur. It occurred within me. I, too, was enveloped by a cloud which settled on the mountain and it was a very consoling experience. But the transfiguration actually began on the climb up: it culminated at the top. In the four years since this experience, I have realized that I was somewhat different coming down then I was going up. Additionally, I have come to recognize that we have many transfiguring experiences in life, but like the apostles we can fail to recognize them, or simply not understand them until hopefully at some point we are ready for the message the experience contains.
The apostles who ascended that mountain realized later that Jesus was not the only one who transfigured. They saw that while He transfigured physically and externally, they began to transfigure interiorly. Little by little all the experiences they had of Jesus which had terrified or confounded them began to blossom into an interior understanding. They may not have comprehended the very mystery of it all, but they knew with their hearts and with their faith. They did not need to have intellectual understanding of these experiences, but they found that they had an inner peace and an expansion of love. What transfigured were their hearts and souls, way beyond the ability for expression in words or thoughts. And yet they were able to share it in preaching, teaching, and actions after their transfiguration was complete. That is, after Jesus died and rose, they were transformed enough to become His representatives on earth.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to witness the transfiguration of Jesus? What do you think that would be like? If you had been there what would you have done? On the way back down the mountain, would you have comments or questions? Would you even be able to speak? If for a while we can imagine what it was like for the apostles to experience this event, we might begin to understand what the transfiguration was about. As I said earlier, it was not Jesus alone who transfigured. The men who went up that mountain also began to change, and so will each of us if we recognize the transfiguring moments in our own lives.
Every challenge that comes our way is an invitation to transfigure. Every mountain we have to climb and every cloud that enfolds us is an invitation to transform and grow, especially when we feel like the road is very difficult and we are not sure we can make it. If we rely on Jesus to get us up the mountain, we can experience a change deep within our hearts and souls. The more difficult the climb, the more we can learn about ourselves and the call to holiness we each have. We can be empowered and changed deep within if we let Jesus be revealed before us and if we let Him reveal to us something new about ourselves.
Think of the moments of joy in your life, such as graduation after long years of study, your own wedding, the baptism of a child, going on a fantastic, long awaited trip, winning a prize, a birthday, getting a promotion, making a new friend, whatever it was that brought great joy, and realize that after the experience you were changed in some way. Every experience of beauty is an opportunity to become more beautiful. Every experience we have of love is an opportunity to become more loving. Jesus offers us transfiguration every time we are forgiven our sins and every time we receive a sacrament. The opportunities are always before us. But I do believe that when He reveals Himself, it is not just about Him, just as it really was not just about Him on Mt. Tabor. It is about us being changed so that we can experience His love all the more and share it all the better as His disciples. That is the key to understanding the event on Mt. Tabor that we celebrate today. It is about us accepting His presence and His great love for us, coming to know Him a bit better, and allowing ourselves to be changed by this experience. That is the way of holiness: becoming more like Jesus by allowing ourselves to be enfolded in Love to become Love.
May we open ourselves to transfiguration! May we invite Jesus into our hearts every opportunity we get, which is every moment of every day! May we have the trust to follow Jesus both up and down the mountains of transfiguration in our lives! May we see His presence in moments of challenge as well as in moments of beauty! May we be enfolded in His love and in His glory! And may we become transfigured into holiness just like the apostles! Let us continue to meet in the radiance of Love, the very heart of Jesus! Peace!
All the photos are mine. The first and second photos were taken on the way up Mt. Mucrone in northwestern Italy. The third photo is of the Gulf of Mexico transformed by the setting sun. It signifies for me a change in perception. Everything transfigured from blues, greens and whites, to reds, yellows and gold.
Heart Speaks to Heart