A View From the Mountain Top

The Gospel this week is the second half of the diptych that presents Jesus’ anticipated suffering (the temptation) and his ultimate exaltation (the transfiguration). All the Synoptic Gospels recount the transfiguration, but each has its distinctive accents. While Mark and Matthew locate it after Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, Luke locates it before Jesus “determined to journey to Jerusalem” (9:51). Only Luke places Jesus at prayer, and only in Luke is the conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Luke also omits the term transfigured (metamorphoth-e in Greek), since it could be confused by Gentile readers with pagan stories of metamorphoses of gods changing shapes. Luke simply says that Jesus’ face became different and his clothing dazzlingly white.

Distinct Lukan theological themes emerge. In the upcoming journey narrative (9:51-19:27), Luke includes the most distinctive material of his Gospel, such as the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Widow and the Judge, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, as well as significant teaching on discipleship and repentance. The Lukan transfiguration narrative functions, as does the appearance to Moses at the burning bush, as divine preparation and approval for his ministry of prophecy and teaching.


Like Moses, Jesus has deep encounters with God (see also Ex. 34:29, where Moses’ face shines “because he was talking with God”). This also accords with Luke’s stress on Jesus at prayer. Prayer is an opening to the mystery of God. All the major events of Jesus’ life are preceded in Luke by a period of prayer (his baptism, the choice of the Twelve, the mission of the 72 disciples, his prayer in Gethsemane). Prayer characterizes major figures of the Gospel—Mary, Zechariah, Anna and Simeon—and in Acts all the “breakthroughs” in salvation history occur while people are at prayer (e.g., Pentecost, Peter’s vision at Caesarea). No surprise then that prayer, along with fasting and almsgiving, is one of the traditional practices of the Lenten journey.

The covenant with Abraham (first reading), while continuing the Lenten theme of remembrance of the great figures of salvation history, has an interesting connection with the Gospel. Abraham places his faith and trust in God and is declared “righteous,” but through God’s covenant is prepared for a journey that will take him from “Ur of the Chaldees,” to the land of promise. He is to begin a journey and is transformed from “a wandering Aramaean” into the parent of many nations.

Today Abraham is revered by the three great religions of the book, Christianity, Judaism and Islam; yet in the Bible Abraham has faith, is declared righteous and is given a mission by God before there is any Judaism, Christianity or Islam. He is a symbol of the way God may touch people’s lives and set them on a journey apart from established structures of belief.

After the transforming encounter Jesus continues his journey, which unfolds in teaching met by carping opposition, frustration at dull-witted disciples, and concludes with his death, which is paradoxically his being taken up into the glory of the Father (Lk. 9:51; 24:51).

Recently I read the compelling and beautifully written novel, Lying Awake, by Mark Salzman. (My pedestrian comments here are no substitute for engaging this remarkable book). It tells of Sister St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun who is gifted with extraordinary experiences of God’s presence, but also suffers from seizures and horrible headaches. Doctors diagnose temporal lobe epilepsy, which can be associated with mystical experiences, and Sister St. John is faced with the choice that the recommended surgery may free her from the pain and seizures, but put an end to the “mountaintop” experiences of God. Transforming experiences of prayer have been her joy, but will she risk losing them as she continues her journey to God, perhaps in a more mundane way?

Lent reminds us every year that our lives are journeys, ultimately through death to new life, when “he will change our lowly body to conform to his glorifed body” (Phil. 3:21). It also challenges us to deep experiences of prayer and a sense of God’s presence that equip us for the daily, mundane and often tedious journeys of our lives. The mountaintop remains in the background; vision is remembered rather than relived, and yet a voice rings in our ears, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

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