Mountaintop experiences

On April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. He shared with those present an imaginative view of the whole of human history up to that point in time. King spoke of ancient Rome and Greece and their philosophies, of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and he concluded that he was happy to be living in the United States in the late 1960s. Even with the injustices perpetrated against African Americans, he was happy to be alive and able to serve his people.

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Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116
Romans 8:31b-34
Mark 9:2-10

He concluded his address: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. ... But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. ... And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

In today's first reading and Gospel, we are privy to two other mountain experiences, that of Abraham and the one Jesus shared with Peter, James and John. Abraham's story is shocking, to say the least. He and Sarah had long awaited the birth of Isaac and had all but given up when three mysterious visitors, to whom Abraham offered generous hospitality, told them to expect a son in a year's time (Genesis 18). Isaac's birth was a miracle; he was a beloved only son, and yet God was asking for his life? And Abraham was ready to obey?

William Bausch suggests that the hard lesson here is to open ourselves in faith and trust to a God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our scheming, who rains on our picnics and who allows humans to be inhuman (Once upon a Gospel, Twenty-Third Pub., 2008). Abraham was totally dependent on this God. He did God's will. So must we, in good times and bad, no matter what.

In the Gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus went up a high mountain with Peter, James and John and was transformed before them. As if to affirm the fact of this theophany, a cloud appeared. The cloud was a traditional symbol of the divine presence, and the voice from the cloud identified Jesus as God's Son and called upon Jesus' disciples to listen to him.

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Besides the importance of the theophany itself, the experience of the disciples underscores the importance of getting away from it all so as to gain a perspective that cannot be had in the midst of the fray. Perhaps the psalmist put it best: "Pause awhile and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).

These mountain narratives set the theme for Lent as a time to ease ourselves out of the hustle and bustle of everyday activity so as to pray quietly, fervently seeking God's will and then asking for the strength to make it our own. On our "mountain," we can rethink priorities, set goals and evaluate our relationship with God and with others. It is also a time for realizing that God is God and I am not. God is at once inscrutable and yet willing to be known intimately -- and when we come to grips with that, we can surrender ourselves to the mystery.

King's mountaintop experience left him worry-free and resolute. He had no fear of the future. Abraham's faith was sorely tested on the mountain; his inimitable trust in God, his unquestioning obedience resulted in his being blessed abundantly. Peter, James and John's experience was at once thrilling and terrifying, a true mysterium tremendum et fascinans. So compelling was their experience with Jesus that they wished to prolong it.

Perhaps we would feel likewise. But mountaintop experiences are not perpetual. They are pauses that renew and refresh us. Then, when we are called to descend from the mountain and face anew the exigencies of life, we will find ourselves better equipped to do so.

As Peter, James and John came down from the mountain, Jesus offered them a reality check of sorts. Instead of trying to dwell in the heights or joyously spread the news of what they had seen and heard, they were to be quiet until "the Son of Man had risen from the dead." Implied in Jesus' words is the truth that before there would be any more glimpses of glory, he would die. The Marcan Jesus had already predicted the manner of his death (Mark 8:31-33). He would do so again (Mark 9:32-33) and again (Mark 10:2-34).

But Jesus' words would be fully understood only after his death and resurrection. Then his disciples would speak of him and preach the good news of God's salvific love for sinners. We who continue their efforts are to do likewise.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]


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