Some twenty-plus years ago, we decided that it would be a good idea to buy a used car that we could drive to our part-time home in New Mexico and leave it there for our use whenever we would go out in the future. We looked at a really cool-looking yellow Jeep. Opening the hood, we could see that the engine was spotless. And thus, we invested, and, in a couple of days, I headed down a thousand-mile road to the Southwest.
About a hundred and fifty miles out, there was trouble. Opening the hood, I could see that there was oil blown around everywhere on that formerly clean engine. After a tow and some adjustments, I was able to go on. Despite being able to go on, a major problem was diagnosed, and there was no remedy for it other than getting the engine rebuilt. Apparently, a completely clean engine in a used car is a sign that the engine has been washed, and that is because otherwise it would be evident even to naïfs like me that the thing was blowing oil everywhere, the sign of damaged head gaskets. So, I was able to go on, but only on the condition that I put a quart or so of oil in every hundred miles. I bought a case of oil, got to my destination, and then took the car to have the engine rebuilt. Then I waited.
And waited. It was only to take a few days. It took longer. In fact, it was taking so long that it appeared dangerously likely that it would not be ready before the day I had to, absolutely had to, leave, in order to get back and begin the semester. I had no idea how I would deal with it. I had to leave. I couldn’t pick up the car. I couldn’t get back for quite some time. Thus, I started to develop a high level of anxiety. In fact, I was starting to panic.
The irony of the situation was that, at the same time, I was reading a book on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. That is ironical because Marcus was a Stoic, and his philosophy was designed to achieve a state of calm in the midst of adversity. I wasn’t achieving it.
That is until one morning, when I decided to take a hike. I hiked all the way to Atalaya, the mountain ridge line two thousand feet above the city and overlooking it and the whole Rio Grande valley. It is a strenuous hike. But it was worth it. At the top, things were magnificent. One can see all across that valley which was once a great inland sea. One can even see Mount Taylor, the Navahos’ sacred mount, sitting almost at the Arizona border a couple of hundred miles away. It was with that view, standing on top of the mount, looking down on the world that now seemed so small, that the anxiety dissipated, and I had a sense of peace.
That is a mountaintop experience. Marcus Aurelius recommends it. Countless men and women have had similar experiences, with an intensity that varies from simple release from anxiety to life-changing personal and religious transformations and to great revelations. Moses shone clothed in God’s glory after he went up Mount Sinai. Elijah on the same mountain lost his despair over the thought that only he was left to serve God, and he gained new confidence to go on as a prophet as God spoke gently to him there. Martin Luther King Jr. talked of going up the mountain. As a result, he had a dream that changed a lot of things for a lot of people.
What is it about mountaintops that they produce such experiences? I think the answer is fairly easy to figure out. On top of the mountain, one can view the world from a perspective that the ancients called sub specie aeternitatis, that is, from the perspective of eternity. I can tell you that to stand a couple of thousand feet above the world makes it and its problems look pretty small. That is very good for releasing one from anxiety, which is almost always produced by blowing problems way up and way out of proportion. When we are anxious, those problems are huge. They are overwhelming, and, we think, incredibly threatening. We cannot see anything except in their light. But once you can view them from the perspective of eternity, you start to realize that they really aren’t so big after all; there are things bigger. It isn’t just that the view from mountaintops makes things look smaller, it is that the view from the mountaintop also gives one a sense of awe, a sense that comes from seeing what really is huge, and amazing and breathtaking. To see a whole world like that encompassed within a horizon that is nearly boundless, and to realize that even that huge world is small in comparison to the God who made it and is its Lord, is to get a renewed sense of who we are as creatures. As the psalmist said so movingly, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are we that you are mindful of us, that you care for us?” We may feel small; it is a revelation to us that God who made this all cares especially for us.
Which brings us to a very particular mountaintop experience, the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor, witnessed by three disciples. In some important and distinctive ways, what they experienced in watching Jesus’ shining in glory, standing with Moses and Elijah on each side, was very different from what I experienced on the top of Atalaya. It was very different from any great view from the top for the simple reason that what they saw that morning was not the result of looking out from the mountain, looking over the view below. What they saw was something that came as their backs were turned away from the natural vista, as they focused on what was going on on the side of the mountain. Their experience and what it did to them in time was not the result of everything seeming smaller.
Yet, in certain ways, despite that, their experience still was a matter of seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis, of seeing it from the viewpoint of eternity. For that is what the whole point of the Transfiguration was in the first place. For the ultimate point of the Transfiguration is to show us who we are in the light of eternity.
That may not quite sound right. After all, it would appear on the surface that the point of this extraordinary event is to show the disciples who Jesus is. In case they thought he was just another guy with a cause, albeit a really good cause, that he shines with the light of God’s glory and converses with Moses and Elijah, well, that ought to show them different. The Transfiguration says, “This is God’s Son, make no mistake about it,” something God’s own voice is also quick to underline in no uncertain terms. This is the sum and perfection of the Law and the prophets, which is why Moses and Elijah are there as the supporting cast. The disciples aren’t slow, they get it. They want to build a shrine on the site as humans always do in the places where they encounter the holy.
All that is true. But this is more than a proof text about Jesus’ divinity. Never forget who Jesus is. He is human, too. As such, he leads us, he shows us the way, he is the pioneer of our faith. As the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, he shows us how to live as God wants us to live. In short, he is what we are to become; more fully human, not less. In his Transfiguration, he is not trying to impress the disciples so much with his specialness, as he is showing the disciples what they – and we – are to become.
That is awe-inspiring, I think. It gives us a sense of our lives from a very specific eternal viewpoint. Because what we are to become is here, not the natural outgrowth and maturing of our being, because it is instead a gift from God; it gives us an even more profound sense of the size of our present projects and worries than even looking out from the mountain does. As a result of this revelation of the gift we are to receive we should feel a profound sense of humility, not simply because we are small and God still cares for us. We feel it because we are small and are destined to be great, and God wants to give us this gift and by his Son guide us and show us the way. The only way there is to be led.
But there is also a challenge. The view from the mountaintop, any mountaintop, challenges us to revise how we see what is big and what is small. Our problems from the point of view of eternity, which mountaintop experiences tend to be, shrink. A blown engine just isn’t that big a deal, really. Or, far more significantly, as Marcus Aurelius taught, being an emperor isn’t either. The perspective of eternity that we are given in Christ goes a lot farther than even that, though. How that is so can be seen in what transpires in all of the Gospels after Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountaintop. For, in all of the Gospels, Jesus begins to teach them, as he soon says in Matthew’s Gospel, that “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him, and on the third day, he will be raised.”
We are told that the disciples were greatly distressed. They were distressed because what exactly we are to be and how we are to get there was starting to fully dawn on them. They had resisted what Jesus meant until they couldn’t resist it any longer. As it was turning out, becoming what Jesus showed them we are to be was not going to be an easy march. In fact, the way to the greatness that God intended for all of them was a way of suffering and lowliness. No wonder that they were distressed. The way to true greatness was to take a way that the self-styled great despise and avoid. The disciples thus were being truly put to the test about what they had always thought was great but that was turning out to be actually small.
Knowing the difference between big and small is still a huge challenge today. How might be put this way. During World War II, when Hitler had engulfed Europe and was proclaiming the beginning of “the thousand year Reich,” Simone Weil suggested that all of Europe, even if it was under Hitler’s boot had some complicity in his rise to power. How so? For two thousand years they all had proclaimed the greatness of the Roman Empire, and its thousand-year reign. Now, Weil detested the Romans in all things, but her general point was right. We have a certain sense of what is great and what is not, and what matters and what doesn’t follows close on its heels. We teach it, we give children examples to follow such as the Romans. Even if school children were taught only the better parts of Roman imperialism, and not the cruelty, the violence, the slavery and the oppression, still they were being taught to admire what was not really all that admirable. At least, it wasn’t from the perspective of what Christ has revealed to us we are to become. As a result, how could they not have a sneaking admiration for men like Hitler who promoted themselves on the basis of the Roman model? The only way to change things and prevent this from happening again, would be to have a different sense of greatness.
The lesson can be generalized. What do we call great? How do we become great? Who do we admire and who do we follow to get us to our life’s goal? Those are the questions about what is big and what is small that mountaintop experiences ought to set us straight on. So, I would invite you to stand on the mountain and ask yourself these questions: what is meant when we say “make American great again”? Nothing like what I see Jesus saying we are to become; probably something, though, a lot closer to what the Romans meant. Or, more personally, what is meant when we aim to “succeed” in life? Is it anything at all like what Jesus said we are to become? Is it something quite different than what the one who was fully human shows us?
Mountaintop experiences are earth shaking. They are revelatory. But what they reveal is not more of the same, just bigger, it is about what the size of things really is seen from the perspective of eternity. In Jesus Christ, that especially means the size and the direction of our lives. As we now move into Lent, I would urge you to gain that perspective, and make something truly great of your lives for that greatness belongs to all of you.