My friend Jon Sams says it’s hard to believe in God in a flat place. I don’t know about that – prairie horizons utter powerful and eloquent testimony to the holy. But I do know that biblical mountains (remember Moses at Sinai) are places apart and above – places in which our usual patterns of encounter with the world are suspended. On the mountain we do not take the initiative. We are not in control, or even responsible to see that this or that happens or does not happen. Biblical mountains are a topographical sabbath on which we lay aside the notion that any of us is the author of life’s story. On the mountain, God is the author, the Storyteller who moves the plot forward.
So as Jesus leads Peter, James and John up the mountain, we have at least a sneaking suspicion that something is going to happen, that the Storyteller is about to introduce a new direction. Another new direction. We’re all still recovering from the last new direction – in all three synoptic gospels, what precedes this story is Jesus’ teaching that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem.
Little wonder that when Jesus appears transfigured, when his face shines like the sun, when his clothes become dazzling white, when Moses and Elijah appear with him – little wonder Peter’s soul overheats. Two radically different visions of Jesus emerge within six days; and within a few short verses we encounter Jesus first as crucified victim and then as the shining apex of history, who brings both law and prophets to completion. What’s a simple fisherman (or any of us, for that matter) to make of this?
I think we understand what Peter wants to do with the booth thing – building three booths, for Elijah, for Moses, and for Jesus. He wants to take control, make the new story like the old one, to soften the outlandish novelty now appearing in the plot. He wants to usurp the Storyteller and domesticate the story, because this wild new thing frightens him. It makes no sense to him. Perhaps the closest we can come to imagining what is happening to Peter is to remember that astonishing part of our lives called “puberty”, a time of confusing changes in our emotions and bodies, of profound and sometimes stormy dislocation in our relationships with others, standing on the threshold of adulthood without knowing it, feeling lost. Puberty isn’t the last time most of us will have to renegotiate our sense of the world, and of ourselves in the world, but it is memorable.
One thing about such thresholds is that they aren’t “well-signed”. They don’t identify things clearly – so we don’t easily know that we’re at a threshold!, grieving the loss of a familiar past!, apprehensive about the shape of an unknown future!. That may be what makes a story like this gospel so valuable. It gives as a window into our own lives, and a way of talking about them that can help us name the threshold, the loss, the apprehension.
I wonder if it also helps us understand what Jesus means when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him. I wonder if taking up the cross means enduring – in whatever mean-time, at whatever threshold, and as gracefully as possible – the losses that will always attend God’s call to enter more deeply into new life, into the fullness of our humanity, into the promised future. Events on the mountain promise a transformed future on ahead, and ourselves redeemed and made new; the cross tells us the cost of that journey.