Jesus and his disciples journeyed for many days on their way to Jerusalem. It was a religious pilgrimage that they were making, with thousands of other Jews who gathered in the temple area for the celebration of the Passover.
It is not easy to be a pilgrim. Traveling far from home, trying to find the things you need, relying on the generosity of others. We know of some instances when Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed in certain towns. And because word traveled fast about him, Christ had the added challenge of navigating the mobs of people who followed him hoping for a sign or a healing.
Then, as we hear in the Gospel today, Jesus decides to go up to the top of a high mountain to pray. Not just any old mountain, but a high mountain. I know from experience that when you have been travelling on foot for miles, the last thing in the world that you want to do is go up a steep mountain like mount Tabor. I can just imagine the comments: “Why do we have to go up that mountain to pray? What - is God not down here? All this preoccupation with externals and symbolism. We are wasting precious daylight! There are people waiting for us, people following us. We need to get to our evening destination and figure out what we are going to have for dinner and where to stay.”
So I don’t imagine that the other nine were particularly upset to not have been chosen by our Lord to go on that hike up the mountain. Peter, James, and John might have wondered why he wanted them to come, since he had gone off alone to pray on so many other occasions. What was different about this time. But the followed as he led them away from the dust and the chaos of the road and up the steep pathway that led to the summit of the mountain.
As they reach the top, Christ was transfigured. Quickly, Peter realizes that something incredible is happening.
“Lord, it is good that we are here.” He says. Suddenly the hike was worth it.
Life is a pilgrimage. Christ walks with us and teaches us and heals us along the road. We encounter him many times in the dust and chaos of the road – busy work and prayer schedules, the constant interactions and errands and appointments. And it may seem like this is enough – it may seem that this is what we are called to – that this life of the road demands our attention and that we do not have room for anything else.
And to an extent that is true. To know and serve Christ in this ordinary, daily way along the road is the bulk of our Christian life. But there is a hazard if we never leave the road. We can begin to obsess on the daily grind, the experience of the pilgrimage, of traveling, of our needs and of the social dynamics around us, and we can lose sight of what we are doing, where we are going, who we are traveling with. Our lives can begin to become superficial – looking for our next meal, the next thing at work. Soon, like the disciples, we find ourselves arguing about who is the greatest. Or, like Peter, we begin to question why Jesus should allow suffering and death to be a part of life. Our vision becomes worldly – we become secularized. And we start to lose our way, to forget where we are going and why we are traveling along this road in the first place.
I think this happens to us more easily than we would like to admit. We are fickle. We get caught up with the road. Something bad happens, and then the whole world is against us. Something good happens and God loves us. Our moods change and we can easily find ourselves muddling along just putting one foot in front of the next.
Christ knows that we have this tendency – to be distracted, to be superficial, to be moody. That is why, especially at decisive moments in life, he asks us to follow him up mount Tabor, to leave behind the preoccupations of daily life and to climb the mountain, to be with him in prayer.
Some of the ancient churches used to have long, steep stairs that climbed up to the front door, making it clear that when we came here, into this holy place we were leaving the superficiality of daily life behind and ascending to a place of encounter with God. The Church architecture wanted to teach us that when we come here we follow the command of our Heavenly Father, who says to us “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
As Peter came to the crest of that mountain he realized why Christ had invited him: so that he could be grounded in the truth, in the transcendent. And we need that too: to be reminded of why we are on this pilgrimage in the first place. We need the perspective of prayer.
I will close with a quote from C.S. Lewis:
“Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.
The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”
If we never climb the mountain, if we stay on the roadway of life, we risk getting lost or distracted or confused… It is easy to drift away. Lent is meant to be a time of intensified prayer, a time when we allow ourselves to be led up the mountain – to remember who Christ is, to remember who we are, and why we are here. Christ wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us about who he is and about the incredible plans he has in store for us. We are challenged in this time of Lent not to settle for a superficial faith, not to settle for the dusty road. To follow Christ up the steep path to Mount Tabor, trusting that when we reach the top, we too will say with St. Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”