Around the corner from my office at the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill was the Atrium Mall. A multilevel structure that housed many of the upscale stores for the neighborhoods just outside the Boston City limits. The Atrium Mall was tightly wedged in between two other shopping centers and therefore had all of its parking located below the mall structure. Getting into the mall, especially during the holiday season, was an experience in itself. It was not unusual for cars to be lined up onto Boylston Street as patrons slowly navigated the downward spiral hoping to find a prime parking spot on one of the upper levels.
It never failed to amaze me, there would be gridlock on the upper two levels and then once on the third or fourth level, not only would traffic abate, but parking would be found in abundance. This phenomenon was so frequent that one parishioner commented she often wanted to yell out “life gets better the deeper you go” in hopes of moving the gridlock along.
This morning we heard Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, that moment when Jesus reveals his full identity to Peter, James, and John. I can only imagine how overwhelming this moment must have been for the three Apostles. For years they had literally been studying at the Rabbi’s feet as they tried to make sense of cryptic descriptions Jesus had used in reference to himself. And then, at this moment in time, the veil of mystery was lifted for just a brief moment and they saw and now knew without a doubt that the man they had been following truly was the anointed one, the Messiah, the true Son of God. It’s no wonder Peter wanted to build a handful of shelters and hunker down above the tree line for awhile. After all, if you saw the Son of God, Moses and Elijah, wouldn’t you want to make the moment last as long as possible?
This it seems is what Peter wanted to do, make the moment last as long as possible, besides, there was nothing down below but the same old thing; angry Romans, grumpy Pharisees, and sick people in the thousands trying to touch the man that heals all.
I wonder how many of us have had similar experiences. How many of us have experienced that moment of ecstasy while on retreat, at Cursillo, or New Beginnings, when somewhere in the course of the retreat, something clicks inside us, and all of a sudden, we have this overwhelming sense of unity with God as the words to Amazing Grace ring true in our hearts? And how many of us have found it hard to return to the parish because regular Sunday worship just cannot compare with our weekend experience as the music seems to drag and the liturgy is well, just the same old, same old? While, deep down you long to experience that ecstatic high once again. If you have had similar experiences, then you know exactly what Peter and probably James and John were feeling that day after witnessing the Transfiguration.
Unfortunately Peter, James and John had to walk down off the mountain and return to life in the valley below. At some point we all have to come off the mountain, simply because mountain tops cannot support life. With peaks that are often above the tree line, mountain peaks cannot and do not produce enough vegetation to support life and once off the mountain, there is no point in going back up. . because the moment is gone anyway.
This is the problem with spiritual highs. They are wonderful to encounter and they can provide us a vision of what can be, but they are brief and cannot sustain our spiritual lives as individuals or as a community. But alas, as one Christian writer noted, Americans are spiritual junkies, seeking one spiritual high after another, rarely willing to spend significant time in the valley’s that form between the highs.
It is in the valleys where life is sustained and real growth can happen. And, yes. . it is also where all the messiness and hardships of life are found. In the case of the Transfiguration, Jesus knew he had to come off the mountain. He knew he had to begin the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem and then ultimately to the cross. And he knew. . with each step, he had to place more and more of his trust in the hands of the Father.
Recently I had lunch with a colleague who realized he has spent the bulk of his ministry inviting people to look beyond Sunday morning, to accept that our relationship with God cannot be sustained by seeking a weekly liturgical high but by delving deeper than the surface of what Sunday morning can offer.
What my colleague and others are realizing, as Christians today, we are a lot like the people of Boston trying to find parking at the Atrium Mall constantly seeking the first space available on the highest level possible. Some are even willing to squeeze their Hummers and SUV’s into the narrowest of spots because being on a higher level is somehow better. Instead, the better, easier parking is found below in the same way a more intimate and satisfying relationship with is found when delve deeper in faith.
Who can blame Peter for wanting to build booths and to stay a while on the mountain, but as we all know, as soon as the question was asked, it was made abundantly clear the booths would not be needed for it was time to begin the descent. Peter knew this meant returning to the struggles of being an Apostle and for him also to face Jerusalem and the cross he would eventually have to bear.
This morning we are being asked to descend from our own mountains. It is time to descend from the final peak of Epiphany and to move forward into the season of Lent. It is time to leave behind the celebration of each peak, to pack away the alleluias, and to strip away the glitz and glamour of our liturgies and to journey deeper into the valley of our relationship with God.
As Peter, John and James ultimately found, journeying deeper with God is never easy. With each step we are invited to be more vulnerable and often times to face the issues in our lives we fear most. The issues are different for each of us, and God will never force us to deal with them until we are ready. But no matter how much we may choose to avoid, God has a way of constantly bringing us back to that which we fear and calling us to trust in God.
I wish I could offer each of you a way to grow in trust, but developing greater trust in God is an individual reality that only you can discover on your own with God. It starts with a vision of what can be, and grows as we are willing to descend into the depths and darkness of the valley below while somehow knowing there is something better, deeper and more meaningful just beyond it. Again, Jesus descended the mountain and journeyed to the cross and death, trusting that greater light and life would be found on the other side.
Darkness to light, death to new life, iconic words of Christian faith that encourage us to descend the mountain of Epiphany and to walk humbly into Lent. These are words that motivate us to seek more than passing spiritual highs and Sunday morning liturgy . .these are the words that move us down the mountain and into the shadows of the valley in order to journey deeper in relationship and trust with God.