We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. 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. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr made the above speech a day before he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel downtown Memphis. One of the highlights of Dr. King’s speech is the image of being at the mountaintop where he could see the promised land (of freedom) though he could not enter it as he rightly predicted.
Mountains are typically huge and imposing highlands. They are often difficult to climb because the climbing demands energy, determination, and resilience. Those who have been to the mountaintop could attest to its superlative picturesque. It also provides an overview of the world below; it feels like being next door to the heavens.
Mountain is a very symbolic biblical image. Most divine encounters took place on a mountain. The following could serve as backgrounds to our reflection:
- After the deluge, Noah’s ark rested on Mount Ararat (Gen. 8:4).
- Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac on one of the mountains at the region of Moriah (Gen. 22:2). King Solomon later built the Temple at the same location (2 Chron. 3:1).
- The majority of Moses’ interactions with God, including the reception of the ten commandments, took place on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:16-20:1-12).
- Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40) and met God in the gentle wind at Mount Horeb (1 Kgs.19:12-13).
- Our Lord Jesus Christ gave most of his outstanding teaching on a mountain (Matt.5:1ff; 24:3ff). He was crucified on Mount Calvary or Golgotha (John 19:16-18) and ascended into heaven from Mount Olivet (Acts 1:9-12).
The Gospel Reading today (Matt.17:1-9), tells us about the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ which took place on a mountain and before three of his apostles, Peter, James, and John. Transfiguration means a change in the figure; that means the figure of our Lord Jesus Christ changed and became dazzlingly white in the presence of the apostles. As the event was going on, Moses and Elijah appeared and had a quick discussion with our Lord Jesus Christ. Bewildered by the event, Simon Peter exclaims “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”.
The two “celestial” visitors at that the Mount of Transfiguration share vital characteristics with our Lord Jesus Christ.
- They all had mountaintop experiences as we pointed out above.
- They all had forty days and forty nights’ divine encounters that involved fasting (Moses- Ex.34:28; Elijah- 1 Kings 19:8 and our Lord Jesus Christ- Matt.4:2).
- The portfolio of Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) are fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:17).
Building our mountaintop tents
The ever-spontaneous Simon Peter offered to build three tents for our Lord and the two visitors at the transfiguration site. The account of Luke (9:33) added that he did not know what he was saying. This comment by St. Luke does not mean that Simon Peter’s comment was banal, it means rather that something motivated his utterance. We can see a similar thing when he declared in the preceding chapter that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God (Matt.16:17).
The mention of three tents is symbolic in the narrative. A tent in biblical term means a shelter, dwelling or a place of refuge. Th book of Psalms (91: 1) says “Whoever dwells in the shelter (tent) of the Most will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”
- Moses: From Moses’ encounter with God we learn about the “tent of meeting or tabernacle” (Ex.33: 7-11) where he consistently spoke with God under cover of the pillar of cloud. From earlier chapters of the book of Exodus (25:8; 29:44-46), God pledged to dwell among the people via the tent of meeting or the tabernacle.
- Elijah: From the prophetic experience of Elijah we can understand tent as a form of divine shelter. During the time of famine, we learn that God directed the prophet to go and dwell by the brook of Cherith where ravens fed him and he drank from the brook (1 Kgs.17:4-5). When the brook dried out, God sent him to another tent; the house of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings. 19:8ff).
- Jesus Christ: In the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ we discover the tent per excellence. He came to lead us to the eternal tent which will contain us after the destruction of our earthly tent (2nd 5:1-2). We feel the effects of the eternal shelter through the word and the sacraments especially in the Holy Eucharist through which we receive the body and blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The season of Lent challenges us to make three productive tents following the transfiguration utterance of Simon Peter. We are invited to erect the tent of prayer, almsgiving and fasting/abstinence. When we commit ourselves to prayer, we build a tent of communication with God, when we undertake works of charity, we build a tent of love, and when we commit ourselves to fasting and abstinence, we also build a tent of self-denial and long suffering.
As we march into the Second Sunday of Lent, we are invited to leave the foot of the mountain to the mountaintop where the building of the tents will take place. Like Abram in the First Reading (Gen.12:1-4a), we are expected to move away from our familiar and comfort zones to the height of transfiguration. St Paul tells us in the Second Reading (2 Tim.1:8b-10) that this saving call from God makes us holy and acceptable to Him.
God can only bless and make us great if we accept and activate the invitation to move like Abram from the region of nothingness to the region of something else. At the end of this season would you be able to answer a beloved son or daughter of God in whom He is well pleased?
I wish you a mountaintop experience and have a great week ahead as you build the three tents of the season.