On the First Sunday of Lent we see Jesus in the desert battling temptations. On the Second Sunday of Lent we see him on the mountain basking in the glory of God. The two Sundays are a paradigm of our life which is a series of ups and downs.
In 2006 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with forty-six others. We went to Mt. Tabor, traditionally viewed as the place of Jesus' Transfiguration. Our tour bus was large and unable to go up the narrow winding road to the top of the mount. We disembarked and took several of the vans or mini-buses that carried pilgrims to the top. It was easy to understand how the three apostles who were with Jesus fell asleep after the long climb. But our journey was easy and so we were wide awake for the beautiful view to the south and for the Mass we celebrated there in one of several churches.
Jesus often went to a hill or high place to pray. There seems to be a human instinct that leads us to encounter God in the heights. The Lakota Sioux went to mountains and high buttes for their vision quests. It was on Mt. Horeb (traditionally identified with Mt. Sinai) that Moses encountered God in the burning bush and received the covenant commandments. The prophet Elijah went to this same mountain where he encountered God not in fire or a mighty wind or an earthquake, but in "a tiny whispering sound" (1 Kings 19: 11-12).
Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, turn up at Jesus' Transfiguration. They speak with Jesus about "his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9: 31). Jesus had just been telling his apostles about this "exodus"--that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9: 22). He followed this teaching with one about discipleship: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9: 23). The way to glory is not easy.
St. Peter wanted to construct tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He would like them, and we can assume, himself and the two brothers James and John, to remain on the mountaintop. He would like to hold on to the glory and avoid the struggles that are part of the plains and valleys of life. But Jesus could not remain there. He had work to do--the work of our redemption.
Life is a series of ups and downs, mountaintop experiences and valleys. We would like to remain on the mountain, but we cannot. We must live in the broken world and share others' burdens and sorrows. We must deal with our own. Every so often we may have a mountaintop experience, or as St. Ignatius Loyola called it, consolation. But it will pass. When it comes, St. Ignatius says in his Rules for Discernment of Spirits, we should savor the peace and the joy in order to strengthen ourselves for the inevitable valleys of life. Then, when the valleys or, as he puts it, desolations, come, we will be strong. We will remember that the desolation too will pass.
Jesus' Transfiguration was a taste of glory before the battle. The consolations God sends us serve a similar role. They remind us of the joy of heaven that will never end.
Back to the pilgrimage: after celebrating Mass and touring the various churches and taking one last look at the plain to which we would be returning, we got on the minibuses for the trip down the mount. I suspect the drivers got a perverse pleasure out of scaring pilgrims as they raced around tight corners at breakneck speeds during the descent. All one could do is trust them and their driving skills.
That's a final lesson of the Transfiguration: trust. As Jesus surrendered himself into the loving hands of the Father, trusting that his suffering and death would lead to his glory, so do we followers of Jesus strive to trustingly surrender. As St. Paul wrote: "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body..." (Philippians 3: 20-21). If we let him, Jesus will lead us on an exodus from this world to the mountaintop of heaven where we will share in his glory.