Christ-followers will always know ascent and descent, knowing and not-knowing. I can recall so many spiritual retreats that ended too soon, leaving me with a reluctance to go back into ordinary time. I wanted to stay in the place where God’s Spirit was moving within me. But every single time, I had to go home, leaving the mountaintop of my transformative spiritual experience.
In the Scriptures, two companion pieces tell of a “God experience.” Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Moses is on Mount Sinai, God is somehow manifest in thick darkness. “You saw no shape on that day at Horeb.” (Deuteronomy 4:15) Moses “sees” and “hears” to some degree, yet YHWH does not allow Moses to see God’s “glory” or “face.” The most that Moses can see is, humorously, YHWH’s backside. God placed Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him until He had passed by. Moses would not see his face.
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
— Exodus 33:14-23 NIV
In the parallel story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36; Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-9), there is first dazzling light. Yet a cloud soon overshadows the whole scene. Richard Rohr explains that “the epiphany is both light and darkness, knowability and unknowability, disclosure and non-disclosure.”
After the astounding experience on the mountain, Jesus deliberately walks with the disciples back down the mountain, onto the plain and desert of everyday life. Richard Rohr says that Jesus wanted to move the disciples “out of this enlightening, but also dangerously ego-inflating experience.”
We know that, always, we must return to the ordinary. We must come down from our mountaintops and walk on the rough road where life happens. We must experience the path’s twists and turns that take us through green pastures as well as through valleys of death’s shadow. That is the life we must live. Our Christian faith does not allow for permanent ascents. Mountaintop experiences for us are times of strength-gathering that make the rough roads bearable.
Jesus tells the disciples who witnessed his glorious transfiguration, “Don’t talk about it!” (Matthew 17:9). Because Jesus knew that talking too soon would only weaken the experience. Silence is important. Silence is necessary to preserve the sacred and the mysterious. Silence helps us remember how we felt on the “mountaintop.” And remembering helps us walk on, facing wherever life’s journey takes us with faith, confidence and perseverance. Thanks be to God. Amen.