Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.

2 thoughts on “Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

  1. This is beautiful. You can draw pictures in my mind. Actually could See the scenario’s as I read through Theophanies. ? Thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

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