In my last summer of college I lived in a cabin at the base of a mountain in New Hampshire. Every morning I hiked to the summit to watch the sun rise. Once I reached the top of the mountain, I sat back on a rock with my knees drawn to my chest and watched the sun climb higher in the clear horizon.
Then I graduated from college and took a job in Florida, where they have no mountains, but I never forgot that cabin. How could I? In those days, breakfast was a cup of instant coffee, black, no sugar, and lunch was dry tuna from the can. Less meant more, and I knew that no matter what happened, that mountain would remain long after I moved on.
On that mountain the sight of the sky overhead gave me a sense of surety that could only come from God.
It is good to have friends in high places.
In the Bible, big things happen on mountains. God lowers himself and comes down, reaches out to us with the Word. He speaks with us through his servants the prophets and tells us the way to his heart. The mountain signifies strength, and it occupies a central place in Old and New Testament traditions. Even now in the midst of Lent we may look to the summit of God’s holy mountain to strengthen us on our journey through the wilderness of sin and the hope of the resurrection at Easter. Lent will lead to the Mount of Olives, and then to Calvary.
The mountain is the typical setting of prayer for Jesus. He goes to Mount Tabor to prepare for the ministry to which he has been called by his Father. This call from the Spirit (his own) is not arbitrary; he knows exactly what to do and where to go. Jesus is following the pattern left by Old Testament figures Moses and Elijah, who each encountered God intimately during their respective flights into the wilderness and on mountains. The less we take with us on our journeys to meet God the better we know him.
Jesus was a learned Jew, familiar with the Old Testament traditions and types that pointed directly at him. He understood the significance of his heritage because this gave him his identity. When Jesus returns to the mountain, as he does for his Transfiguration, it is because he wants to be closer to his Father. The transfiguration happens after the first announcement of his passion and to provide the confirmation that his suffering and death will end in glory.
In depicting Christ in the desert, the Synoptic gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, drew upon Old Testament scriptures and traditions. Jesus becomes the mirror for Israel’s forty-year purification in the desert, following its release from captivity in Egypt. Exodus 24:18: “Moses passed into the midst of the cloud as he went up on the mountain; and there he stayed forty days and forty nights.”
Moses is an Old Testament type for the Messiah. He takes the sins of Israel with him to the summit of Mount Sinai, where he fasts and prays the Lord for forgiveness. God hands down to Moses the Decalogue, a law intended to free the Israelites from the slavery of sin and unite them with their Creator. Through fasting and prayer Moses sees God—something no man could ever do — in a theophany so profound it transfigures his face. Yahweh’s glory is an ever-consuming fire. Moses’ encounter with the Lord on the holy mountain is a prototype for Christian worship.
Four centuries later this tradition deepens and intensifies. The prophet Elijah is another Old Testament type borrowed by the evangelists from the First Book of Kings to draw a parallel of Jesus’ time in the desert. Elijah preaches to Israel after war and faction have divided it. But Elijah first rejects his call to prophecy. In fact, he is in full flight. Fearing the vengeful Jezebel after he humiliated the Baal prophets and put them to the sword, he flees into the desert for refuge (1 Kings 19:4). Not only does Elijah wish to hide from Jezebel, but he wants to hide from God!
The Lord’s purpose will not be undone and he sends his angel to intervene. The angel supplies Elijah with food and water to strengthen him for his passage to Sinai, which he now accepts. Only when the prophet hears the “still, small voice” of God in the wind can he receive his commission: to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha as his successor. Elijah’s harrowing journey through the desert provides him clarity, fulfillment, and the discovery and acceptance of his divine calling.
One week into Lent, my spirits are beginning to flag. Easter still seems so far away, and my sacrifices, such as they are, seem insignificant. What matters is not what I give up, but with what spirit or intent I sacrifice. God wants me to commit to his will and remain focused on the Resurrection. As much as I need a wilderness to travel through, I need the mountain in the background with the glory of the Lord beckoning me to climb higher.