It’s where God intervenes to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. It is from a burning bush on a mountain that God reveals himself to Moses as the great ‘I am’ and promises deliverance of the Israelites. And it is again at a mountaintop that Moses glimpses God and receives the Ten Commandments. Elijah sacrifices on a mountain and hears the sound of God in the heights. And it is from a similar vantage point that Ezekiel has one of his prophetic visions.
This pattern is reflected somewhat in the gospels. We often read that Jesus retreated to a mountain for prayer. And certainly the phenomena of an enveloping cloud returns in the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ clothing became lightning white, connoting the brightness of fire. Even Moses and Elijah appeared in the Transfiguration.
But the Transfiguration is not where the pattern ends.
It is the crucifixion to which such mountain epiphanies point.
We tend to forget that Golgotha is traditionally regarded as a mountain. This might have something to do with the fact that the actual site is more of a knoll than a hill or even a mountain, according to A.G. Sertillanges, a Dominican priest who surveyed the area for his classic devotional work, What Jesus Saw from the Cross. But, despite the modest height of Golgotha itself, the added elevation of the cross itself afforded a high vantage point with unobstructed views to the horizon:
However, our Lord’s observation post dominates the town. When the gibbet has been erected, its highest point will be another ten feet above the level of the ground, and the gaze of the Crucified may range over the whole horizon.
Whether we accept the traditional designation or the more historically accurate account, there is an undeniable sense in which Christ ‘ascended’ the cross. Christ Himself indicated as much when He promised that “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to Myself”—to which the gospel writer adds the explanatory note that such words referred to “the kind of death” He would experience (John 12:32-33).
It is fitting then to look at the crucifixion in the light of the mountain epiphanies of the Old Testament. And, once we do so, we immediately notice that a certain pattern holds. Throughout the Old Testament accounts, the encounters on the mountains are often accompanied by sacrifices.
The first maybe the most famous: the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, followed by the actual sacrifice of a ram who, fittingly was caught in a wooden thicket. Moses did not offer sacrifices on the mountain but it was at Mt. Sinai where God communicated His covenant with Israel, including the sacrificial rites with which it was to be confirmed and renewed.
Then Elijah sacrificed a bull on Mount Carmel in a challenge to the priests of Baal. Despite their frenetic outcries their offerings received no response from the heavens. Instead, fire thundered down to consume the bull he had slain on a wooden altar vaporizing even the water in the surrounding trench, as 1 Kings 18 recalls. (Wood and water especially are suggestive of the cross and the water that poured out from the side of Christ!)
The sacrificial theme is present too also in Ezekiel 40, where the prophet is brought to a “very high mountain” where there was a city. Inside its walls was a temple where “burnt offerings, purification offerings, and reparation offerings” would have taken place.
Such sacrifices atoned for their sins, making the Israelites right with God so they could enter into His presence. And so it is fitting that on mountains, where God was often encountered, we see sacrifices carried out. God, in turn, responded not only through miraculous deeds but also marvelous words. Often, God spoke first, initiating the encounter. From the burning bush, He revealed His divine name to Moses, ‘I am.’ Within the devouring cloud of fire He delivered to Moses his commandments etched in stone.
Divine speech was not always so spectacular. It could also be quite subtle, as recorded in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah heard the sound of God in the same place where Moses had spoken with him:
Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound (1 King 19:11-12).
Most literally translated the words bolded above might read ‘a still small voice.’ Here was the Word of God delivered to Elijah naked, so to speak, preceded but not immediately accompanied by fire, storm, or other phenomena. But perhaps this was to emphasize something infinitely greater than all that: God was actually speaking to man.
And so in the mountain epiphanies of the Old Testament we can discern twin, interrelated motifs: mediating sacrifices offered by man and the words of God—truly the Word of God—that both initiate the encounter and respond to the yearnings of man to experience the divine presence.
Certainly in the crucifixion these converge and are transformed most profoundly. There is a sacrifice that is offered and it is man who offers it. But not man alone. It is God-made-man who does so. And it is His very humanity, His hands, and His very flesh that are offered up on our behalf.
And this man cries out all the more for God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But this time, there is no response from the heavens. No bolt of fire bursts forth. No voice thunders from above. Not even a ‘still small voice.’ The great I Am is silent. But then it is the Word of God that is crying forth. And it is from out of the mystery of this great silence that the Word of God cries out most profoundly to us and for us.