There is something special about mountains. I learned this when I was 18 and in my first week of college at Sewanee, which is on top of a mountain. The chaplain gave a long sermon during which I was very distracted, since I was sitting near all my new classmates. But I did catch some of it, and what I caught was that mountains are a thin space. A space where heaven and earth comingle, where humanity and divinity collide. He said that for many, Sewanee was a thin space. This idea of mountains being a thin space was something that I held dear from then on. Because there really is something special about mountains.
We hear this in our reading from Exodus this morning and our Gospel from Matthew. Something happens on both those mountains that couldn’t happen on the ground below. God appears to Moses on the mountain in a way that he couldn’t appear to him anywhere else. Moses entered the cloud on the mountain and saw the glory of the Lord. In the Gospel, Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured into his full divinity on the mountain. God gave these people signs on the mountain so that they might believe.
This idea of mountains being thin spaces where God can speak to us has been around for awhile. In the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis has Aslan, his alternative version of Christ, remind us of this at the end of The Silver Chair. “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”
We need these mountaintop moments or signs to help us survive when we are in the valleys looking up at the mountains. God prepares us in these transforming experiences for the world below. The world that brings us loss and sadness. These moments may not necessarily happen for us on mountains, but in classrooms, offices, kitchens or even the car – they can happen where we make space for God to be present. Perhaps you can bring to mind your own mountaintop moment. A moment so transforming that it helps you believe even when you are in the thickness of Narnia.
I often think of my time at Sewanee when I need to be reassured of God’s presence. In particular, I think of a swing set that offers the perfect view of the sun setting in the evening. The Chaplain was right, Sewanee could be a thin place if you let it be one. It is certainly the setting of many of my mountain top moments. Moments that I can hold on to when things on earth are hard to swallow.
Peter, James and John must have held on to their vision of Christ’s transfiguration in the days following His death. The apostles literally hid themselves away in the fear and sadness following Christ’s death. The Transfiguration must have given Peter, James and John the courage to see towards the Resurrection. They must have known that Christ’s death was not the end. The vision they received on the mountain gave them the light to see in the darkness.
We need these mountaintop moments and our memories of thin spaces because life is full of valleys and mountains. I was reminded of this yesterday during our Renewal Works small group discussion. The tough things in life, the time in the valley were often what brought us back to the mountain. All of our spiritual journeys have definite highs and lows.
And this is what social research is telling us too. Resiliency has been singled out as important character trait for success in life. Resilient people have better health outcomes in general and are able to handle life’s blows with grace. And this isn’t because resilient people are somehow special. It is because they have experienced loss or trauma, they have been in the valley. They have allowed themselves to be sad, but then they try to get back up and eventually they do. You have to experience hopelessness to know hope.
God can give us resiliency. He can give us mountaintop moments to sustain us in the valleys of life. The Transfiguration tells us that there nothing we can do to stop joy or sorrow. God’s love and light will find us and raise us to a mountain top. And sorrow will surely find us all too. The only question mark here is what role will we give to God in this cycle. Will we give watch for the chance to climb the mountain? Will we listen while we are there? Let God lead you up a mountain and show you Christ transformed, so that you have something to hold onto when you find yourself back in the valley. Amen.