Sunday, March 05, 2017

Don't look down

I hadn't noticed that the two most significant mountain experiences of Jesus' ministry are celebrated so close to each other, and just as we move into Lent. (I'm not saying the Sermon on the Mount isn't important, or Golgotha; elevated places are where the sacred happens in biblical traditions.) One is the Transfiguration, celebrated the last Sunday before Lent, and the other is the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, marking the first Sunday of Lent, which culminates in a high place often figured as a mountain. (Images from the website of the RCL)
These episodes are not contiguous in Scripture, the former appearing at the end of Jesus' ministry, the latter at its start. (This year it's Matthew 17:1-9 and 4:1-11; in Year B it's Mark 9:2-9, 1:9-15; in Year C Luke 9:28-36[, 37-43a]), 4:1-13.) The Temptation's a suitable text for the start of Lent, but is there something to be learned from the juxtaposition of mountains with the Transfiguration? In the former, the disciples Jesus takes with himself are looking upward; if there's a view down, it's not important. The latter is all about the view down, and the devilish temptation to assume mastery over all one oversees. The mountain is a place the sacred manifests itself, where the human - or a few, select humans - can see the divine. However it's also a place where the human is tempted (by the "God's eye view" above the plane of the plain) to think itself divine. Perhaps that's why Jesus, in the Transfiguration story, shuts down Peter's idea of building structures on the mountain. Even if devoted to the human encounter with the divine, they tempt the human to forget that we are not rendered divine by that encounter.

On Tuesday, my colleague F came to the Sacred Mountains class and told us why the physical location of Sinai - if indeed there ever was a Mount Sinai - doesn't matter to Jews. Certainly it was the place where a decisive encounter between Yahweh and his people happened (though not by the people's ascending the mountain; had they even touched its perimeter they would die). But the encounter is manifested not in the mountain but in the Torah which Yahweh used Sinai to send down to his people. The Israelites take the Teachings with them, and while they remember them as having been sent down a mountain, they move on into time, leaving the mountain behind. F's diagram, skilfully assembled piece by piece over the course of the class, ended with the line along the bottom, an arrow from the past (in Egypt, from which the Israelites emerged like a newborn) to the future. Mountains, like the sacred, are places where time is frozen, she suggested, not a place for living.

[Update, March 12th: Transfiguration is celebrated on the eve of Lent in the traditions using the Revised Common Lectionary, not the Catholic, who hear the story today, the second Sunday of Lent.]

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