In a moment of self-reflection, have you ever looked around at your life—all that you’ve done, all that you have, and all that the future holds—and realized that you were on a mountain? In this moment, you realize, of sublime comfort and perfect confidence, all the pieces of your life have fallen into place and you are finally exactly where you want to be. “I’ve made it—and I don’t want to leave.”
I can distinctly remember this feeling three times in my life.
There was the spring of my junior year of high school, a time when, with the help of a driver’s license and regular paychecks, I began to develop my own identity and independence. Add that to having my first serious girlfriend, being a starter on the varsity baseball team, taking AP classes, and a faith that was beginning to mean something to me—not just my parents. It was easy to think, at 17, that I’d “made it.”
I think of my sophomore year in college, a time when the confidence I have in myself today began to materialize. Beyond the awkwardness and doubt of being a freshman and over the heartache and disappointment of losing the dreams of my two high school loves (baseball and girlfriend), I found myself discovering an inspiring world of new ideas, developing serious friends who liked me for who I was, and enjoying an environment that, outside of some moderate work, was nothing but fun and carefree. It was easy to think, at 20, that I’d “made it.”
Most recently, I am reminded of my summer in Triangle, Virginia, as a simply-professed friar, a time when I began to see myself as a public minister for the first time. Encouraged for four years to focus on my weaknesses and go to the places where I felt least comfortable, I finally found myself in a place familiar to my past experience, doing things that played to my strengths, with a brother that inspired me to be a better man. And I was appreciated for it. It was very easy to think, at 26, that I’d “made it.”
And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can clearly see now that I had not, in fact, “made it” in those moments. While each of one represents a “mountain moment,” a peak compared to what I had experienced before and not to be discounted, the continuation of life has shown me that there are often other mountains ahead greater than the ones of the present. Had I, at any of these moments in my life, decided to stay rather than continue on, remain in what was comfortable rather than risk the trek back down, I would have never experienced the amazing things ahead.
Such is the experience of Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus. Separated from the other disciples, they are witness to what was probably the greatest sight in human history to that point: the Transfiguration. Right before their eyes, Jesus’ perfect humanity and sublime divinity shine like the sun, a visual representation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Realizing they were on the most hallowed of grounds, they fall to their knees in prayer, overwhelmed with the reality before them: they are speaking to God made flesh. Nothing in their experience, or the experience of anyone else who had ever lived, could match what they were now a part of. They had “made it,” in a sense.
Naturally, Peter wants to stay. Why would they ever leave the presence of God on the mountain? What could matter more in life than this? He offers to build a tent for Jesus, to make the experience permanent for them all. But Jesus declines. While, yes, they find themselves in a proverbial mountain experience, Jesus knows that this is but a glimpse of what is to come; Jesus knows that there are other mountains to climb, other amazing sights to see. To stay on this mountain would be to forgo his entry into Jerusalem, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and the sending of his Holy Spirit.
They cannot stay on this mountain. They have to keep going.
In the second week of Lent, the story of the Transfiguration is a powerful encouragement to all Christians at the beginning of this long journey. Called into the desert and tested by the devil, there is often a part of us that feels overwhelmed by the task. The road ahead might be too difficult, we say. I don’t know if I can make it. Especially when we look around at our lives and find comfort in what we have, it can be easy for us to stay where we are and convince ourselves that we’ve reached the finish line.
But we haven’t reached the finish line, have we?
In showing the disciples the glory of the Transfiguration, Jesus offers them—and us—a glimpse of what they seek, not so that they will be content with what they have and stay, but to give them strength and inspiration to continue on ahead. As Christians, Lent is a time in which Jesus exhorts us to get off the mountain and continue our journey.
Stepping outside of what is familiar and comfortable, he reminds us of what we lack and offers us a glimpse of what he offers those who walk with him. Like the disciples, we have to walk down the mountain. We have to keep going.