Jesus gave His disciples the gift of seeing His glory in the Transfiguration so they would not lose faith when He was beaten, bloodied, and hanging on a Cross.
It is important to remember that Jesus is Lord when we are on the mountaintop with Him, and He is the same Lord when we are hanging on the Cross with Him. The same Jesus who has promised us Heaven has also promised us Calvary.
Mountaintops have always been, in Scripture, places of encounter with God. We think of Moses on Mount Sinai, or Elijah on Mount Carmel. To have a “mountaintop” experience means to have a joyous experience, where we sense God closely – perhaps the birth of a child, the joy of a happy marriage, delight in prayer, beauty in nature, the joy of friendship.
Peter wants to set up three tents, right there on the mountaintop, so that he could stay there forever, in the experience of God.
But as a hiker I can tell you that while mountaintops are beautiful, you can’t live on a mountaintop. Nothing grows there. It’s rocky, steep, and there’s no water. You have to leave the mountaintop to live in the valley – the humdrum, ordinary life where we just keep plugging along, seeking to be faithful to the Lord and to our family. But God is present in the valley in the same way He is present on the mountaintop.
He is even present when the valley seems to be the “valley of the shadow of death” that we hear about in the Psalms. It can be hard to believe that when we suffer! We feel abandoned by God – “Where are You, Lord?” we cry. But He is the same God in good times and bad, on the mountaintop and in the shadow of death.
Just this past week I got a letter from one of my closest college friends, a Dominican nun who teaches in Tennessee. She told me she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, at 36 years old. But she wrote, with utter trust, “The Lord has taken it upon Himself to plan my Lent, and beyond! Please pray for my sanctification!” Here is a woman who, when faced with the Cross, trusts that the same God who called her to religious life, the same God who showed her His love in a thousand different ways, is the same God who will bring her through the suffering and death that is likely immanent.
The saints knew this intimately – God is God in good times and in bad. Have you ever heard of Saint Ansgar? He’s not a popular saint – I’ve never met anyone pick him as a Confirmation saint! But, like all the saints, he trusted in God both in success and failure, in sickness and health, in good times and bad.
Ansgar was a humble Benedictine monk in France in the 800s, living happily in a monastery, when he happened to befriend the exiled king of Denmark, King Harold. Harold was so impressed by Ansgar’s holiness and humility that he converted and was baptized. The exiled King then successfully returned to rule Denmark, casting out the usurper king, and immediately invited Ansgar to come and bring Christianity to his country. He did so and was wildly successful – with thousands of Danes converting.
In fact, he was so successful that the nearby king of Sweden asked for Ansgar to come to his country too! He did so and found equal success in bringing souls to Christ. He built the first church in Sweden.
The Pope heard about his success as a missionary and named him bishop of Hamburg, Germany. Out of obedience, he accepted, and as soon as he left Denmark and Sweden, Viking tribesmen invaded, burned his church to the ground, put to death all the clergy, and the people reverted to paganism. Ansgar was crushed! Thirteen years of work destroyed overnight. Had God abandoned him? Should he give up? Question his faith?
He did none of that. He got on the next ship to head back to Denmark – and was promptly captured by pirates. Finally escaping them, he preached the Gospel again to these pagan lands. After his death, sadly, these northern countries once again reverted to paganism – his work once again destroyed.
But despite his failures, his trust in God never wavered. God was in charge when thousands were converting; He was still in charge when his church was burning and the Faith was decimated. Ansgar never wavered in this: in good times and bad, God was in charge.
The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus is Lord on the mountaintop. Let us not forget that He is also Lord upon the Cross.