The audio of this homily is here.
Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Ireland's sacred mountain.
I have only climbed a few mountains. I supposed most of us have, at least once in our lives, gone up a mountain. Mountains are memorable, for me perhaps most of all Croagh Patrick where, on a fine day, you get a great view of Clew Bay. Maybe that’s the attraction in mountains, the height of them and the view from the top, the clarity of the air, being above the ordinary as we look down on all that is happening around.
View of Clew Bay from the summit of Croagh Patrick.
Mountains appear frequently and significantly in the Bible especially mountains like Sinai and Horeb. On Mount Sinai Moses first encountered God in the Burning Bush and it was on Sinai that he received the Law. On Mount Horeb Elijah encountered God not in the storm, or the fire or in the earthquake but, beautifully, in the sound of a gentle breeze and he was allowed to see God’s back but not his face. It will be on the hill of Calvary that our Lord will die upon the Cross offering Himself in worship of the Father on our behalf. So it is appropriate that it is on a mountain that our Lord reveals His Divine Personhood.
Holy Trinity, Cork.
It might surprise you to know that you are on a mountain here in this church. It is a symbolic mountain. You had to climb a few steps to get into the church as you do in any church. That’s not an accident and not just a flood protection method. The altar, here, is in the sanctuary, the most sacred space in a church after the tabernacle, and it is set on a height, raised four steps higher than the nave where you sit. Thus the church building and it’s sanctuary is meant to symbolize the holy mountain where we meet the Lord. It symbolizes Sinai, Horeb, Tabor and above all Calvary. It is on this ‘mountain’ that we encounter God in the most intimate way outside of heaven when we receive Him in Holy Communion. Here we discover God’s gentleness, His mercy and His love for us.
In our gospel passage today it is the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, a Jewish Harvest festival that became a remembrance of their journey in the desert after their escape from Egypt. At this festival, in the heat of August, the people would live outside sleeping in shelters made from branches either out in the fields or on their flat rooftops. This is why Peter mentions the three tents. It is at the end of this festival that Jesus takes the inner circle of His followers, Peter, James and John, up a mountain, identified as Mount Tabor. He is changed, transfigured, that is, He reveals His Divinity in order to strengthen them for His coming passion and death. His face shines because He is the source of the light. He is brighter than the Sun because the Sun was made to be a symbol of His Divine Nature.
Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah, the greatest of the Prophets, come to speak to Jesus. These are the men who spoke with God; Moses did so ‘face to face’ so that his own skin shone and here they are speaking to our Lord. But Peter, James and John, cannot grasp what is shown them. Peter, as usual, puts his foot into it because he wants to remain in this awesome moment for he fails to understand its significance. All he can see is Jesus, Moses and Elijah as if they are all equal. God the Father, manifesting His Presence by a cloud, another echo of Sinai, intervenes and points out the obvious. Jesus our Lord is Son of the Father, God made fully and truly man, and He is the One to whom we must now listen for He is the very Word and Image of the Father. Moses and Elijah are witnesses to Him but He is the fulfilment of all the promises made to them and to the people of Israel. Indeed He surpasses all those promises for God can never be outdone in generosity.
So the three apostles are left, shaken, with only Jesus our Lord. It is only beginning to dawn on them Who Jesus really is. They were shown this to strengthen them for the horror of Good Friday. They are shown not only Who Christ really is but who He wants us to become by His Power and what He has in store for us in Heaven. In a sense, Peter has the right reaction but for the wrong reasons. He is right to want to stay upon the mountain, to have what the Lord offers, but he fails to understand that all of the history of Israel has been building up to this encounter with Jesus our Lord, the Word and the Image of the Father made fully and truly human for us. He fails to understand that Good Friday cannot be avoided, indeed, it is part and parcel of the Lord’s plan.
The mountain symbolised in a church is not only those of the Bible. There is also an interior mountain. Our Lenten journey is meant to be a climbing of our own interior Mount Tabor or Calvary if you prefer. To climb a mountain is to leave behind the many distractions of the green fields and valleys and to make the effort to pass over and through the rocky way that leads to the top. We are to remove from our lives all distractions, the other voices that threaten to drown out the voice of the Lord in our hearts. That is why the Father tells us “This is my beloved Son; Listen to Him”. He means it: listen to the Lord. We cannot face the struggle of uniting the sufferings of this life with those of Christ upon the Cross without the strength that comes from our interior encounter with Him. That encounter comes only through prayer when we climb the interior mountain into His Presence within us. That is something that each of us must take personal responsibility for; no one can do it for you.
At every Mass we climb Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary. At every Mass we have the chance to receive Him in Holy Communion, to have His Flesh and His Blood enter into us or, to put it another way, to have Him make us fully one with Himself. How often do we then flee away as soon as Mass is over or even, God forbid, before it is finished. Some hardly wait for the consecration! We receive God, the closest we get to Heaven this side of death and then, with hardly a word of thanks, we fly off home, or to wherever people go on a Sunday. The Apostles wanted to stay with the Lord and we wish to run away from Him. St John Vianney said that the moments after Holy Communion are the most important moments of our lives and ought not to wasted. He recommended spending fifteen minutes in thanksgiving! Whatever time you give try to give more. God has given you all of Himself; He deserves that you give something back in return. Do not rush away, rush down off this mountain back to the world of many pointless distractions. Take the time to adore and to give thanks, to bring your sorrows and your joys to Him, to draw close to Christ who has drawn so close to you.
If we sincerely want to follow the Lord, to love Him as we ought, to discover His love for us then we must climb that mountain through time given to prayer and to the Mass. It is a slow journey but for those who persevere they will get to see the magnificent view of the glory of Christ, the real knowledge of His loving care and the guarantee of eternal life.