Down From the Mountain
I used to live in the mountains once before, back when I was a child. I didn't live there for very long, but I did live there for awhile. Back around 1961 or 1962, when I was just a wee lad, my parents bought a mountain cabin up in the little mountain town of Wrightwood, California. They had planned to retire there. I actually have memories of going up there with them when they were looking for property. They ended up buying a tine two-bedroom cabin just across the street from where the town began. The town was only two streets.
On the first street was a small mom and pop grocery store. The entire store, butcher shop included, was about the size of your average 7-11. Next door to them was the fire station. There was one professional fire chief, and the rest of the fireMEN, because they were all firemen back then, were volunteers. Whenever there was a fire somewhere in the vicinity a loud siren would wail and all the firefighters, one of whom was my dad, would come running. It didn't happen too often. Next to them was the backside of a very small motel, and on the corner was the lumberyard.
On the other street there was a post office and a hardware store where I used to buy all my Marvel comic books each month. Next to the hardware store was a nice cocktail lounge. Then there was the front side of the very small motel. Across the street were the public swimming pool and a small café that was open for lunch and breakfast. On the next block, if you want to call it a block, was a small variety store (where I could buy cheap toys like balsa wood gliders), again, about the size of a 7-11. And next to them was the LARGE grocery store-about the size of TWO 7-11s. Across the street from that store was the public library and THE place to go in town for "flatlanders" (people who lived down the hill, as the locals would say), called the Yodeler. It was the only place to go in town if you wanted pizza. There were open late, until eleven. Later on, it would be a favorite hang out for bikers.
Sort of tucked away down half a side street was a rock shop that opened occasionally, when the owner was in the proper frame of mind, and the elementary school. Down a little further on the main street, down on the main highway through the mountains, was the only gas station in town. You can imagine how expensive THAT gas was.
That was Wrightwood, such as it was. When I was little, a lot of local Los Angeles TV celebrities, especially newscasters, had cabins up there. My mom and dad used to go driving around the roads looking for their cabins. It was the sort of little community where everybody named their house. A local sportscaster had a cabin up there called the "dugout". It was a nice little town and I loved it dearly. We went up there for many a Christmas and Summer vacation when I was young, And when I was thirteen, we finally moved up there. My parents hadn't retired, but my brother had gone off to college, so they thought it was a good time to try and make the move. We lived up there, but my dad still drove down the hill to work in Los Angeles. That was a 100-mile trip each way. What a drive!
Living up there full time only lasted a couple of years, but I loved it while I was there. There was something about the clean air, the crystal clear sky at nights, with the stars a jewel box in the sky. I fell asleep each night to the sound of the wind in the pine trees. It sounded like an ocean outside my window. Raccoons would look in our windows at night, and squirrels would eat out of my palm every morning. The scent of pine wafted through the breeze like an air freshener after a car wash. It broke my heart when we had to leave. And I'm glad that I can spend my golden years living in the mountains once again. I can see why mountains always make people feel closer to God.
People have always seen mountains as holy places. Throughout the ages various religions have seen mountains as the dwelling place of God, or the gods. The Greeks and Romans had Mount Olympus. Moses went up on the mountain to receive the law from Yahweh. Abraham went up on the mountain to make a sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Taoists built their temples up in the mountains. Some say it's because mountains are closer to the sky, but I don't think so. There's something about mountains, something about the air, and the quiet, that makes you feel a part of everything around you, that makes you find the divine in yourself. Deserts often have the same effect on some people. It's easy to lose sight of the divine when you live in the city, surrounded by the busy-ness and din of day to day life.
Even Jesus went up on a mountain to pray during his ministry. He took Peter, James, and John with him. I've gone a little bit out of order here, because of the Lenten Season, but I'll come back to the earlier parts after Easter. In The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus takes his three best guy pals up on a mountain. Eight days earlier, he had asked them who people said he was, and they answered with the names of various people, John the Baptist reincarnated, (an actual biblical reference to reincarnation), Elijah (presumably also reincarnated), one of the prophets. Jesus then asks who THEY say he is, and Peter answers that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus says not to say anything about this to anybody. So, eight days later, they go up onto a mountain, and they come to the top. We can assume that Jesus leaves them alone there for a little while because the three of them decide to take a nap.
When they wake up, according to the story, Peter, James, and John see something really weird. For one thing, they see Jesus suddenly clothed in brilliant white, and the appearance of his face changes. And as if that weren't weird enough, two guys have appeared out of nowhere and are talking to him. The two guys are Moses and Elijah, previously believed to be dead for a little while. According to the text, they are talking of the exodus he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. What is translated as "exodus he was going to accomplish" really translates better to "his departure to and what he was going to suffer in order to fulfill his destiny in Jerusalem." But this makes for rather a clumsy sentence in English. Still, I think, the word exodus fails to convey this idea. In other words, Moses and Elijah were telling him that he was going to go to Jerusalem and there, he was going to fulfill his destiny, by suffering something (and we know what, don't we?). The word translated as destiny can also mean the inevitable. So they might well have said, "Look, you go to Jerusalem, and they're going to kill you, but that's what you want, isn't it?"
Peter tells Jesus that this is a pretty cool thing to see, and says he is going to build three tents there, one Moses, one for Elijah, and one for him, too. They are shocked to hear a voice coming out of the clouds saying, "Hey! Listen up! This is my kid here! Listen to what he says!" Then it says they went down from the mountain and did not then tell anybody what had happened there, which was probably a good idea because you tend to lose a little credibility when you start telling people you heard voices come out of the sky, know what I mean? Anyway, it is right after this event when Jesus really starts to talk about how he is going to be arrested and killed, which fails to go down well with his homies.
The point to all this is that Jesus knew what was going to happen to him. He had no illusions about his ultimate fate. Let's face it, he didn't try too hard to be inconspicuous. And standing out the way he stood out was not a healthy thing to do in first century Palestine. He knew that what he was teaching went against what the Romans wanted people to hear, and it went against what the Jewish leaders were saying. They were trying to maintain the status quo. Jesus was teaching that people needed to change, if they wanted to find their way to the divine power that connects us all. Jesus knew his message of love, toleration, and service was going to get him killed eventually, but he didn't let that stop him. He knew it was right. He had faith. He had faith in his message, and in his own ability to deliver it. And in the end, that's what it's really all about.
At the very beginning of the whole Bible story, back in the Book of Genesis, it says that Abraham had faith in God and that God counted that faith as righteousness. God is not keeping a ledger of the good and bad things we do. God cares about our faith. And you don't have a little faith or a lot of faith. You either have faith, or you don't. It's just that simple. Of course, Jesus has the type of faith that comes from talking to a couple of heavenly beings. It is important to note who those guys were, Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law given to Moses, and Elijah represents the prophets who foretold the coming of a messiah. Jesus is the culmination of the law and those prophecies, at least in his own mind and eventually in the minds of his followers. It is quite possible the entire story is meant to validate Jesus' position as Christ. As always, it doesn't matter if it happened that way or not.
This event happens, according to the story, right before Jesus enters Jerusalem to begin the very last part of his ministry, the part in which he is to suffer and die. Jesus was well versed in the prophecies. He knew this was to be his part to play in the scheme of things. And so he went off by himself to be with God. And you know, it seems that's what you have to do to connect with the divine. That's what Moses did. That's what the Taoist monks do. And what do all the cartoons show, eh? The guru-master is always sitting on the top of a mountain. You have to go off by yourself, away from everything. The bible describes the voice of God as a "still small voice". You can't hear it in the midst of all the commotion of day to day life. You can only hear it in the silence. And that means you have to silence your mind, too. You have to eliminate all other distractions. But once you do hear it, it changes you. That mountain is called The Mount of Transfiguration by the Christians. Transfiguration means to change, a metamorphosis.
Why is it called the Mount of Transfiguration? Because somebody gets transfigured there. But who was transfigured? It wasn't Peter, John, or James. They didn't change. In spite of what they said they saw, they still run away like Anne Coulter in the sunlight at the first sign of trouble. And Peter will deny he even knows Jesus three times after his arrest. It's Jesus who is transfigured. Jesus connects with the divine in the persons of Moses and Elijah and comes down that mountain with the faith he needs to finish what he started.
It doesn't matter if the story happened that way. It doesn't even matter if there WAS a Jesus. The story still means the same thing. You are important. Jesus knew what his mission was. He was to enter Jerusalem, where he would be taken, tortured, and killed. He believed, as do all Christians, that he was giving up his life in order to redeem our lives, the lives of all humankind. Through his death, we would be reconciled to God. The famous bible verse in John says, "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whoever should believe in him, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever believes in him shall never die." What this says is that you are mighty damn important. And at the time the bible was written, this was a revolutionary concept. Because people didn't seem so all-important back then. In fact, life seemed pretty damn cheap. The Romans used to slaughter people for entertainment. The message is that you are important, important enough to die for.
It is easy to forget that. We don't always feel so important. In fact, we mostly don't feel so important. And often, the people in our lives help to make us feel even less important, our parents, our bosses, even our significant others. But, there was once a guy named Jesus who believed we were so important that he was willing to suffer and to die so that we could reconcile ourselves to the divine. Whether you think he was the Christ or not, or the Son of God, makes no difference. No matter what, JESUS believed in his mission, and was willing to sacrifice everything for you and me. The story of the transfiguration makes it clear that he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew his fate before he began his final mission in Jerusalem. He did it anyway. He thought you were worth it.
And if Jesus thought my life was so important, then how can I not consider your life and the lives of everyone else, all living things, just as important? We make a difference. We matter. And what we do can change the world. Look, one nobody, the son of a carpenter, who lived in a time before mass media, by giving a message of love, tolerance and redemption, changed the world, and his words reverberate yet today. There is nobody in the world more important than you. If we could really grasp that idea, then how could we mistreat ourselves the way we do? If we could only fully realize our importance, and the importance of everybody else, if we could just see the divine in one another, we could really make this world into a paradise. And then we could all be transfigured.