Forgive me if you've heard this story before (I like to tell it): A few years ago my friend, David Link, and I set forth to climb Mount Hoffman, an 11,000 foot peak in Yosemite National Park. I tell you about this because I think it has something to do with the Feast of the Transfiguration, which we celebrate today.
The Feast of the Transfiguration is not a big deal in the churches of western Europe and the United States, but it is a very big deal in Eastern Orthodox churches. In the eastern churches, today is a major feast day, right up there just behind Easter and Christmas.
So let me tell you about our adventure up Mount Hoffman.
Now, as peaks go, Mount Hoffman is certainly not the highest in Yosemite, but has the advantage being in the exact geographic center of Yosemite, giving it spectacular views into every corner of the park. And it also has its challenges, so we gave ourselves three days to climb Mount Hoffman.
When I say Mount Hoffman has its challenges, not all of those challenges are physical. One of the challenges is finding the trail to the top. The higher you go, the less obvious the route up. And that is another way of saying that we somehow missed the mountain. Oh, we got to the top of a peak. We looked down on Half Dome to the South, and over to Cathedral Peaks and Tuolumne Meadows to the East, and to jagged peaks far in the distance to the north, and to the hazy Central Valley to the west.
But then we looked at our topographic map, and we realized that whatever we climbed wasn’t Mount Hoffman. We somehow zigged when we should have jagged and we ended up on top of a different peak.
Mount Hoffman was over there, one peak over. See photo. That is Mount Hoffman. We were not on its top, we were one peak over taking its photograph.
I mention all this because climbing mountains is tricky business, and I am in full sympathy with the disciples who climb a high mountain and discover Jesus standing before them dazzling white. I can just feel how disorienting and strange this must have been to the disciples, and they did not have the benefit of a topographic map to help figure this out. When they got up there, they may have wondered if they should have zigged when they zagged.
So Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind: “Hey, I know – let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter is fumbling for words.
Peter is trying to make sense of what must have been an indescribable experience. When he sees the shimmering vision of Jesus, Peter goes to the only reference point on the map he knows, the words of the prophets.
For those who might be unsure what these dwellings are about, the dwellings are “tabernacles” – or tents – that devout Jews erect once a year for the Festival of Tabernacles. Peter is declaring his devotion and respect for Jesus and putting Jesus on the same par as Moses and Elijah, the two greatest Hebrew prophets. But even doing that misses the mark, as Peter is soon to find out.
The language Peter uses – the dwelling places – aren’t big enough. The categories of religion are not quite up to the task. Instead of tents, a cloud appears, and God tells Peter, ever so simply, and maybe in just a whisper: “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
This experience is bigger than can be contained by any categories of human religion. We, with all of our education and healthy skepticism, do well to remember that experiences of the Holy often dwell outside of what we expect or can explain – that is the lesson of the Feast of the Transfiguration we celebrate today. I pray we will catch these experiences of the Holy in the unexpected corners and mountaintops of our life.