Into the Luminous Darkness: A Reflection on Matthew 17.1-9

On the eastern side of Vancouver Island there’s a stretch of highway that cuts across a local summit. At this highest point, the forest suddenly breaks away, revealing a stunning vista: On a sunny day, you can see across the fertile green of the Saanich Peninsula, past the Gulf Islands, all the way to Mount Baker in Washington state. It’s a stunning, humbling, transcendent sight to behold. And that’s just a small summit, barely 350 metres high. It’s no wonder then that there seems to be such a widespread, perhaps even universal, association of mountains with the sacred, as places of theophany, of encounter with the divine. Our Scriptures are full of stories about God and mountains — Zion, Moriah, Horeb, Sinai, and Hermon, among others. Today’s Gospel reading is another story of a mountaintop theophany, Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, which has been traditionally associated with Mount Tabor, in Galilee, a story which has had a profound impact on Christian spirituality, particularly in its mystical traditions. Today I’d like to reflect a bit on these mystical associations.

The story itself is straightforward: Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, where suddenly he starts to shine as bright as the sun. He is joined by the figures of Moses and Elijah and a voice from heaven confirms him as the Son of God. As soon as the disciples recover their wits, the vision ends, leaving them awed, confused, and shaken.

The choice of Moses and Elijah to join Jesus on the mountain did not escape the notice of Christians over the centuries. Yes, they were two of the most important figures of the Old Testament, the great leader and law-giver and symbol of prophetic zeal respectively. But they were also both figures who themselves experienced theophanies on mountaintops, and so they link the Transfiguration with these two stories too.

Moses had at least two mountaintop theophanies: first, in the Burning Bush, and again when he received the tablets of the Law. The second of these is of particular relevance to today’s story:

He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34.28-30)

Moses goes up into the luminous darkness of the mountain, where he meets God, and when he descends, God’s transcendent light is shining through him for all to see. By the fourth century at the latest, this had become a kind of allegory for the mystical experience of God, and the divine light a key concept in the development of Christian mysticism and spiritual theology, understood both in terms of mystical shining of the saints and what we might call the more practical good spiritual fruit of how well we are able to relate to and extent grace to others.

Elijah’s story is very different, but just as important. In the midst of a religious war with Jezebel and the priests of Ba’al, which Elijah seems to be losing despite winning every battle, he is forced to flee to Mount Horeb. There, he encounters God. But whereas God was revealed to Moses with signs and wonders, Elijah does not meet God in the earthquake, fire, or storm, but in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19.11-13).

And so, it’s interesting that these two figures — the one who encountered God in luminous darkness and the one who encountered God in silence — are the ones the disciples see with Jesus at the Transfiguration. This story shows, I think, the tension that is always present in the life of faith. God is revealed, yet hidden; there is truth, yet it cannot be uttered; there is light, but it is light revealed in darkness; there is divine presence, yet that presence is so often experienced as absence. This is the paradox at the heart of any authentic spirituality. There are mountaintop experiences, to be sure. But as the disciples found out, we can never ‘set up tents’ and stay there. We always have to come back down into the pettiness of the world, where God is hard to see. And yet, it is in these moments where our faith truly transforms us. This was the message of St. John of the Cross’s often misunderstood poem The Dark Night, in which he sings:

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

It is the experience of darkness, of emptiness, and of abandonment where we end up experiencing God the most in hindsight. This may sound like a platitude — and that’s why I rejected the language of ‘the dark night of the soul’ when I was undergoing my own experience of divine abandonment twelve years ago. But, as angering as it is sometimes, when I look back at that experience, I cannot help but see God’s loving fingerprints all over it, even as I could not see them while I was in the midst of it.

My thoughts went down this road today because this is the last Sunday before the start of Lent. And this Lent, I’ll be doing something special — and for me unprecedented — on the blog: daily posts that walk through Lent with the wisdom of another great Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich. Just like St. John of the Cross, she too had her revelations not on the mountaintop, but in darkness — in her case, a near-fatal illness. And her work wrestles with all of the paradoxes of Christian life and faith: how something as awful as the cross can reveal God’s love, how God can be Father to us and yet also Mother, how the world can appear like it’s falling apart and yet ‘all will be well’, how the vastness of earth and all that is in it can be like something no bigger than a hazelnut — fragile yet beloved.

And so, as we remember today the wonderful events of Mount Tabor, and the marvelous light which it offers to all of us as we too are transfigured day by day into God’s likeness, may we also prepare ourselves for the descent into our hearts that Lent represents. May we be ready to encounter God in the luminous darkness within.

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