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Sunday 27 February 2022: Next before Lent

Adventuring
Exodus 34: 29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

By Christina Beardsley SMMS
Visiting scholar, Sarum College; St John’s Church, Fulham

Context: Parish Mass with a medium-sized congregation, including young families, in West London

Aim: to explore the analogy between climbing and the adventure of prayer

MOUNTAIN HIGH, VALLEY LOW

I’m dividing my time between my home and that of my elderly mum. We live two hundred miles apart, she in the village where I grew up, on the edge of the Peak District. It’s a hilly spot. Daily walks there usually involve a climb, and at the top, great views.

Jesus invited three key disciples to go climbing. The name of the mountain is disputed but that doesn’t matter. Jesus led them up a hill to pray. What a view they had at the summit! Not the valley below, but God’s glory streaming from Jesus’ face. He was transfigured, which means that his form changed – briefly.

Everything the disciples experienced there spoke of God: the mountain height, the light, the cloud. These were not just reminiscent of God’s appearing to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses was also there with Jesus. As was God’s great prophet, Elijah. They too were transfigured, both in ‘glorious splendour’ talking with Jesus. Yet what they said was full of foreboding. ‘They spoke about the departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’

Another mountain: Mount Zion, where God’s glory dwells. But on the Jerusalem hilltop known as Golgotha or Calvary, Jesus would be flanked by two thieves, not by Elijah and Moses. And God’s light would be concealed by three hours of darkness.

When Jesus calls us to the adventure of prayer, it’s not all sweetness and light! Expect to come face to face with pain and suffering as well. But in the presence of the One whose loving mercy can transfigure suffering and pain.

Praying with Jesus on that mountain, the disciples witnessed God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ: both the shining light of God’s love and the shadow of the cross. They needed time to process the experience. It was unspeakable then though Peter tried. It was a time for listening, as the voice from the cloud explained: ‘This is my Son whom I have chosen. Listen to him.’

 

CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN

Prayer is the adventure Jesus invites us to share with him every day. Most often we’re in the foothills of the daily office, quiet time or daily Mass. Spiritual highs and peaks of illumination can happen but are likely to be few. St John of the Cross, who loves this analogy between prayer and mountaineering, reassures us that consoling images and visions are bound to fade if we want to go deeper into God. Or, as the English mediaeval mystic expressed it, when we pray, we must be willing to enter ‘the cloud of unknowing.’ Precisely when St Peter tried to hold on to the vision he and his companions were plunged into a cloud.

On a mountain top or hill words can often fail us. That’s a good thing. It’s better to look and see rather than to speak. Words can spoil the moment. St Peter almost did.

Lent begins on Wednesday. Lent is the Church’s annual invitation to ‘an awfully big adventure’. Forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. Lent is prayer in the shadow of the Cross par-excellence. It can feel like climbing a mountain. Exhilarating but daunting. We’ll need courage and stamina. There’ll be risks and dangers. The path looks steep, but Jesus will guide us. He is, after all, the Way.

Mountaineers prepare for expeditions. Are we ready for the prayerful adventure of Lent? Climbers assemble provisions and equipment. Have we decided what fasting will mean for us or what charity to support? Mountaineers consult maps and plan their route. Have we considered how we’ll pray this Lent? Do we stick with tried and tested ‘routes’ or try a new prayer pathway? There’s time to ‘stray’ in Lent.

We can press the analogy too far! Picturing ourselves in hiking boots with knapsacks and walking skis may be energising but a tad activist. Having prepared ourselves it is God who purifies our vision. Maybe God has a glorious view in store for us, or maybe we’re being asked to know more of God by ‘seeing’ less.

From a mountain path or summit the vista can be clear and the view wonderful, or suddenly darkened and obscure. The same is true of our vision of God. God’s glory embraces light and darkness, joy and pain, agony and ecstasy, cross and resurrection. Are you ready for that? Are you prepared for Lent? Will you come apart with Jesus and climb the mountain of prayer?

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