Every year the story of the transfiguration comes around on the second Sunday of Lent. It’s a familiar tale: Jesus and the disciples climb to a high place, and Jesus goes walking in the clouds with Moses and Elijah, his face so bright the disciples can’t even look at him.
The poor disciples didn’t quite know what to do at this moment. Peter wants to build altars to try to capture the moment. He catches a lot of flak for it, but maybe he was on to something. After all, sometimes you need a beautiful vision to hang on to when the going gets tough. But then again, that was just one moment.
The story takes on a whole new meaning when we read what comes next: After leaving the mountain, Jesus and the disciples journey to Jerusalem. Jesus goes from being proclaimed the Messiah to hanging on a cross, tortured and murdered, his band of followers broken by betrayal and scattered by fear.
We all experience transcendent moments when life seems picture perfect and our dreams seem to be taking tangible form. But all too often these moments of glory are followed in short order by some excruciatingly difficult experience—doubt, betrayal, loss, devastating illness. Sometimes life spins us around and sets us back down in the same place, and we discover the life we once found so full of joy is now dark, crowded with pain and suffering.
Perhaps those “mountaintop” experiences are a free gift of grace, a glimpse of what is real, of what is pure, lovely, and gracious (as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8). They give us something to cling to when life seems to be falling to pieces around us.
Jesus probably needed that moment to fortify himself for the passion—but his frail human companions needed it more. The disciples were about to have their faith shaken to its foundation. They were about to question whether everything they had come to believe about this man was dead wrong. Up on that mountain, God gave the disciples a preview of the glory that lies beyond the valley of the shadow.
Although Lent is a beautiful season filled with grace, it’s also a time of trial. Self-deprivation and focusing on our own sinfulness is not our idea of a good time. But as it was for the disciples, it is the road we must travel, the mountain we must climb. We can’t live on the mountaintop; without the valleys, the view from the heights wouldn’t inspire. The transfiguration story teaches us not to get bogged down in the bitterness of our suffering, but to carry our cross with our gaze fixed on the glory that lies beyond.