Hollywood loves to take a good book and turn it into a movie. However, many books don’t translate well to movies, hence, in opening credits you may see something like “Screenplay by Jill Jones, adopted from Al Smith’s book A Ton of Troubles”. While most adaptations attempt to remain faithful to the original book, some do not. Characters may be added, subtracted, or even combined. Entire storylines may be dropped. And, most grievous of all, the ending may be changed. More than one moviegoer has walked out of a theatre muttering, “How could they do that! The book was so much better than the movie!”
If I was tasked with taking the written accounts of Jesus’ life and turning them into a screenplay, my movie might just end with today’s gospel reading. It is such a climactic moment. It is a stunning highpoint in the story. In a sense, what more needs to be said? Jesus’ true divine nature eclipses his human flesh as he stands head and shoulders above Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the founder of the prophetic movement). Their presence with Jesus on the mountain signals the fulfillment of every expectation of the ancient Scriptures. It is a cue the orchestra, roll the credits, close the curtains, and turn up the house lights kind of moment. What more do we need to know? What further epiphany needs to happen?
This year’s Epiphany season has lasted nine Sundays and over its course we have come to see Jesus as one foretold in days gone by, attested to by God’s voice at baptism, revealed through miracles and healings, and amplified through his teachings. Today’s Transfiguration is the icing on the cake. It is the ultimate crescendo. It is the final piece to the puzzle. The story, as adapted by Keith Emerson, ends right here.
I’d like to be able to take credit for my version, but the truth is another person came up with it before me. Peter! He is there on the mountain when all of this happens and he (like me) is impressed. Realizing he is privileged to be present at the pinnacle, he makes a very practical suggestion: “Let’s erect a couple of shrines, capture this moment, and stay in it forever.” What better place in the story of Jesus to insert “and they all lived happily ever after”!
Because of this story, personal, profound spiritual moments are often referred to as ‘mountaintop experiences.’ They are high points in a person’s life and they stay with us forever. However, they don’t last forever. Somewhat like molded clay’s experience in a kiln, the connection we experience with God on a mountaintop prepares us for a lifetime of service for what lies next. We are not meant to remain in the spiritual kiln. The purpose mountaintop moments is to prepare us for what comes after.
What happens to Jesus and Peter immediately after the mountaintop is telling. They return to the crowds and become immersed again in the world’s deep needs as they encounter a young boy tormented by epileptic seizures. Peter’s story in no way reaches the finish line as he witnesses Jesus’ changed appearance. It is just one moment that shapes him for service over the next thirty-some years of his life.
Are you familiar with the story of Julian of Norwich? The Black Death swept through her region in 1373 and at age 31 she became seriously ill. As a curate administered last rites for her, Julian began to receive a series of visions – fifteen in the span of several hours and one more the next day. She recovered a week later and in time wrote about her visions in a text known as Revelations of Divine Love. It is the oldest existing English book written by a woman. Famous for its phrase “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, her work has inspired poets such as T.S. Elliot and prime ministers, such as Winston Churchill. Julian went on to live out her life as an anchoress in the Norwich church, where she prayed for her community, assisted the clergy, and received numerous visitors seeking her counsel. Julian’s renown spread throughout England and beyond.
What interests me about Julian’s life is that her deepest, most significant religious experiences (her visions or ‘showings’) last little more than twenty-four hours. In fact, her mountaintop moment came during a time of perilous illness. And while she surely had more close experiences with God over the course of her life, nothing came even close to what she experienced in 1373. The mountaintop was not the end of her story, rather it launched her into a lifetime of prayer and service.
The same is true for Jesus. As he converses with Moses and Elijah they discuss what must take place in Jerusalem. Jesus’ most profound ministry occurs after he sets out for the Holy City and it continues all the way to the Cross. If I would have told it, his story would have ended on the mountain well before the low point of Calvary. But my adaption would have missed the point. This great mystical moment is not intended to shelter him from life’s challenges. Rather, it serves to steel him for all that is to come.
As it was for Jesus, so it is for us. Our moments of profound religious clarity are few and far between, but they are enough to fuel a lifetime of witness to what lies just beyond. These moments fill our hearts when we encounter the world’s deep need. They provide sustaining hope in the face of every discouragement. They stay with us as we walk through the dark valley. And they promise that when our mortal bodies lie in death the end of our story has not been written. Jesus was able to walk down that mountain and walk into all God called him to do because he knew in the end he would rise in glory.
My adaption might be called “The Easy Road” while the Gospel story is called “The Way of the Cross.” In the end, The Way of the Cross is the way of life, so there is no way my adaptation should end on today’s mountaintop.