The Three Peaks Challenge
Second Sunday of Lent. Fr Lawrence Lew speaks to us of mountains.
Mountaineering is a transcendent experience. On a human level, we transcend the limitation of our fears, and discover the tenacity of the human spirit. As Edmund Hillary put it, ‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’ But mountains have also long had a religious significance and have been regarded as places where God is encountered. From mountaintops, God reveals to Man that his human limitations and mortal fears can be transcended, and Man discovers the divine heights to which the human spirit can soar.
What every human heart longs for is to see God, but no one can see God’s face and live (cf. Ex 33:20). So the closest the prophets and patriarchs could come to transcending this human limitation was to climb mountains, where God allowed them a glimpse of his glory. We, too, must be mountaineers if we are to see God, and today’s Lenten readings show us how. With God’s grace, we are enabled to conquer something in ourselves as we climb each peak, so that, from each of these mountaintops, we can see something of God.
The first peak is Moriah, which Abraham climbs. It is an arduous, agonizing ascent, as he takes with him his precious only son, whom God had promised him, and whom he is now asked to offer back to God in sacrifice. But in climbing Moriah, Abraham conquers his fears and doubt, and discovers the depths of his faith, which transcends his human resistance to trust. For on this mountain, he learns to trust in God, whom he knows by faith to be all good. Moreover, God had promised him a son, so Abraham has to trust that God is faithful to his word, and thus, worthy of our faith. Thus Abraham’s experience on Moriah stands for the virtue of faith which we are given, so that we can see God’s providence, and know that he is a faithful and good God who never abandons us even in our greatest agony and deepest sorrow.
The second peak is Tabor, which Jesus climbs with his three closest friends. On that peak, Peter, James, and John are allowed a peek of Christ’s divine glory, to pique their longing for heaven. Occasionally in our lives we experience moments of such grace and joy, often in the company of our friends, that we wish it did not end. As a university chaplain, I have found some occasions of Sunday Mass with our students to be like this, and God’s presence and glory is tangible. And for a while, we transcend our present anxieties and stress, and we enjoy a foretaste of heaven. For such occasions are like being on the summit of Tabor, and from that mountaintop we see in the distance the destination of life’s journey, which is to be raised to new life with Christ, and to ever enjoy his friendship in the glory of heaven. Tabor thus stands for the virtue of hope which helps us to keep God’s glory and our final end in sight, so that we can see God’s promise to graced humanity, and be encouraged in those moments when we are plunged in the shadows of life’s valleys and the furrows of its ravines. In the darkness we may not be able to see Christ, but, with hope, we can hear God’s voice penetrating the fog of fear. It calls us to ‘Listen to him’, to the Word who is ‘a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105).
The third and final peak is alluded to in today’s Gospel. It is Calvary, and Jesus mounts the Cross alone, raised up to draw all to himself. But each disciple is called to carry his cross, and so, drawn by his grace and beauty, to follow Christ up Calvary. This journey, which involves sacrifice and wounds us, leaving us vulnerable, is the ultimate climb. It is, as some mountaineers say, worthwhile because we experience the reality of being fully alive, and we transcend our human limitations. On Calvary, God’s love is revealed in the flesh. To ascend this mountain is to increase in the virtue of charity, conquering selfishness and fear, such that when we reach the summit we are finally able to see God face-to-face in the Crucified One. On this mountaintop we can see God’s face and live because charity has transformed us, making us like Christ; through charity we have become partakers in Christ’s divine nature. Thus, on Calvary, we learn that God is love, and united with Christ, we transcend our human nature, and are elevated to new heights. For we are brought to Mount Zion, the heavenly summit, where we not only see God as he is, and thus satisfy every desire of the human heart, but we also live eternally with God.
Moriah, Tabor, and Calvary – this is our ‘Three Peaks Challenge’. And this Christian adventure far exceeds any other mountaineering challenge this world has to offer because, quite simply, its reward is out of this world!