Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain. (Mt. 17:1)
Everybody knows that the air is thinner at high altitude. What this actually means, as I understand it, is that the barometric pressure is lower at higher altitude, so the air is less compressed, therefore any given volume of air contains fewer molecules overall, including oxygen, so when you breathe you take in less oxygen, which accounts for about 21% of the ingredients in air. What this means is that you have to breathe a bit more quickly and more deeply to draw in more oxygen, although this biological response is actually insufficient to allow the body to acclimatize to high altitude.
An old adage articulates the method by which mountain climbers in high altitudes need to acclimatize: climb high, sleep low. If you climb high at, say, elevations above 10,000 feet, where this kind of thing becomes an issue, you begin to stress your body in the thinner air, signaling that it needs to do something to adapt to the situation. The best way for the body to do this is to produce more red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the entire body.
Say you are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, for instance, which will take you (if you reach the summit) to a height of 19,341 feet above sea level. One day’s climb might take you as high as 14,000 feet, but you might make camp that night at a lower place on the mountain where the elevation is only 13,300 feet. At 14,000 feet, your body got the message that it needs to make more red blood cells in order to better distribute the oxygen your body needs, but it will have an easier time making these new red blood cells while you sleep at the lower altitude that night. By morning, you’ll be better prepared to climb to greater heights. And, God willing, this way you will make it to the summit with your wits about you. Or so I’ve heard.
The traditional location of the account we heard in the Gospel this morning of Jesus’ Transfiguration, in the sight of Peter and James and John, is Mount Tabor, which ascends to a soaring height of 1,886 feet – a mere 17,455 feet below the peak of Kilimanjaro. But who am I to make comparisons? Some New Testament scholars have suggested that a different mountain, Mount Hermon, is a more likely location for the transfiguration for precisely the reason that it is a much higher mountain: 9,232 feet. At that elevation Peter, James, and John might just have been in danger of a nose-bleed. But neither the apostles nor Jesus, (nor Moses, nor Elijah, for that matter) would have had to worry about climbing high and sleeping low. They’d have been in safe territory, well below 10,000 feet. And yet, I wonder if we learn something about this mysterious mountaintop experience if we take into account the old climbers’ adage to climb high and sleep low.
The event of the Transfiguration is notoriously resistant to easy interpretation. It is usually taken to be highly symbolic – but what does the transfiguration symbolize? There Jesus stands, his face shining like the sun, in the presence of the ancient representatives of the Law and the Prophets. And…? What? There is the voice from the overshadowing cloud: “This is my Son; listen to him!” But no words come from Jesus then for anyone to listen to, except (eventually) the order to tell no one yet of what they have seen. Is he kidding? Tell no one about this transfiguring light? Share no description of this mystical vision? Repeat to no one those divine words? Exclaim to no one, in voices hushed or loud, what it felt like to be there… in that Presence!?!
Peter is often mocked for his reaction to the moment (“If you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,”) as though the rest of us have a better idea of how to respond to this event. But over the years I haven’t heard many better ideas.
So, what if we remember the climber’s adage to climb high and sleep low?
If you had to adopt a slogan for the Christian life, you might think that a good one could be the inverse of that adage: Climb low, but sleep high! Which is to say that we sometimes think of the Christian faith as a system that promises the high reward of heaven after a life of struggle on earth. Don’t worry about the trials and tribulations of this life, this way of thinking goes, for the promises of heavenly paradise will make it all worthwhile. We may climb low while we live on earth, but we will sleep high in the celestial courts! But maybe the Transfiguration is meant to challenge that way of seeing things.
Perhaps this high ascent is how God puts stress on the system, so to speak, signaling that something is going to have to be different as we go forward from here. After all, it will not be long, from this point, before Jesus is leading his disciples toward Jerusalem, and his Passion, and his Death, and his Resurrection, and his Ascension into heaven. Perhaps God the Father leads Jesus to this mountaintop to begin the process of acclimatization, symbolically speaking. But since Jesus’ Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension are all intended for us, not for his benefit, it is important that Peter and James and John go with him, as our representatives, to begin the process of acclimatization for us.
At a symbolic level, it makes sense for us to think about climbing high and sleeping low if we believe that Jesus actually has someplace for us to go, something for us to do, and that when we follow him we are called to go higher than our other daily challenges require. Perhaps, the point of the Transfiguration is actually all about the altitude, all about climbing high. And the light, and Moses and Elijah, and the voice, and the rest of it, are all there to make us want to go there again, to climb high again tomorrow, because, wow, what things happen when we climb high with Jesus!
Did anyone ever tell you that walking with Jesus might lead you up a high mountain? Did anyone ever tell you that not only would the views be great, but that you would see things with Jesus, experience things at high altitude that you cannot see down low, cannot experience if you don’t climb? Did anyone ever tell you to expect to see the mystical and symbolic insights of God if you will follow Jesus? Did anyone warn you that you might encounter visions you cannot fully understand, but that you will delight in them for their beauty all the same? Did anyone ever warn you that you might find your entire self stressed because the air might get thin in the Presence of God, and you might find yourself gasping a bit for breath? And did anyone ever tell you that the way to deal with this is not to vow never to climb this high again; but that if you will climb high and sleep low you will be able to climb even higher tomorrow?
Of course this is symbolic language. Of course the next day Jesus and Peter and James and John did not climb above 10,000 feet. But within days they were headed to Jerusalem, toward the rarified air of the Upper Room, and to that most challenging climb up to Calvary and to the Cross. Peter and James and John could not be expected to follow Jesus all this way without some preparation, without some acclimatization, and neither can we.
We are not prepared in our mundane daily existence for the heights to which Jesus calls us. And if we don’t think (and act) like mountain climbers, then we may never be willing to follow him, for we will only know that when we try, we are left gasping for air. But if we climb high and sleep low, then maybe we will be ready to continue with Jesus tomorrow, and to go even higher.
So many Christians have such low expectations of Jesus, but the Transfiguration is meant to elevate those expectations, without a full explanation. Do you want a glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it? Climb high, and sleep low! Do you want to hear the voice of God? Climb high, and sleep low! Are you wondering what it means to call Jesus the Son of God? Climb high, and sleep low! Is faith in him congruent with the ancient faith of Abraham, or is it discontinuous of the Law and the Prophets? Climb high, and sleep low! Jesus invites us into a rare insight by allowing us to climb high with him. We are wise if we remember to sleep low, so that tomorrow we can continue higher.
It is intriguing to me that thing that changes when you climb high and sleep low is your blood. It’s the production of more red blood cells (among other things) that allows the climber who has slept low to climb higher. What changes was God preparing in Jesus’ blood when he called him to the mountaintop? How was he preparing the sacred Body of his Son to share that precious Blood with his disciples? More poignantly, how was he readying his Son to shed his precious Blood for the salvation of the world?
If climbing high and sleeping low prepares our blood to sustain us at high altitude, what unseen transformation may have been taking place in the Blood of Jesus as he climbed high and slept low? Was God doing with Jesus’ Blood just exactly what he does with our blood if we climb high and sleep low: altering the composition of that blood to keep us alive as we continue on tomorrow, and climb higher?
At 6:54 am on the morning of July 22nd of last year, I stepped onto a piece of rock at the altitude of 19,341 feet above sea level. It is, by far, the highest I have ever climbed, and it was exhilarating to stand so high on the earth. And I was able to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, in part, because I had climbed high and slept low.
But the truth is that I have climbed higher with Jesus than I ever could climb on this earth.
The faithful pilgrim finds that the pattern of climbing high and sleeping low suits us, as it prepares us for the next day’s journey, the next day’s challenges, the next day’s blessings, the next day’s encounter with the Holy.
When we climb high and sleep low, we find that we are in step with Jesus – or, is it the other way round, that when we are in step with Jesus, we find that we are climbing high and sleeping low? And among all the other changes that may take place in us, one significant part of our acclimatization to this life of climbing with Jesus is that something happens to our blood, symbolically speaking, as we are nourished with his sacred Blood, which is itself mystically altered, so that it may be shared with us, and gives us new life in higher climes.
Let us, my friends, try to remember to climb high and to sleep low, for God is calling us to become acclimatized to a new life that comes from our communion with his blessed Son. If the air is thin, and it’s hard to do, so be it. Let’s remember that there is something happening when we climb high and sleep low – that our blood is being augmented with his sacred Blood, which brings with it the promise of life, where we saw only death before.
Lord, it is good for us to be here, overshadowed by this cloud. Help us to listen to you. Nourish us with your Blood. And help us always to remember to climb high with you, and to sleep low, so that tomorrow we may climb higher!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 February 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia