A few weeks ago, early on in my pilgrimage in the Holy Land, I had a day not unlike Elijah & Elisha’s day. If you read this morning’s first reading with an Old Testament map in your other hand, you’ll see that the prophets criss-cross the lower half of Israel, probably for days. On the day I’m talking about, the US Vice President was in Jerusalem and the additional security as well as related unrest rippled out throughout the surrounding countryside. (It’s not a very big country.)
We thought we were going to Nablus, to visit a hospital supported by the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem. But we didn’t. There was a general strike that day and it wasn’t safe.
We thought we might go to Jericho instead, but we didn’t, for the same reason.
We had no plans to visit Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but we got word that we were to go there, so we went there.
We did go to the Jordan River and renewed our baptismal vows, but we did it after lunch instead of before lunch.
We began the day with an agenda, and realized God’s agenda for us was different. Our guide kept in touch with his guides, Israeli and Palestinian friends who let him know when and where it was safe to come and go. (And for those of you thinking about a Holy Land pilgrimage sometime in the future, it is safe, almost excessively so. On that day our guides were simply exercising the extreme caution they do every day.) Late in the day, after the Jordan River, after Qumran, he said: “We should go to Jericho.” So we went. Like Elisha, we followed. We put our trust in our guide the way Elisha put his trust in Elijah. Pilgrimage is like that, whether the pilgrimage is ten days or lifelong. It was part of the pilgrimage experience, to never be quite sure where we were headed, or why. Life is like that, at least, I hope it is. Otherwise we’re putting energy and hopes into control and predictability that might be better spent listening to God’s nudging.
We began that day several weeks ago in the Galilee region, to the north. The Galilee is many people’s favorite part of the Holy Land, a beautiful place to begin a pilgrimage and get through the worst of the jet lag. It’s almost always sunny, much of the food is grown right there, and the region feels clean and safe. It is in the Galilee that we walk most closely in the footsteps of Jesus’ earthly ministry: where Mary had her encounter with the angel Gabriel, where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, where he hung out in Nazareth and Capernaum.
Jesus is largely successful in Galilee. Think of all the Epiphany stories we’ve heard in just these few short weeks: he called Simon and Andrew, James and John to become fishers of people. He taught with authority in the synagogue, casting out demons as he did so. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then heals countless others.
We stood in the places where these things happened. It is in the context of all this teaching and healing and calling that he gives the disciples the bad news: he must suffer and die, and in order to be his disciples, we, his would-be followers, must pick up our cross and follow, and must be willing to follow to suffering and death.
Today’s gospel begins that cross-carrying, hard-following journey.
On that same Tuesday morning weeks ago, that day that took us to the Jordan River, to Qumran, and to Jericho, we began the day visiting the Mount of Transfiguration, also known as Mt. Tabor (and several other names.) (And, like so much in the Holy Land, we only think that was probably the site where it happened.)
It is on the top that the Transfiguration from today’s gospel took place, this scene that is so familiar to so many of us, I need not recount it here. Every painting of the Transfiguration—this dreamlike scene—has some common features: Jesus’ bright glow, and the cowering disciples. Usually they’re on the ground, their cloaks pulled over their heads. They were terrified.
When you make the trek up the mountain where this presumably happened, either by bus or on foot as I hope to do someday, the question that comes to mind—to my mind, at least— is why? Why did Jesus bring the disciples here? He was a pretty pragmatic guy, and it’s really out of the way. It would have been far more efficient to get from Capernaum to Jerusalem without climbing up that mountain. So, why?
To terrify them? To show them that moment when Moses and Elijah are gone and no one is left but Jesus? It is, after all, Jesus, not Moses or Elijah, whom we are called to follow to the cross. To hear God’s voice, saying “this is my son, the beloved: Listen to him!”
Yes. All of this. Surely Jesus knows that part of the discipleship journey would be to be terrified, and so he wanted to show them, early on, what that might feel like. Surely he knows that they, too, might wonder about this steep detour on the way to Jerusalem.
The disciples are transfigured by their journey to the cross, the journey that begins in this Transfiguration Gospel. The disciples are transfigured in the same way Elisha is transfigured by his journeying and witnessing Elijah, and the same way we are transfigured by our movements up and down the mountains where God calls us, our journeys through the seeming detours along which God travels with us. Sometimes what it means to pick up our cross and follow is to go where we do not want to go, or where we are simply terrified and confused, we know not why.
The Lenten journey we begin this Wednesday is the journey to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is at the heart of everything, but it’s not a straight line from anywhere. When we feel we have lost our way, as we certainly have, from time to time, or will, remember that God leads us to strange places, on strange routes. As we strive to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness, from glory to glory, strengthened to bear our cross, let us embrace these mysterious and winding pathways that lead we know not where.