When Sir Edmund Hilary died recently, the writers of his obituary concentrated, in the main and understandably, on his remarkable achievement as the first mountaineer to conquer Everest.
It is strange how fascinated we are, as human beings, with the conquest of mountains and seas, and perhaps no other human achievement compares with being the very first human being to set foot on the pinnacle of the world's highest peak.
When Jesus invited his three followers to accompany him up Mount Tabor, traditionally thought to be the mountain in question, Peter, James and John would hardly have expected what was to follow. Seeing him in the company of Moses and Elijah was stunning enough, but it was the revelation that he was indeed the divine Son of God that caused them to fall to the ground in terror and dismay. His garments shone like the sun, and his face was radiant, but it is the disclosure of the voice in the cloud that 'This is my Son, the beloved', that stuns them into shock.
Throughout the accounts of Old Testament history from the time of Moses, God showed himself to His people on the top of a mountain. It is, one could reasonably assume, the nearest point to heaven. If God chooses such a place to make contact with created man, it could be regarded as a heavenly place; a place where God Himself dwells, and where God and man can meet.
Climbing mountains is hazardous if not highly dangerous. The merest slip of the hand or foot can prove fatal. I am no mountaineer, but one should, I understand, try to look up rather than down, something that indicates the need to look constantly towards God.
Both Moses and Elijah were mountain climbers: Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the Law from God's own hand. Elijah too, fleeing the clutches of Jezebel, and preparing himself to die, was instructed by the angel to climb Mount Horeb. 'Go out and stand on the mountain', Elijah is told, 'for the Lord is about to pass by'.
Seeing Christ in this transfigured state, 'his face shining like the sun, his clothes as white as the light', the three disciples were, understandably, terrified and fell on their faces. Jesus revealed himself to the three, in Matthew's Gospel account, six days after reprimanding Peter for being unable to accept that Jesus must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, to be killed and then be raised again to life after three days.
It is as if this transfiguration was necessary to give his disciples a glimpse of Jesus's divinity, that he really is the Son of God. Yet he warns them to tell no one of what they have witnessed. It is necessary to await the Easter resurrection for the rest of the disciples.
Mountaineers like Hilary and Sherpa Tensing, along with the rest of their successful team, spent months planning their ascent of Everest, making meticulous preparation for this historic attempt. In his account of this preparation in his obituary of Hilary in The Independent, Stephen Goodwin tells of the decision that brought the two men together -- 'each recognizing the determination in the other'.
As we embark on another liturgical season of Lent in preparation for the great feast of Easter, we may do well to reflect on our own need for such determination in reaching our ultimate goal, and on the need to appreciate the help we receive from others as we make our individual progress towards our union with God.
Lent, with its emphasis on prayer, almsgiving and self-denial, provides a great opportunity for us to pause in the midst of busy lives and reflect on this change of season which mirrors the changing stages of our own lives.
Matthew writes that Jesus 'came up and touched them, saying 'Get up, and do not be afraid'. If we listen, we may hear the same words addressed to us.