From Mountains To The Prairies
"From The Mountains to the Prairies" Israel farmed her lands, fought her wars. She prospered. She perished. On the mountains she met her God. On the prairies she forsook God. Her history seemed to be one flashback. Then another. And another. Is this another flashback? Another replay? From hundreds of years out of the distant past here on the mountain top are Moses and Elijah. Moses, of Exodus fame, is here to speak to Jesus about his "exodus." That's exactly what St. Luke reports. Our translation says they spoke of his "departure." The word Luke uses is "exodus." And Elijah, who heard God's voice speaking in the gentle breeze of Mt. Horeb, is here to listen to a cloud, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" History seems to want to replay itself.
Peter would like to keep it that way. Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) ought to stay. "I'll set up camp," says Peter. "Long live the good old days! Long live the Law and the Prophets! Long live Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel and Mt. Horeb!" "I can see it now," Moses caught himself saying as he saw the transfiguration of Jesus. "The appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white." "I remember how that happened to me on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God. How the people of Israel could not stand the shine on my face when I came back down to the prairie." Another transfiguration! Mt. Sinai had been a glorious experience. Forty days with God. The striking of the Old Covenant. The Law. But then the coming down. The prairie. Israel had already busied herself with idol worship. Disappointment. Fall. But that's where the people of God were. They were not up there on Mt. Sinai. They lived in the real world of the prairie.
Elijah remembered, too. Mt. Carmel had been his transfiguration! Well, at least, his offering had been transfigured. It was on Mt. Carmel that he had his contest with the prophets of Baal. "The God who answers by fire, let him be God." Those were the ground rules. The prophets of Baal prayed in vain. The God of Elijah answered. It was truly a "mountain top" experience! Elijah chased the false prophets down to the prairie with his hatchet in hand. But there he found the real world for himself, too. There on the prairie he was to find a bramble bush under which to sink into despair, "I alone am left. I won the battle against Baal but have lost the war. There is none faithful to Yahweh but me. Now take my life. I want to die."
"Let's keep it that way! Let's keep it that way! I'll set up camp so we can keep it that way!" That's the way Peter wants it. Says St. Luke under his breath, "He didn't know what he was talking about." And the voice from the cloud makes that clear: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" Peter was not going to have the last word, nor was Moses, nor Elijah. The last word would not come from Mt. Sinai nor from Mt. Carmel. Nor would it come from Mt. Tabor, mount of the Transfiguration. It would come from Mt. Calvary.
Sinai, Horeb, Carmel, Tabor—these were all mountains that spelled triumph, victory to Israel. These were mountains of grand moments in her history. Calvary? That would be a little different. The others were mountains set off by themselves. Calvary (more a hill or a bump than a mountain) was set in the middle of God's people. At that time it was outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Today it is mid-town. Calvary was different. It was the site of Jesus' "exodus" (his "road out," that's what exodus means). Calvary would be a transforming mount. It leveled Sinai and Horeb and Carmel and Tabor and it raised the prairie. What I mean is what Isaiah meant: "The valleys will be exalted and the mountains and hills will be brought low."
What I mean is that Calvary would be God's common denominator. On Calvary God finally and completely sets God's foot into the shoe of God's people and becomes one with them—even (or especially) in death. Forget the tents, Peter. The Law and shiny glory faces that separate and make God seem remote is not what we want. We want a God among us. We want Calvary. We want a God of exodus to be with us in our exodus, a God who saves us—here on the prairie.
Norbert E. Hattendorf