Trinity: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"

The Revd Brutus Green

Some time ago some friends and I decided to do the three peaks challenge - where you climb the tallest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in 24 hours. It sounds quite impressive, but it’s probably worth remembering that Ben Nevis pretty much has a road leading up to the summit and Snowdon does in fact have a railway line going up one side. I hasten to add that we didn’t actually take the train to the summit - though we did very much enjoy the fruit of our labour - or at least some welsh cakes and tea - at the cafe conveniently located at the top. The difficult part of the challenge - apart from the long sleepless driving - is the mountain you elect to climb at night. In our case it was Scafell Pike in the Lake district. Not having been back I couldn’t tell you anything about it. It was a gloomy night and we stumbled about for most of the time in a vaguely upwards direction, got lost; made a guess at having reached the top and stumbled back down. Still I’m sure those others of you from the occupied territories of Great Britain will agree that of the three countries England is the best admired by night.

It can be a magical experience climbing at night - especially if you get to watch the dawn from the summit.  A long time ago I climbed Mount Sinai in the middle of the desert of the Sinai peninsula underneath every star.  Not presently, I should advise, the best time to visit. There are 3,750 "steps of penitence" leading to the summit, said to be carved by a monk as an act of reparation for some terrible deed, though there are doubtless many in Egypt presently who would benefit from such exercise. Coincidentally it is also a sacred site for Muslims being the place Muhammad’s horse Buraq made his final ascent to heaven. Buraq was notably a pegasus with long ears, who famously transported the prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence to the heavens.  Appropriately, he has had two airlines named after him.

Today’s epistle to the Hebrews contrasts this mountain, Mount Sinai, with Mount Sion of the New Jerusalem. Anyone who has even scaled Primrose Hill will have some idea why mountains across all cultures are associated with the divine. There is the impressive height, pointing like an arrow to the heavens; the defensibility of the position, and of course the spectacular ‘God’s eye’ view. Mountains, though, change character depending on the conditions. In good conditions a mountain can make you feel like a king surveying his fiefdom; when you’re exposed to a violent storm with lightning above the tree line, or when you’re lost amid red desert rocks, nowhere feels more exposed than a mountain, nowhere makes you feel smaller or more vulnerable, nowhere gives you that overwhelming sense of fear and awe.

In Moses’ encounter with God in Mount Sinai, the experience is characterised by darkness. This may come as a surprise - given that we’re so used to thinking of God in terms of light - but actually most descriptions of God’s presence and meeting with God in the Old Testament use the language of clouds, darkness and obscurity. This follows the injunction in Exodus that ‘there shall no man see me, and live’ and, if we remember, Moses who is closest of all men to God before Christ is only allowed to see God’s backside as he passes Moses in the cleft of the mountain. So for all that God is a ‘consuming fire’, he is hidden in smoke and a ‘thick cloud’ upon the mountain.

So when we read the writer to the Hebrews describe the old mountain of Moses, with covenant of the blood of Abel (who was the first to sacrifice animals), you might think, ‘great! We’ve moved beyond all that fearful old stuff about religion being queer and mysterious, bloody and gloomy’. For the Church though the story of Moses, enshrouded by darkness on the mountain top, has remained the example for our meeting with God. St Gregory of Nyssa talks of the soul ascending through light, to the cloud to meeting God in darkness. St Denys speaks of meeting God in ‘luminous darkness’ or ‘brilliant darkness’, the English author of the Cloud of Unknowing rather predictably discovers God in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. The Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, or as I like to call him San Juan de la Cruz, who famously coined the phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’ writes:

His understanding is the less endowed –
The more he climbs to greater heights –
To understand the shadowed cloud
Which there illuminates the night;
Thus he who comprehends this sight
Will always stay not understanding,
All knowledge transcending.

It is often wrongly supposed with these writers, usually called mystics, that they are suggesting some supra-rational, supernatural experience, happens where your personality somehow conjoins with God in a pegasus-bound ecstatic encounter or revelation of divine truth. The truth is the opposite. To speak of meeting the divine darkness is to realise the end of one’s powers of imagination and intellect; it may comfort us in our doubt and challenge us in our certainties; to grasp the total otherness of God is to allow the layers of egotism, accomplishments, fears and desires, ambitions and pains to slip away for a moment in self-forgetfulness. It is more like a kind of preparation for death.

Let me read that passage from St John again:

His understanding is the less endowed –
The more he climbs to greater heights –
To understand the shadowed cloud
Which there illuminates the night;
Thus he who comprehends this sight
Will always stay not understanding,
All knowledge transcending.

There is a difference, however. For Moses this close experience with God was terrifying. The proximity to God was deadly - ‘there shall no man see me, and live.’ As the epistle read: ‘if even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death’ - killed from afar. But for the Christian writers this death is not fearful. They have learned that Christ was raised up - and the imagery is important - raised up on a cross, and there in the darkness at noon - which came over the whole land until three - making a second covenant with creation to replace the first made at Sinai. At Sinai the covenant given is that of the Law for death. On a green hill at Jerusalem the covenant is made of love for life. This is also the message implicit in today’s Gospel, where the woman receives freedom and healing - but only through an expansion of the strict law of the Sabbath.

So the writer to the Hebrews says we have not come to the mountain of fear and death, but to ‘Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ - to the ‘new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel’ - but we still await the final kingdom, after the earth has once again been shaken.

In this sense we are like Moses who in his great age God leads up to the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah to look over the promised land. Not for him to enter it, but for the generation that follows: ‘I will give it to thy seed : I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.’ Moses dies but we are told ‘his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated’. He reminds me always of Martin Luther King, whose most famous “I have a Dream” speech was delivered 50 years ago on Wednesday. The speech ends with a cry for freedom:

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York… the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania… the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that:… from Stone Mountain of Georgia… from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee… from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

But it is his final speech that is I think even more gut wrenching, more inspiring, and eerily prophetic, delivered the day before his assassination. It closes:

[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

There are all sorts of mountains that can bring us closer to God. And closer to God in different ways. There is the dark night of the soul and there is the beatific vision of heaven. Now we have fair weather; now we have a storm and a consuming fire.  And sometimes they come within 24 hours. Today we are saying goodbye to four of our choral scholars who are leaving to pursue new or long-held dreams. And in the last quiet week of August perhaps it’s a good time for all of us to take a walk up Primrose Hill. Before the madding crowds of London return again; to take stock, to look where we’re heading and what we can see. God is a consuming fire, but he meets Elijah in the silence after the storm.  Perhaps it is time to consider making our own 3750 steps of penitence, or perhaps it’s time for us to join with the innumerable angels in festal throng; to lay aside our guilt and grief; to discover again the immeasurable love of God.