Friday afternoon I had an opportunity to take a guest monk who had given us our monastery retreat to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma. We ascended to the top of Mt. Scott and from its summit looked out across an almost limitless horizon. It was beautiful and inspiring. At one point my guest commented: “God is very good to us.”
Perhaps this has caused me to reflect today on how mountains and high places play an important role in the Gospel of Matthew, marking as it were the high points of his life and ministry. The first mountain in this gospel is the setting for temptation: the final temptation of Jesus after his long fast in the desert. In the scene, Satan leads Jesus up a high mountain and from its height shows Jesus “the kingdoms of the world in all their magnificence.” Satan says that he will give all that power and wealth to Jesus if Jesus but only prostrate himself before him and worship him. Jesus rejects this temptation outright, dismissing Satan with a reminder of the first commandment: worship only the one true God.
Jesus goes up a second mountain in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The second mountain is setting of teaching. From a high place Jesus gives his teaching on discipleship and the Kingdom. He teaches the beatitudes and the way of love that perfects the Law that was given on Mt. Sinai.
The third high mountain is in Galilee and is the scene of transfiguration. On the mountain, Jesus reveals to Peter, James and John his divine nature, and shows that he is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets by conversing with Moses and Elijah who appear with him. Peter suggests that they create three shrines atop the mountain to commemorate that moment. Jesus, however, takes them back down the mountain, giving a second prediction of his pending passion and death in Jerusalem.
In our gospel today, Jesus once again takes his apostles up a high mountain in Galilee. Perhaps it is the same high mountain where he was transfigured. It seems to me that this mountain is the scene of trust – trust on the part of Jesus and trust on the part of the apostles. It is significant that St. Matthew observes that even though these eleven disciples worship Jesus, they still hold some doubt. Even with the many times they had encountered Jesus after his resurrection, they still were not fully convinced that they what they were experiencing was real. Used only in the gospel of Matthew, the word for doubt in this passage is the same term that Jesus uses to say that Peter is of “little faith” when he fails in his attempt to walk on the waters of Galilee. Jesus also uses the word when he tells his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount not to doubt, but to trust that God will care for them even as God takes such good care of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. This word for doubt points to a lack of trust.
Despite their mixture of worship and doubt, Jesus still places in them an incredible sense of trust: He entrusts to them nothing less than his own teaching and his authority. Even though they had not come to the fullness of faith themselves – something that would not happen until Pentecost – Jesus entrusts to them his very mission. In doing so, he also calls them to place their full trust and faith in him. He assures them that all authority had been given to him in heaven and on earth – even authority over the world that Satan tempted him on that first mountain with false promises in exchange for false worship. He also assures them that he will be with them even “until the end of the age.” St. Matthew thus shows Jesus going from mountain to mountain, pointing to the high points of his life and ministry. Jesus goes from the mountain of temptation, to the mountain of teaching, to the mountain of transfiguration and finally to the mountain of trust.
On this solemnity, we find ourselves on another mountain – that of the Ascension, or what we could call the Mountain of Triumph. Having overcome temptation, having delivered his teaching, and having entrusted his mission to the disciples, Jesus now ascends triumphant into his full authority and glory. At first, the apostles are bewildered and look longingly to the heavens, wanting to see him once again as they had known him. But that was not to be. Rather, two angels urge them to stop looking up in the sky and to trust that the Lord will indeed return. It is to that future coming of the Lord that the apostles now must look, preparing for that coming by fulfilling the commission that Jesus had given them to preach and to baptize others into the new life of Christ. In this, the Mount of the Ascension is also a mountain of transition. It is a transition to the age when the Church is to live the life of Jesus Christ and to share that life with others. It is a transition to the new reality of the presence of Christ: a presence embodied in the Church, in his Word and in his Sacraments.
My brothers and sisters, we have received this new life in Jesus Christ. Through the ministry of the Church and the continued presence of Jesus in Word and Sacrament, we follow Jesus from mountaintop to mountaintop. In his triumph on the mountain of temptation, we receive the grace we need to resist temptation and the false promises of Satan. In his words on the mountain of teaching, we receive the words of life and come to know the Kingdom of God. On the mountain of transfiguration, we see his glory revealed and know that he is the fulfilment of prophecy and law. On the mountain of trust, Jesus assures us that he will be with us at all times and in every circumstance, and he entrusts his ministry to us. And on the mountain of the Ascension, Jesus triumphantly goes before us into glory, and – as the opening prayer for today’s Mass says – in doing so he gives us hope that we will follow where Christ our head has gone.
My brothers and sisters, the prayer of St. Paul in our second reading today is fulfilled in us. Jesus has enlightened the eyes of our hearts, that we “may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.” Jesus does not leave us as orphans in his Ascension, but rather places before us the highest dignity of our new life in him. Animated with this perspective, let us let go of all that would bind us to the corruption of sin, and with trusting faith await with joy the glorious coming of our Lord.