The appearance of Moses and Elias alongside the transfigured Jesus Christ is most appropriate. These two celebrated Old Testament prophets, like Jesus Christ himself, experienced the inner reality of God‘s Divine nature while on a mountain, in the wilderness, near to the desert. Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro when he came upon “the mountain of God, Horeb.” There Moses witnessed the “remarkable sight,” the notable burning bush. God challenged Moses to return to Egypt and secure the release of the Jewish people from slavery. Moses then confronted God with the burning question, “…if I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?” No profounder question will ever be asked than “Who are you, God?” And no profounder answer will ever be given, “God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
God defines or at least describes himself in terms of existence. God is the height and breadth and depth of all that is; God surpasses everything and yet God underlies everything; God is the ground of all being. Happily, God’s response to Moses does not end with these solemn words. God continues, “God spoke further to Moses: This is what you will say to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations.” So God is not only transcendent; God is also immanent. God got involved in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God reached out to these chosen people. Clearly God is not only existence, pleasing the philosophers of the world; God is also love, reaching out to the peoples of the world. God is indeed the ground of our being, but he is also the beyond in our midst.
The prophet Elias also had a remarkable wilderness encounter with God. Elias heroically stood up to the wicked Queen Jezebel and her prophets, but his nerve failed him when Jezebel threatened to extinguish him as he had liquidated her prophets. Elias fled a day’s journey “into the wilderness” where he sat down under a broom tree expecting, perhaps hoping, to die. An angel consoled Elias, strengthened him and guided him, like Moses, to the summit of Mount Horeb. Urged by God himself to stand at the edge of mountain, Elias exerted every effort to discern some direction from God. A violent wind passed with no guidance from God. A rock slide brought no Divine admonition. An earthquake left no message in its wake. Fire blazed on the mountainside, but no advice was forthcoming. Then Elias perceived, in the happy words of one Scripture translator, a “wee, small voice.” Within this gentle presence, God revealed to the prophet that he should return to his homeland to anoint a new priest, a new prophet and a new king for God’s people.
The fascinating burning bush encountered by Moses and the sound of sheer silence perceived by Elias were both classical wilderness experiences. On Horeb’s remote mountain top, both men discerned God’s Will, in fact God’s inner reality, through interior discernment. Neither man had heard a homily or joined a discussion group or read a pamphlet or sought spiritual direction. Those aides are for another time. The desert experience of face to face encounter with God alone that would energize centuries of Christian hermits and anchorites is clearly anticipated in these and other Biblical happenings. Yet, as solitary as the mountain experiences of Moses and Elias and of Christ were, they were all also oriented toward service. Moses left the mountain to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s cruelty. Elias descended the mountain to restore social and religious order to his beloved Israel. Christ withdrew from the mountain to preach the Good News of salvation and establish a worldwide community of believers.
The wilderness/desert experience is profoundly personal. Coming face to face with God is soul-wrenching. But the effect is not always private. Personal prayer can have public results.