Heavenly heights

You’ve grown a halo and wings!” joked a friend upon my return last week from a yatra embracing Israel, Egypt and Jordan. I replied, “I don’t see any halo; but I felt like I’d grown wings as I visited many holy places, especially mountains.”
Judaism, Christianity and Islam visualise life as an ascent to God. In the ancient earth-centred worldview, God was believed to abide up in the skies while humans inhabited the earth. Thus, climbing a hill meant closeness to God. Personally, I felt Moses, King David and Jesus sprang alive as I visited Mount Sinai, Zion, Tabor and Calvary.
The Book of Exodus records the 40-year meanderings in the desert by the descendants of Jacob or Israel. God chose Moses to lead the people and gave him Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai in Egypt whereupon, “God spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:12). Climbing Mount Sinai, I was greeted by a glorious sunrise.
Israel and Palestine house hills sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Although Muslims, like Christians, believe that Jesus (Prophet Isa) ascended into heaven, they do not believe that he suffered and died. Today, Muslims own the Mount of Olives of Jesus’ ascension.
Mount Zion contains King David’s tomb and the Cenacle wherein Jesus celebrated his Last Supper. Holy Zion or Hagia Zion is so called not only because it’s the site of Jerusalem’s first Temple, but also because Mary (Miriam), mother of Jesus, lived and “slept” (Dormition) there before she was taken up into heaven.
Two Mounts — Tabor and Calvary — typify what life is all about. Atop Tabor Jesus gave a darshan of his divinity to his disciples. Much as they wanted to encamp upon Tabor, Jesus cautioned that he must descend and climb another mount, Calvary, to be crucified. The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ sufferings and death until they saw him risen.
Tabor and Calvary symbolise life’s ups and downs, ecstasies and agonies, respectively. Jesus taught that God is present both in the ebbs and flows of life. Thus, even as we ascend holy hills and feel close to God, there are times when we feel “down” and as if God doesn’t exist. In times like these, we must look up and never lose sight of life’s peaks.
India’s northern Kailash Parvat or the southern Tirumala hills rise up as symbols of our thirst to encounter the One called by many names. Ascending and descending holy mountains, I felt united not only with Mahatmas who encountered God atop mountains since times immemorial but also with fellow bhaktas, today, who even when down in the dumps seek and find God. That, perhaps, gives all believers wings, if not a halo.

Francis Gonsalves is the principal of the Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi.
He can be contacted at fragons@gmail.com

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