IN MATTHEW’S GOSPEL three important moments take place on a mountain: what we call the “Sermon on the Mount”(Matthew 5-7), the Holy Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9), and the eschatological discourse in which the Lord speaks to the signs of His coming (Matthew 24:3 and following). Each of them evokes the memory of an Old Testament event in order to proclaim the person and message of Christ.
In both the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration we see Christ depicted in terms recalling Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. There are several points of comparison and/or contrast which have been identified since the first Christian centuries:
Location – Both events take place “on a mountain;” however there are no mountains in Galilee on the scale of Mount Sinai. The place traditionally identified as the site of the Sermon on the Mount is a hillside on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum. It overlooks a plain which can accommodate thousands. A Byzantine
church was erected there in the fourth century. In the 1930s Italian dictator Mussolini sponsored the building of the Church of the Beatitudes on this site to commemorate the Sermon on the Mount.
The place of the Transfiguration is not identified in the Gospels. Jesus took Peter, James and John, we are told, and “led them up on a high mountain” (Mattthew 17:1). In the third century Origen identified the site of the Transfiguration as Mount Tabor, west of the Sea of Galilee, a monadnock, or rocky hill which rises dramatically from the plain which surrounds it. It was a pilgrimage site by the fourth century with several churches at its peak. Today there are two: one Greek Orthodox, the other Roman Catholic, each with a monastery attached. Identifying these Galilee sites as “mountains” emphasizes the connections with the experience of Moses.
The Cloud and Glory – In the days of Moses, “the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days” (Exodus 24:16). When the Father spoke at Jesus’ Transfiguration, the “high mountain” was overshadowed by “a bright cloud” (Matthew 17:5). On Sinai “when the people saw it,
they trembled and stood afar off” (Exodus 20:18). On Tabor the disciples “were fearful as they entered the cloud” (Luke 9:34), sign of their greater intimacy with the divine presence.
On Sinai Moses asked to see the Lord’s glory, but the Lord replied: “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). At the Transfiguration, on the other hand, Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and His clothes became white as the light” (Matthew 17). What was concealed in the experience of Moses becomes manifested to the disciples on Mount Tabor. As John’s Gospel has it, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Giving of the Law – On Sinai Moses receives the Law from God, which he then transmits to the people. The heart of the Law is, of course, the Ten Commandments but there is much more besides: ritual precepts, commercial laws, jurisprudence, reparations, money-lending, etc. Chapters 21 through 23 of the Book of Exodus are devoted to these laws.
On the mount near Capernaum the Lord Jesus also delivers a Law, the heart of which is expressed in the nine Beatitudes. While most of the Commandments are expressed negatively (“Thou shalt not…”), the Beatitudes are expressed positively as the path to perfection (“Blessed are the…”).
As the Ten Commandments were but a part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai, there is more to the Law of Christ than the Beatitudes. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ continues with an expansion of the Ten Commandments (Matthew 5:28-47). Not only external actions (e.g. murder, adultery) but interior passions (e.g. anger, lust) deviate from the Law. Love must replace the desire for vengeance and that love must extend to all, even our enemies. The result is that “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), which has been described as the summary of the Beatitudes.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Sermon on the Mount concerns the way Christ proclaims His Law. On Sinai God gives His Laws to Moses with instructions to set them before the people of Israel. In the Sermon on the Mount it is Christ Himself who teaches in His own name, placing Himself as the equal of Him who gave the Law to Moses: “You have heard that it was said to those of old… But I say to you…” (Matthew 5: 21, 27, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).
The Lord Jesus does not negate the Ten Commandments; rather, He gives them greater depth. As He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He completes or fulfills the Law by addressing our inner motivations as well as our actions. If our aim as believers is to know God, then we must know Him from within, by assuming His attitudes and adopting His ways for living. As He is perfect, so ought we to be.
Is This for Everyone?
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is addressed to “the multitudes.” Yet in the medieval West a common opinion was that the Beatitudes were “intended for those who strive for perfection; they are based on poverty, chastity and obedience and are therefore primarily for those who join the religious life.” Ordinary Christians were counseled that salvation was assured for them if they devoutly observe the precepts of the Church. This opinion was rigorously denounced by Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation as undoing the Sermon on the Mount, but it is still frequently found even in contemporary Roman Catholic writings.
The East, on the other hand, has always seen the spirit of the Beatitudes as basic to the Christian life for both monastics and lay people. The ways in which monastics and laypeople will embrace humility, poverty of spirit, compassion, or the pursuit of righteousness will differ, but their essential importance is the same for both. The Beatitudes point out the path to the King-dom of God, the goal for all Christians.
At two significant moments in our liturgical life the central place held by the Beatitudes in our spirituality is reflected. In many churches, particularly in the Slavic tradition, the Beatitudes are sung at the Divine Liturgy during the Little Entrance. As the Gospel Book is carried to the center of the church, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is sung as the summary of the entire Gospel message of Christ.
The second liturgical moment pointing to the universal importance of the Beatitudes in our spirituality takes place at the burial service. The Beatitudes climax the funeral hymns at the funerals of non-monastics (laypersons and priests). They are sung with hymns such as the following inserted between the verses: “May Christ grant rest to you in the city of the living. May He open to you the gates of paradise and make you a citizen of His kingdom. May He remit your sins, for He loves you greatly.” Communion with Christ, is the ultimate goal of our life as Christians, whether monastics, clergy or laity. Living the Beatitudes is the universal means to that goal.
The third mountain in Matthew is the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem (Matthew 24). The Lord Jesus speaks there of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the age and His return. This recalls Zechariah’s prophecy that “The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4) and all things shall be renewed.