History of Hymns: "Christ, Upon the Mountain Peak"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Christ, Upon the Mountain Peak"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 260
Christ, upon the mountain peak,
stands alone in glory blazing;
let us, if we dare to speak,
with the saints and angels praise him:
The Transfiguration of Jesus is both one of the most mystical and perhaps difficult episodes in Christ’s earthly life to understand. Cited in the three synoptic gospels – Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36 – Jesus goes to a high mountain to pray.
The New International Version (NIV) describes the transformation of Christ and his clothing in similar, but slightly different ways: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (Matthew 17:2); "His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them" (Mark 9:3); "As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning" (Luke 9:29). The gospel writers are all searching for words to describe the indescribable.
Peter, James, and John were present according to Mark, though Matthew records them sleeping at first. They recognize Elijah and Moses, who are with Jesus, and that this is a most holy moment. Peter, their spokesperson in the three gospels, suggests that they might put up three shelters or tabernacles in this hallowed place.
Elijah and Moses then appeared and talked with Jesus. Only Luke suggests the nature of the discussion: "They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31, NIV). All three accounts, however, clearly state the proclamation from heaven in a cloud, which is further echoed in 2 Peter 1:17: "He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'"
The departure of Elijah and Moses varies in the three accounts. In Matthew, Jesus instructs the terrified disciples, "Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead" (17:9). In Luke, they seem to decide to keep the news to themselves of their own volition (9:36). Mark does not refer to this part of the story, but in his usual straightforward manner. simply states, "Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus." (9:8)
Few hymn writers have attempted to tell this story. Brian Wren (b. 1936) offers an account in four stanzas with carefully chosen words using only thirty syllables per stanza, plus "Alleluia." In stanza one, we are invited by the poet to join both the disciples at the foot of the hill and the "saints and angels" in heaven in praising Christ – a cosmic encounter between heaven and earth.
The second stanza favors Matthew’s account as we again join the disciples "Trembling at [Christ’s] feet" looking up at Moses and Elijah. Dr. Wren acknowledges that this event is the fulfillment of "All the prophets and the law." Malachi 4:4-5 states: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes." (NIV)
Stanza three echoes all three accounts where the voice from heaven speaks in a cloud: "Swift the cloud of glory came,/God proclaiming in its thunder. . .." Once again, Wren inserts a petition from earth: "Nations, cry aloud in wonder."
Stanza four quotes the voice from heaven found in the gospel accounts: "This is God’s beloved Son!" The poet skillfully leads each stanza into an "Alleluia," providing the only appropriate response for present-day singers as we share in this mystical event.
The musical setting deserves special mention. Peter Cutts (b. 1937), a friend and early collaborator with Brian Wren, provides a singular musical composition for this singular event. The Rev. Carlton Young notes, "The tune [SHILLINGFORD], skillfully composed in the characteristic manner of the music of Paul Hindemith [(1895-1963), a German-born American composer] in a distinctly twentieth-century harmonic context, eloquently captures the journey to the Mount of Transfiguration and the otherworldliness of its setting."
In addition to a complex harmonization, the composer employs a rising whole-tone scale in which all notes are a full step apart in the last four notes, giving the "Alleluia" a transcendent ascendancy. This makes the tune more difficult to sing for some congregations. The extra effort to learn it, however, offers the congregation a musical analogue for the unique event of the Transfiguration for Christ. On their first visit to the USA (the 1983 national convocation of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, meeting in Dallas, TX), Cutts and Wren noted the intentional shape of the melody as it twice outlines the ascent and descent of a mountain.
With his usual wit, the Rev. Young suggests the following in his Companion (1993): "Since the musical setting is challenging and the Transfiguration is celebrated annually, the choir or soloists might sing the stanza, with the congregation joining on the Alleluia. The alternate tune LIEBSTER JESU, 182, is suggested for the faint of heart."