You know those moments when you’re keenly aware that you are experiencing something profound, something that will become a treasured memory in a matter of hours? I had one of those last week. A very strange and hectic turn of events took me to Peru on the first week of December when I expected to be hanging decorations, head-down in Christmas events and helping my kids wrap up their final school projects and assignments before Winter break. Instead, I left my family in North Carolina and flew to Cusco, where I joined my parents and my sister and her family on a whirlwind tour of ancient Incan civilization, culminating in a full day hike with a Peruvian trail guide, my mom and my sister along a portion of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
The first glimpse of the famous Incan mountain-top city was spine tingling. We stood atop the Sun Gate on the adjacent hill, gazing down at what we knew was Machu Picchu surrounded by ethereal, wispy clouds, waiting for the moment that they would rise and we would see it–this beautiful, intricate, mysterious and awe-inspiring place, built so high on a mountaintop that it seems sacred and frozen in time. As the clouds dispersed and Machu Picchu was drenched in sunlight, we walked down into the ruins, speechless with gratitude as we learned more about the people that constructed and occupied its walls so long ago. And learning more about them, I recognized both a similarity in my own past and this ancient people who tried to work their way to salvation, and a sympathy for their striving to know the true God–the one they could not quite name, who cannot be found on a mountain peak, but who descended to Earth to reign in and fill our hearts. (Ephesians 4:10)
The Incans lived their lives on mountains–traversing, building, farming, storing, worshipping, an endless cycle of work. Gazing at the structures and terraces they built on the steep faces of the Andean mountains, the question comes unbidden to everyone’s mind: How did they DO this?
They were only in power for a little over 100 years, but they accomplished so much in that time that you get the distinct impression that their entire existence was defined by work.
Mountains themselves are a symbol of work and challenge. Perhaps for that reason, countless ancient cultures have linked mountains to religious worship. Mountain peaks have historically been the preferred location for temples or considered off limits to humans because they were inhabited by gods.
Some other mountains that are either historically sacred or still considered as such today include:
Mount Everest (Tibet)–the holy mountain of the Sherpa
Mauna Kea (Hawaii)–the holy mountain of the Kanaka Maoli
Uluru (Australia)–sacred mountain of the Anagu
Mount Shasta (California)–sacred mountain to the NAtive American Winnemem Wintu
Ahkka (Sweden)–sacred to the Swedish Sami tribe
Mount Olympus (Greece)–the home of the gods according to Greek mythology
Mount Ararat (Turkey)–the landing place of the Ark according to Biblical history
Mount Fuji (Japan)–Buddhist pilgrimage site
Arunachala (India)–holy mountain of Hinduism.
For centuries, mountains have inspired inward reflection. We see their immense stature and contemplate how small we are, appreciative of our weakness. People climb them to experience a rush, to gain a perspective few have seen, to see a vision for their future. We use the word figuratively in our conversations to convey personal trials and triumphs. Some see their beauty and height and recognize that they could only have been formed by bigger and more beautiful Creator. A tour of the Cusco Cathedral in the city center revealed that, as the Incans were converted by the Spanish, they even drew Mary in the shape of a mountain, combining her characteristics with those of their own Mother-Earth-Mountain goddess.
It’s for all these reasons, the work, the mystery, the unattainable nature of the mountain, that reflecting on its symbolism was so powerful for me as I gazed at Machu Picchu, this epicenter of Incan worship during the Christmas season, a time of remembrance and celebration of the day God came down to the humble earth to dwell among man. No mountain has ever been high enough for man to enter into the presence of a Holy God. Even Moses, who climbed Mount Sinai to receive God’s commandments, was never permitted to see His face, to remain in His presence. (Exodus 33 & 34)
Every other religion still clings to its mountains, to its belief that getting close to its god requires a pilgrimage, a journey, sacrifice or struggle. These other religions still preach a separation from God, a breach that can only be bridged by an endless and often futile striving on the part of humanity, and an uncertainty that man can ever truly be assured he has reached the apex of holiness.
That’s why Christmas is not about scaling mountains, but getting them out of the way–removing their symbolism, the weight and burden they signify. Being a Christ follower is about God’s glorious descension, not our ascension, but our recognition of His sacrifice and acceptance of His authority . The beauty, the mystery, the wonder of Christmas is that God abandoned his mountain and came to us to make his home in the dusty, common valleys. Becoming Emmanuel, God With Us, he destroyed the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14) and the hostility of rugged, rocky walls and stony hearts and began to sow seeds into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
When I walked through the long abandoned temples of impersonal gods at Machu Picchu, at the imposing Winaywiyna, and Pisaq, all I sensed was cold stone, no living presence. But there was still the yearning in their stories recounted to me by our tour guides, to know this diving Creator, to offer worship and sacrifice and praise to One who made the things they could touch with their hands, the things that they depended on for their livelihood. I’m so thankful that yearning is still alive today in the hearts of man, and that He has satisfied it in the form of the baby who became a Savior, who was born as a gift to us all, not in a citadel or a castle on a mountaintop, but in a stable in a small town on flat earth (Isaiah 9:6, Philippians 2:7).
When I see a mountain, I’m not compelled to strive, but to give thanks, that my Savior came down from His for me. And that one day, I can ascend to Mount Zion on His back because of what He already did, not because I broke my own back trying to build enough temples to get there.