Pier Giorgio Frassati and the whole Church are inviting us: Let us run forth to meet Christ!
On the back of a photograph of him climbing a mountain, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati himself inscribed the words, “Verso l’alto.” Literally translated from Italian, the phrase means “to the heights.” You see, Bl. Pier Giorgio loved the mountains. An avid outdoorsman, Frassati took to the hills to climb and conquer. He writes, “Every day that passes, I fall more desperately in love with the mountains … I am ever more determined to climb the mountains, to scale the mighty peaks, to feel that pure joy which can only be felt in the mountains.”
And yet, Frassati took to the mountains seeking more than climbing; he fled to the mountains to pray. Indeed he attests, “Every day, my love for the mountains grows more and more. If my studies permitted, I’d spend whole days in the mountains contemplating the Creator’s greatness in that pure air.” For Frassati, verso l’alto (to the heights) means not only scaling mountaintops, but reaching out to God, seeking him in the heavens. For Frassati, “The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.”
Time and again in the Scriptures, the mountains are the privileged place of encounter with God.
— Abraham ascends a mountain during the call to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:1);
— Moses receives the Ten Commandments on a mountain (Ex. 19:1ff.);
— Elijah hears the voice of God in a cave on a mountain (1 Kings 19:9ff).
Like the Psalmist, we might tentatively ask, “Who may go up the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place?” (Ps. 24). And, thinking back on the stories of these holy men who have sought the Lord, like the Psalmist we ought to conclude: Only the pure of heart seek the face of God on the mountain.
The Prophet Isaiah knows the mountain is the place of encounter. For the prophet, the mountain of the Lord, that is, the mountain of the Lord’s temple is the highest mountain. The temple, the place where Israel could worship the one, true, Almighty God would be a conspicuous place. Standing tall, looming, overlooking all other hills, Mount Zion celebrates Jerusalem as the Lord’s holy city, the place where he dwells. All other attempts to worship God would pale in comparison to the worship on the Lord’s mountain. Isaiah says, “All nations shall stream toward it.” All nations will look to the Lord’s mountain, to the place where the Lord would be made known to all.
The nations stream to the Lord’s mountain, laboring to climb Zion. This Advent, we again find ourselves numbered among the peoples streaming toward Christ, a journey which finds its fulfillment arriving in Bethlehem. We are the magi: seeking Christ, spotting the “light of the Lord” from afar, and desiring to walk in it.
Like the holy patriarchs, the disciples would come to know the Lord on mountains.
— Jesus shows his glory on a mountain in the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1ff); — he taught in the temple on the Lord’s mountain (Mt 21:14ff.); — the Lord prays on the Mount of Olives the night before he dies (Mt. 26:30ff); — and he ascends to heaven from the same mountain (Acts 1:9ff). — The Lord gives the new law of the Gospel from a Mountain—delivering his famous sermon from St. Matthew’s Gospel— imparting the Beatitudes and instructing His disciples how to pray in the Sermon on the Mount.
Christ the Lord reveals Himself on mountains. To ascend the mountain to be with the Lord, is to pass from the old covenant’s vision of ascent to adopt the pattern of life announced by Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel. As Isaiah foretold, “From Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”
Jesus comes to teach a new way of life, offering his Word as the authority by which this way of life is proclaimed.
It is the nature of the Advent journey to Bethlehem to invite us to shed those things we have picked up which are foreign to the instruction of the Lord. Take to heart the words of Isaiah, who prophesies, “He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples.” Cast off this year’s sins. Put aside the baggage which cannot be carried for another step. Let the light of the Gospel reveal and purify your hearts during this season of penance and preparation. Judge according to the mind of the Lord.
We pray at this Mass, “Grant your faithful, O Lord we pray, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ at his coming.” In this Eucharist we lift our hearts to the Lord, reaching for the summit of our faith.
At this Mass, indeed each day this Advent, may we—like Frassati—cry out, “to the heights!”
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati always carried this handwritten Bible passage with him