Transfiguration: Seeing the Divine Glory

The 11th Century monk, Nikitas Stithatos,  comments on the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9):

For those who like Peter have advanced in faith, and like James have been restored in hope, and like John have achieved perfection in love, the Lord ascends the high mountain of theology and is transfigured (cf. Matt. 17:1). Through the disclosure and expression of His pure teaching He shines upon them as the sun, and with the intellections of His unutterable wisdom He becomes radiant with light. They see the Logos standing between Moses and Elijah – between law and prophecy – promulgating the law and teaching it to them, and at the same time revealing to them through vision and prophecy the depths and the hidden treasures of wisdom. The Holy Spirit overshadows them like a luminous cloud, and from the cloud they hear the voice of mystical theology, initiating them into the mystery of the tri-hypostatic Divinity and saying, ‘This is My beloved, the Logos of perfection made manifest, in whom I take delight. Become for Me perfect sons in the perfect Spirit’ (cf. Matt. 17:1-5).    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 39072-39082)

In the 14th Century, St Gregory Palamas wrote about the same Feast:

The flesh of Christ, it is said, is glorified at the moment of its assumption and the glory of the Godhead becomes the body’s glory. But this glory was invisible in His visible body to those unable to perceive that upon which even angels cannot gaze. Thus Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun – though this image is imperfect, since what is uncreated cannot be imaged in creation without some diminution.   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 49333-49341)

God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)

This Life and This World Are Godly

“In receiving the gifts of God and willingly offering them back to him, we are blessed to participate in both heaven and earth, in a mode of ordered liturgical existence. In this way, we are ourselves offered up in order to perform liturgy, by preserving and participating in all that is ‘good‘ (Gen. 1:31). ‘It is this world  (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be.’  With these words Fr. Schmemman expressed that this world is not merely a dwelling place for humanity, but an integral part of humanity’s aspiration towards transfiguration.

Man receives both ‘this world’ and ‘this life’ to be offered up and transfigured. In this way, mankind may truly become human. This offering of one’s self and the world is the purpose of mankind, which is fully realized and expressed in the incarnation of the Word of God himself.”   (Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 14-15)

Moses, Seeing God and the Transfiguration

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“In Exodus 33 we find the paradox of intimacy and distance, knowledge and ignorance, presence and transcendence. Moses in the Tent of Meeting seeks guidance from the Lord for his work as leader of the people of Israel; he is told, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’ (v. 14); but Moses wants more, and asks to see the glory of God. To this request comes the reply, ‘You cannot see my face; for man cannot see me and live’ (v. 20). As this incident unfolds we see a distinction between what Moses does see and what he is unable to see: ‘And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (vv. 21-23). The mystery remains, and Moses is not able to see God face to face. But the Israelites are aware of the effect of Moses’ time in the presence of God, for the face of Moses shines ‘because he had been talking with God’, shines with a brightness so great that his face had to be veiled (Exodus 34:29-35). Here we have an early example in the Scriptures of the human face transfigured because of close contact with God; it is an experience that is repeated in the lives of many saints. Much of what we see in the life of Moses we see also in the lives of other Old testament prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6), so it is not surprising that these Old Testament episodes become ‘types’ which help to interpret later events, and which find greater significance in the light of the subsequent developments.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa used the life Moses as a starting point and framework for his exposition of Christian ascetical theology, and from Gregory derives a while tradition of apophatic theology which uses the imagery of darkness to articulate the Christian experience of living with the mystery of God’s presence. The theophanies involving Moses and Elijah are included in the Scripture readings at Vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration .”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 60-61).

The Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

“These are the divine prodigies behind the present festival; what we celebrate here, on this mountain now, is for us, too, a saving Mystery. This sacred initiation into the Mystery of Christ, this public solemnity, gathers us together. So that we might come inside the ineffable sanctuary, and might enter the place of Mysteries along with those chosen ones who were inspired to speak God’s words, let us listen to a divine, most sacred voice, as it seems to invite us from the peak of the mountain above us inviting us with strong words of persuasion and saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, on the day of the Lord – in the place of the Lord and in the house of our God.” [Our hope is] that, bathed in a vision of him, flooded with light, we might be changed for the better and joined together as one; and that, grasping hold of the light in light, we might cry out: “How fearful is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”

This is the place towards which we must hasten, I make bold to say, since Jesus who dwells there and who has gone up to heaven before us, is our guide on the way. With him, let us also flash like lightning before spiritual eyes, renewed in the shape of our souls and made divine, transformed along with him in order to be like him, always being deified, always changing for the better – leaping up the mountain slopes more nimbly than powerful deer, soaring higher than spotless doves, lifted up to the summit with Peter and James and John, walking on clouds with Moses and Elijah – so that the Lord might say of us as well: “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming” to them “in the glory of his Father” (Anastasius of Sinai, Homily on the Transfiguration, Light on the Mountain, pp. 167-168).

 

 

The Blessing of Fruit

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Many Orthodox have the practice of blessing grapes or fruit at the Feast of the Transfiguration.   We find mention of the Christian blessing of fruit already in the early 3rd Century in THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION of St. Hippolytus of Rome.   He offers no explanation as to why some things may be blessed but doesn’t allow certain things to be brought for a blessing, even though all food is to be received with thanksgiving.

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Hippolytus doesn’t connect this blessing to a particular feast but writes:

Fruits indeed are blessed, this is grapes, the fig, the pomegranate, the olive, the pear, the apple, the mulberry, the peach, the cherry, the almond, the plum; but not the pumpkin or the melon, or cucumber or the onion, or garlic or any other vegetable.

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But sometimes flowers also are offered.  Let the rose and the lily be offered, but not others.

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And for all things which are eaten they shall give thanks to God, eating them to His glory.”  (pp 54-55)

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Transfiguration: Their Eyes Were Opened

“Thus Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun – though this image is imperfect, since what is uncreated cannot be imaged in creation without some diminution.” (St. Gregory Palamas in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, p 422)

 

Revealing Adam: The Transfiguration

Although the events of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) fit so well into Orthodox incarnational theology and salvation as theosis, the Feast of the Transfiguration became universally celebrated throughout the Orthodox world relatively late in history.  It was celebrated in certain parts of Orthodoxy, but the fact that it ended up in the middle of the Dormition Fast is one sign that it became popular universally later than other feasts and fasts of the Church.

Be that as it may, the Feast of the Transfiguration does fit nicely into Orthodox theology, bringing together so many elements from the story of creation, the fall and salvation in Christ.  The festal Apostikha hymns especially reveal how the feast reveals the theology of salvation.  First we note in the hymns the claim that it is the pre-incarnate Christ who speaks to both Moses and Elijah.  There is an assumption in Orthodoxy that all of the anthropomorphic encounters with God in the Old Testament are encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.

HE WHO ONCE SPOKE THROUGH SYMBOLS TO MOSES ON MOUNT SINAI  SAYING: I AM HE WHO IS!   WAS TRANSFIGURED TODAY UPON MOUNT TABOR BEFORE THE DISCIPLES.
IN HIS OWN PERSON HE SHOWED THEM THE NATURE OF MANKIND ARRAYED IN THE ORIGINAL BEAUTY OF THE IMAGE.

Humans are said in Genesis 1 to be created in God’s image and likeness.  It is assumed in Orthodoxy that it is Christ, the real image of God the Father, in whose image we are made.  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, reveals the original beauty of the image of God in us.  At the transfiguration the three disciples’ eyes were open, and suddenly they saw the image of God in us, but now in all its glory.  Adam and Eve were gloriously created in God’s image and likeness and glorious arrayed in garments provided them by God.

YOU WERE TRANSFIGURED, O CHRIST,  AND MADE ADAM’S DARKENED IMAGE TO SHINE AGAIN AS LIGHTNING,
TRANSFORMING IT INTO THE GLORY AND SPLENDOR OF YOUR OWN DIVINITY.  THEREFORE WE CRY ALOUD TO YOU:
LORD AND CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, GLORY TO YOU!

The image of God in Adam and Eve was glorious – like lightening, and that is what the three apostles saw.  They saw how a human is in God’s glorious image, how humanity is supposed to reveal divinity.   This doesn’t denigrate God, but is revealed in a lightening flash where humanity is as bright as the sun.

LORD, TODAY ON MOUNT TABOR,  YOU HAVE REVEALED THE GLORY OF YOUR DIVINE IMAGE TO YOUR CHOSEN DISCIPLES, PETER, JAMES AND JOHN.  FOR THEY LOOKED UPON YOUR GARMENTS THAT GLEAMED AS THE LIGHT, AND AT YOUR FACE THAT SHONE MORE THAN THE SUN!

Christ’s garments shown with this divine light – brighter than the sun.  This revelation comes not in the darkness of the night but at mid-day, the sun is shining brightly.  Yet the divine light in Christ shines even more brightly.  Christ’s very garments are shining with this divine light, just as Adam and Eve’s did in the Garden of Delight.  Christ is showing to the disciples not only what humanity was like in the beginning, in Paradise, but what creation itself was like.

UNABLE TO ENDURE THE VISION OF YOUR BRIGHTNESS WHICH NONE CAN BEAR, THEY FELL TO THE EARTH, POWERLESS TO LIFT UP THEIR GAZE, FOR THEY HEARD A VOICE THAT SPOKE FROM ABOVE: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON
WHO HAS COME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE MANKIND!

The apostles saw what Adam and Eve had lost through sin and being expelled from Eden.  The saw even the importance of the original garments worn by the first humans and restored by Christ. They saw what the physical creation was capable and what it was meant to be.  They saw the material world once again in communion with divinity as it was intended by God to be.  In Christ, at the Transfiguration, they saw the spiritual world and the physical world reunited, and the material world fulfilling all God created it to be.

A Brief History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

In the book, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN (Translated by Brian Daley)  there is some information about when the Feast of the Transfiguration was first served in the Church and how it became a universal and Major Feast of Orthodoxy.  The Feast commemorates the events in Christ’s life described in Matthew 17:1-8 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).

“… the Transfiguration was first celebrated liturgically in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine and Syria. . . .  the Greek Church in Jerusalem from the mid-seventh century, lists Scripture passages for August 6th as specific to ‘the Transfiguration of the Savior, which took place on Mount Tabor’; this is the earliest attestation of such a feast within the Chalcedonian Churches.”  (p 19)

“The Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, which represents the liturgical celebrations of the Church in Palestine in the middle of the seventh century, already lists a feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord for August 6 … The celebration was adopted throughout the Eastern Empire, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911)…”  (p 161)

“The celebration of the feast on August 6, first attested for Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century, apparently had spread widely through the Church of the Eastern empire in the century that followed, and seems to have been universally accepted in the Greek-speaking Church by the end of the ninth century.”  (p 180)

“… Nikon of the Black Mountain, and Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople (1084-1111) – tell us that people had begun, during Leo the Wise’s reign, to interrupt their preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition on August 15 in order to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6.  Some have seen here evidence that Leo himself introduced this feast, originally celebrated in Palestine, to the Church of Constantinople…” (p 234)

In many ways, I’m surprised about how late in history this Feast first appears and how late in history it is before it spreads throughout the Orthodox world.  It is a feast which theologically seems to lend itself so well to viewing salvation as deification.  I would think it fit well with hesychast tendencies as well, but perhaps rather than feeding hesychast tendencies, it grew slowly along with them which led to its rise in importance in the feasts of the Church.

It has always seemed strange to me that such an important Feast of Christ was celebrated in the middle of the fast for a feast of the Theotokos.  But the two events appear to have slightly different histories and the Transfiguration was already being celebrated locally on August 6, and became a universal Feast in Orthodoxy only after the Dormition Fast had been established.

The Transfiguration of Humanity

St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) commenting on the Gospel of the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9) shows how the importance of the Gospel lesson is not in its historicity, but rather in what it reveals about humanity.  Christ is revealing what it is to be human.  Salvation consists in God restoring our full humanity to us.  Christ in the Transfiguration is not simply revealing His divine glory – even more He is revealing the nature of humanity to bear divinity, to be united with God, to be deified.

“Before the transgression, Adam shared in this divine illumination and brilliance. He was clothed in the true robe of glory and was not naked, nor was he ugly in his nakedness, but was truly unspeakably better adorned than those who wear diadems embellished with much gold and precious stones. When our human nature was stripped of this divine illumination and radiance as a result of the ugly transgression, the Word of God had mercy on this nature and in His compassion took it upon Himself. On Mount Tabor he showed it clothed once more to His chosen disciples (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-9, Luke 9:28-38, cf. 2 Pet. 1:16-18), proving to all what we had once been, and what those of us who believed in Him and attained to perfection in Him would be through Him in the age to come. You will find that the earnest of this perfection of those who live according to Christ is openly given here and now to God’s saints. They reap already, so to speak, the good of the age to come. Moses foreshadowed this, because the children of Israel could not gaze upon the glory of his face (Exod. 34:30-35).

Later, and more clearly, the Lord Himself shone so brightly on the mountain in the divine light that even the chosen disciples, who had received spiritual power from Him, could not stand and look at that radiance (Matt. 17:6), cf. Luke 9:34). Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel, according to the Scripture (Acts 6:15), and he looked up from the earth into the heights of heaven, where Christ sat on the right hand of the majesty, and he saw the heavenly glory of God (Acts 7:55-56). It would take too long to recount and tell at length of the others who received here the earnest of the good things to come and were blessed to obtain this divine illumination and radiance.” (The Homilies, pp 132-133)

We can see already in the lives of some of the saints the divine light shining through their humanity.