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.

Wishing to Stay in Safety: It is Good to Be Here

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, reading the account from Matthew 17:1-9.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellingshere, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) reflects on the  Apostle Peter and his recorded reaction to experiencing the Transfiguration.

“What, then, does rash Peter say? ‘It is good for us to be here!’ For since he has heard that Jesus had to depart for Jerusalem and to suffer, but fears and trembles still for his sake, even after Jesus’ rebuke, he does not dare to approach him and say the same thing again, ‘Far be it from you!’ But speaking from that same fear, he again hints the same thing in different words. For since he saw the mountain, its great remoteness and its deserted character, he got the idea that there was a strong prospect of safety here, due to the place itself – and not just from the place, but from his never leaving it to go to Jerusalem. For he wanted Jesus to remain there always, that is why he mentions tents. For if this were to happen, he is saying, we shall not go up to Jerusalem, and if we do not go up, he will not die, it is there, after all, that he said the scribes would attack him. But he does not dare say this outright. Wanting to bring it about, however, he says with assurance, ‘It is good for us to be here,’ where Moses and Elijah are present: Elijah, who drew fire down on a mountaintop, and Moses, who entered into darkness to speak with God – no one will have any idea where we are![…]

Then, to make clear that they were seized by great fear, both Peter and the others, Luke says: ‘They were heavy with sleep; and when they woke, they saw his glory.’ By ‘sleep’ here he means the heavy drowsiness that had come over them as a result of that vision. For they experienced something like what we feel, when our eyes are dimmed by overpowering brightness. It was not night, after all, but day; and the excess of splendor weighed down the weakness of their eyes.[…]And Peter said, ‘Let us build three tents,’ but Jesus himself revealed the tent not made by hands. Therefore we find earlier smoke and mist, but here ineffable light, and a voice.” (Light on The Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord, pp 74-77)

St. John Chrysostom portrays St. Peter as still trying to protect Christ from any threat of death.   Peter’s interest in staying on the mountain is that it is a safe place, and they are hidden from the world.  Chrysostom thinks Peter has learned his lesson from an earlier rebuke from Jesus, and so is wise enough not to say directly what he is thinking.  Peter wanted what many Christians wish – not to be struggling in a world which is hostile or in which there is suffering and sorrow.  Peter wishes to be in Paradise, but the Transfiguration occurs in this world and gives us the strong indication that Christ intended to save the world, not save us from the world.  We are called by Christ to be a light to the world, while still in the world rather than shining some spotlight down on earth from a safe heavenly place.  It is a much more difficult calling than simply becoming some angel in heaven.

Being Transformed by Christmas

“We have seen how the Holy Fathers regard the Transfiguration of Christ as an example of seeing the true nature of Christ. They taught that the real transfiguration occurred with the eyes of the disciples. When our eyes are opened, when we see through them and not with them, the world is transformed. We begin seeing ourselves, others, and nature as we are supposed to see them: icons of the transcendent God. We were not created to experience life as an endless series of days, filled with monotony and boredom. Through the Incarnation, Christ has restored meaning and beauty to the fallen world. And while we may not always experience life as meaningful or beautiful, we must remind ourselves and, with faith, believe that there is more to our lives than what meets the eye; there is more to our world than what we see when our hearts are impure and divided. God’s creation, both nature and man, are icons of the transcendent God. Through sin these icons may lose their luster, but they are icons nonetheless. Our priestly calling is not only to recognize this truth but to fulfill it: to be transformed and to transform the world around us.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 39-40)

Christ Transfigured

“It is elaborated in the hymnography and icons for the feast of the Transfiguration, which emphasize the transfigured, or deified, state of Christ’s humanity. St. Gregory of Nazianzus believes that the light that shines in Christ’s face, body and garments represents  nothing less than his divinity, while St. John of Damascus refers to the ‘splendor of the divine nature’ and to the ‘timeless glory of God the Son’ in his homily on the Transfiguration. Icons of the Transfiguration depict the transfigured Christ standing on Mt. Tabor in a shining garment.” (Mariamna Fortounatto and Mary B. Cunningham in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 141)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Colossians 1:15-20)