Imitating Christ and the Transfiguration

What’s in a name?

St Gregory of Nyssa once asked a friend, “What does it mean to call yourself a Christian?”

St Gregory says a name or title needs to have substance to it.  If I call someone a rock or a tree does that make them a rock or a tree?

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Gregory argues that we name something because it has the characteristics of the things named.  The name has real substance to it.  So if we want to say we are a Christian, then there should be real substance to that claim.

What then makes a person a Christian?   Having the same characteristics as Christ – love, obedience, discipleship, truth, faith, mercy, charity, peace, meek, humble, struggling against sin and evil, pure in heart, Kingdom oriented.

Whatever are Christ’s characteristics, are to be our characteristics – both individually and collectively.  We are to be the Body of Christ.

Being a Christian means that something deep inside us is Christ like.  Being a Christian means being transfigured, shining with the Light of Christ.  It is precisely today in the Gospel of the transfiguration that we see Christ clearly, and we know that being a Christian means that our very being, our soul is transfigured, filled with light and joy, revealing God to the world, united to the Holy Trinity.  St Paul tells us this:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  . . .   But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.  (Philippians 3:12-21)

Being a Christian means more than just coming to church on Sundays when it is convenient, or following the 10 Commandments, or believing in God.  It means transfiguration, new creation, rebirth, life in the Holy Trinity, it means that you are trying to have all the same characteristics of Christ.  It means living the transfigured life.

Walking to God

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To walk straight to God is to walk in love. This is the way of the undefiled who, as the Psalmist says, “seek Him with their whole heart” (Ps. 119:2), thereby showing what is the desire which has been enjoined upon us. Those who “walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1) are those who live in love, the commandment on which the whole law depends (Mt. 22:40). They do so in order that they may straightway strip themselves of all sin, which alone obscures the vision of the soul.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 209)

Romans 12:9-21

In Romans 12:9-21, St Paul lists a variety of attitudes, feelings and behaviors which he believes are genuinely Christian, and thus to be put into practice by all who follow Christ.  The list is simple and straightforward, so no commentary is needed.  We only need to put them into practice in our hearts, minds and lives to demonstrate our own desire to be disciples of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with brotherly affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another;

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Following the One Who Taught Poverty

If you want a life of discipleship,

do not allow the desire for material possessions

to get a grip on you.

A disciple with many possessions

is like a ship that has been too heavily laden.

It is lashed by the storms of cares

and sinks in the deep waters of distress.

The love of money gives birth to many evil obsessions

and has rightly been called the “root of all evil.”

(St Theodoros the Ascetic, The Book of Mystical Chapters, p. 58-59)

Our Prayers to the Crucified Christ

Sometimes we find in our lives a need to cry out with Jesus in desperation: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) and then we know with Jesus that despite human appearances, God is with us, even in tragedy, suffering and death.

At other times, meaning in tragedy can only be found in saying with Jesus: “Father, forgive them for the know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)  and then we trust God that His forgiveness, mercy and love will somehow and miraculously make right and whole that which had been destroyed or at least that God will forgive us for our willingness to destroy the Good.

Still there are other times when we come to understand the suffering and evil have no power over Jesus Christ our Lord, nor do they have ultimate power over any of us who are united in Christ.  We may suffer, but we realize the suffering is only in this world and is temporary for Christ has overcome the world.

We have been on a long spiritual sojourn together have followed God into the desert of Great Lent, and walked with Christ into Jerusalem to the cross.   We who have been baptized into Christ began a walk with Christ, that began right at the tomb of Christ.   We died with Christ in baptism – we came to his tomb, as St. Paul says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  (Romans 6:3-5)

Baptism brings us to the tomb of Christ, where we die with Him in order to be raised with Him.   It is no accident that we are here, but is God’s own plan for us.  And we are here by our own choice – by accepting Christ’s call to discipleship.  And all of us who have chosen to follow Christ have received His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.   And what are we told about the Eucharist?

In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  (1 Corinthians 11:25-26)

Every time we drink the cup of Christ’s Blood, we proclaim His death, we end up at the tomb of Christ which also happens to be the fountain of the resurrection.   Christ’s own death is a significant part of our salvation.  We need to proclaim His death, we need to be at His tomb, to remind ourselves that our union with God comes in and through the death of God’s only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.

Our long Lenten pilgrimage has brought us to the tomb of Christ.  And here we remember all that Christ has done for us, and how He was willing to suffer for us and die for us.  But the tomb is not meant to be a shrine that we stay at and adore.

Because at the tomb of Christ we also hear the angel tell us, what?

He is not here!  He is risen! (Matthew 28:6)

The death of Christ which we personally experience in baptism and proclaim at every Eucharist and which is essential to our salvation, is still not our destination – if we want to be with Christ He is not at His tomb.  For we know now that Christ is sending us out into the world to live the resurrection and to share this good news with everyone we might meet.  The tomb of Christ it turns out is another sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, just like all the miracles Christ performed.  The tomb of Christ is telling us to continue our spiritual sojourn, to go out and live in the world, but live in the light of the resurrection.

Fasting and Humility

“Following the example of Christ, humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian life, and the foundation for our relation with God. The more humble we are, the more God will reveal Himself to us. And the more we know about God, the more humble we become. We need all the virtues, but without humility they achieve nothing. Even fasting, prayer, and love itself can do nothing without humility. But when prayer and fasting are joined with humility, we become the companion of God, and enter the divine environment in such a way that, as we’ve said, we become gods ourselves.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 313)

“When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that, I can do nothing against you.’”(Apoth., Macarius 11, p.130)

Icons: To See Beyond the World into the Kingdom

We have arrived at the First Sunday in Lent.  Saying “we have arrived” keeps up the imagery that we are travelling – the spiritual journey of Great Lent.   We are doing what Christ calls all of His disciples to do, as we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson:  “Follow me.” (John 1:43).  We can follow Christ only by being on this spiritual sojourn.  Spirituality, being a Christian, is not a state of mind or the soul, but our movement toward the kingdom of God.  To follow Christ we have to move ourselves towards God.

We still have a long way to travel, just to get through Lent.  At the midweek services this past week, I mentioned to you about how God’s call to Israel to leave Egypt behind was a wakeup call.  For though we usually think of the Hebrew people as being slaves in Egypt, there is another spiritual reality there.  They had voluntarily and willfully entered Egypt to escape their own poverty and famine in order to benefit from the wealth of Egypt.  They left behind their lives of being desert nomads for a life in the great civilization of Egypt.  And they had enslaved themselves to the all that Egyptian empire had to offer.  Moses comes to awaken them from their dream and delusion, but he doesn’t call them to overthrow their Egyptian overlords in a slave revolt and to take over that society.  Rather God calls them to leave society, culture and civilization behind and to go into the desert to worship God and to see the glory of God.  It is not a civil war to which they are called but a war against the flesh, their own desires and comfort.

They are asked to leave behind the glory of human civilization – all that they knew about the world – and to walk into the great unknown of the barren, lifeless and desolate desert.   They were called to leave the known and to seek the unknown.  And all week long I’ve told you that is what Great Lent is supposed to be to us – leave behind all that you know and love about your lives – your food, your entertainment, your beds, all that comforts you, your couches and clothes, all that enriches you and attracts you and satisfies you – and practice the abstinence, the self-denial, the fasting which Great Lent, which the great desert demands of you.  When we enter into Great Lent we are called to wake up out of the delusion that our lives are so wonderful and blessed and comfortable, and to see that there is an entire life available to us – a spiritual life, a life in God, which we miss because we are so busy pursuing comfort, careers, pleasure, the good life, the American dream.   Great Lent reminds us this life we so value really is a dream and will pass away.  The American dream does not last forever for it belongs to this temporary earth.  One day we will awake from this dream because we hear Christ calling us to wake up and arise.  And when we do we shall see God and realize all we so valued in this world was not that important or helpful. We in effect are called to join our spiritual ancestors to make an exodus into the desert of our lives.

This awakening happened to Moses as we heard at the beginning of today’s Epistle:

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Moses refuses the dream of being Pharaoh’s grandson and embraces the reality that the pampered life of the elite is really enslavement to the world.  Moses looked  to this spiritual reward, and to do so he had to see beyond the great empire of which he was in the ruling class.  He lived a privileged life, and yet it was a dream deluding him.   And here we see another great theme of Lent, besides sojourning, besides fasting, we are to see God.

So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD . . .  And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.  (Exodus 16:6-10)

It was only when these people looked away from the grand empire of which they were a part did they see the glory of God.  God was not seen by them in the greatest nation on earth but in the wilderness where there was no city, no culture, no comfort, no power, no wealth.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  (John 1:51)

The story of God’s people, of our exodus from Egypt, our sojourn through Great Lent is so that our eyes might be opened and so that we not be so dazzled and seduced by all the riches this world has to offer, and that we consider the glory of the Lord.  We are called to see the depth and riches of the Kingdom of God which are invisible to us when we focus only on life in this world.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-22)

That great cloud of witnesses to God’s glory is visible to us in the icons all around us.  Icons open heaven to our eyes and our eyes to heaven.  They tell us to see with the eyes of our heart, don’t just look at the external, but see the reality that these people and events represent.  Look into the hearts of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said we will see heaven wide open but also that our eyes would be open wide by what we see.

Our eyes can be opened to God’s revelation, to understanding salvation, to the Kingdom of God if our hearts are open and receptive to what God reveals to us.

And what do we see with the eyes of our heart?

A loving God, a forgiving Father hoping for us to seek Him no matter how far away we may feel we are from Him.

We see where and in whom heaven and earth meet.

An icon shows us our salvation comes when God is united to humanity.

Icons remind us the Kingdom of Heaven is not a distant place but, rather, is right here right in our midst. As Jesus Christ said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Christ is in our midst!

The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)

God be Merciful to Me

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.”  (Luke 6:27-30)

St John Chrysostom, once asked about what kind of people would ask God to do something that goes against God’s own commandments.  He was thinking it is you and I!

“Those that make requests it is fitting for God to grant, not beseeching him for what is opposed to his laws.  And who is so bold, you ask, as to make God grant what is opposed to his laws?  Those who intercede with him against their enemies; this, of course, is at variance with the law decreed by him.  He says, remember, ‘forgive your debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12).   But do you call on him against your enemies when he has bidden you pardon them?  What could be worse than this absurdity?  In prayer you should have the appearance, attitude and approach of a suppliant; so why do you adopt another guise, that of accusation?  I mean, how would you succeed in gaining pardon of your own faults when you expect God to be the punisher of other’s crimes?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 52)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  (Colossians 3:12-13)

Zacchaeus: A Sinner Transformed

The Lord had said to the Pharisees, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). So now, showing His approval of such actions and finding in them a defense against those who murmured against Him, He says, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), as he has now become faithful, righteous, hospitable and a lover of the poor. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

He was actually saying to the fault-finders, “I went in to be the guest of a sinner, but in order to transform and save him, showing him to be a lover of God instead of a lover of money, just instead of unjust, welcoming instead of inhospitable, and merciful instead of unsympathetic, such as you can see him becoming even now.” Do you see how Zacchaeus loved and sought, and was loved, summoned and made Christ’s own?

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 58).