The Transfiguration: Making Visible What He Is

The Transfiguration of Christ  (Matthew 17:1-9) is not so much that Christ was somehow changed, but that the apostles themselves were changed enabling them to see Christ as is always is.  The limits of seeing only with one’s eyes was lifted in that moment and the Apostles saw with the eyes of their heart who Jesus is.

“He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, “He was transfigured before their faces”; he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples.”  (St John of Damascus, Light on the Mountain, p. 221)

“To speak of a ‘transfiguration of creation’ in such cases is clearly to speak from the viewpoint of human experience. Just as the transfigured Christ does not change in himself, but simply allows his disciples to briefly perceive him as he is, so it is with creation’s praise of God: it becomes perceptible only when humans have ears to hear.”  (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, pp. 144-145)

Nothing Prevents Us from Being Virtuous

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?   (Romans 7:24)

St. John Chrysostom was forever a moralist.  He believed strongly in human free will and that we had the ability to choose the good.   As he saw it, death – that last and great enemy of humanity – is really not so bad because death may end our lives but it doesn’t hinder us from being virtuous while we are alive.  If we want to be virtuous we can be and nothing on earth can stop us from choosing the good or doing the next right thing.

Where now are those who accuse death, and say that this passible and corruptible body is for them an impediment to virtue? Let them listen to Paul’s virtuous acts and cease from this wicked slander. For what harm has death caused the human race? What impediment has corruptibility caused to virtue? Consider Paul, and you will see that our being mortal brings us the greatest benefits. For if he were not mortal, then he would not have been able to say, or, rather, would not have been able to demonstrate what he said through his deeds, that, “every single day I die, by the boast about you which I have in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 15:31).

For everywhere we just need a soul and the desire to act, and there will be nothing to hinder our being placed in the front ranks. Was not this man, Paul, mortal? Was he not unskilled? Was he not poor and earning his bread from daily labor? Did he not have a body endowed with all the constraints of nature? Then what prevented him from becoming such a man as he was? Nothing. Therefore let no one be disheartened to be poor, let no one be displeased to be unskilled, nor suffer pain for being among the lowest ranks, but only those who have a weakened soul and enfeebled mind. For this alone is a hindrance to virtue – wickedness of soul and weakness of purpose – and apart from this there is no other obstacle.   (The Heavenly Trumpet, p. 468)

Thus, we don’t need to fear death for as long as we live and have the desire to be virtuous, death is no impediment to our choosing  to be holy and to do the good.  Neither are we somehow predestined to sin because we have a body.  We experience temptations and sin in and through our bodies, but that does not mean the body is naturally evil.  For God became incarnate to unite us bodily to divinity.  It is through our bodies that we become united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist.

Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council: Defending Jesus

“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicea in AD 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: ‘[God] was made man,’ said St. Athanasius, following St. Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God.’ But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis.’ This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person,’ which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.”   (Boris Bobrinskoy, “God in Trinity,” The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 50)

The Ascension: Rejoice that I Go to the Father

Orthodox hymns for the Feast of the Ascension  (Acts 1:1-12) mention a pain that the disciples of Christ feel at the Ascension.  They are despondent and feel like orphans having lost their only parent.  For example, from Vespers for the Ascension:

Lord, when Your Apostles saw You carried up upon the clouds,

they were filled with despondency, O Christ, Giver of life:

with wailing and tears they lamented and said:

“Master, do not leave us orphans,

Your servants whom through pity You have loved, as You are compassionate;

but, as You promised, send us Your all-holy Spirit to enlighten our souls!”

The Apostles had gone through the shock of losing their Master at the crucifixion, only to learn three days later that He is alive, risen from the dead! But now forty days after the resurrection, the emotional roller coaster plunges downward as the Risen Lord is taken from them at the Ascension and they are left to ponder what it all means.

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The angels were astonished at the bewilderment of the Apostles, but humanly speaking, the Apostles must have felt like Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz: “My!  People come and go so quickly here!

For us Christians in the 21st Century, we too may find it difficult to find joy in the event in which Christ departs form us and leaves us here on earth to continue our mission amidst the daily problems we face in the world.   Christ tried to prepare us for this reality as we can see in His  words to His Apostles at the Last Supper as reported in John 14.  Jesus says:

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

We can see immediately that Christ knew our hearts would be troubled by the events which were to unfold.  But in talking to us about these things, He is saying to us that what will happen is according to the plan and will of God.  The events will be troubling to us, but they not be unexpected.  Jesus told us in advance what was going to happen so that we would not be caught off guard.  He departs from the earth to prepare a place for us to live with Him.  Thus, we are not waiting for something to happen, nor are we in a time when nothing is happening.  Rather, Christ is doing what needs to be done for our salvation.  If we believe He is good, then we trust that all that is happening now for us is necessary for our salvation.  We are working out our salvation on earth while Christ prepares the place where we will join Him.  We exist in time and so have to wait for time to pass, while Christ is working out our salvation in eternity.  Eternity and time come together in Christ, but for us temporal beings we have to wait on the Lord, which can be agonizing for us.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”

If we love Christ, we will keep His commandments, now, here on earth, while He continues to prepare for us in heaven.  Our task is not simply to wait, but to love Christ by keeping His Gospel commandments.  We have been given our task, Christ is accomplishing what only He can do for us.

“He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.  . . .  If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

A double blessing awaits us – Christ is preparing a place for us in heaven, and promises to make our home with us, with all those who love Him and do His word.

“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Christ understood we would be troubled by how things were going to unfold and are now unfolding.  He loves us and so is concerned about our reaction to events.   The Holy Spirit has been sent to us to teach us all we need to know in this world.  The Holy Spirit will help us remember what we need to know to live in the here and now – for forgetting God is one of worst signs of the Fallen world (see for example Psalm 106).   Christ gives us His peace to help us in times of trouble and fear.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.”

Christ acknowledges we will feel fear and sorrow in this world, and yet He says if we love Him, we should rejoice in his return to the Father.  He doesn’t say we have to accept it or acquiesce to events we can’t control.    We should rejoice that He goes to the Father for He ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us.  It is necessary for us to experience this separation from Christ – for us to continue in this world while we await the coming of our Lord.   We have to remind ourselfves– the current time on earth is necessary for our salvation as Christ fulfills His preparations for us.  Our attitude is to be: This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  If we love Him, we will rejoice that He ascended for our salvation – to prepare that place for us.  It is with this joy that we face the world and all the challenges it brings to us.

The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ completes  cycle of salvation in which God became  human in the incarnation of the Word (John 1: ) and then the incarnate Word ascended bodily into heaven.  Thus all that divided humanity from divinity came to an end (see my post The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again).  God who always wished to dwell with and in us humans, whom God created in His own image and likeness, dwells with us in the incarnation and brings us to dwell with God in the ascension.  Salvation is thus by definition the elimination of all barriers to God’s unity with us and the establishment of this eternal communion between humanity and divinity. This definition of salvation was expressed in various ways from the earliest days of Christianity.  Norman Russell in his book, FELLOW WORKERS WITH GOD: ORTHODOX THINKING ON THEOSIS (pp 38-39) offers a collection of quotes from early church fathers which repeat this truth.

The Son of God ‘became what we are in order to make us what he is himself’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, pref.).

‘The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god’ (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4).

‘He became human that we might become divine’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

‘He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity’ (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 5.7).

‘Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5)

The Word became incarnate ‘so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Refutations 11).

‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God’ (Augustine, Mainz sermons 13.1).

‘He became like us, a human being, that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons.  On the one hand he accepts what belongs to us, taking it to himself as his own, and on the other he gives us in exchange what belongs to him’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 12:1)

‘God and man are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to man through love for mankind, so much has man been able to deify himself to God through love’ (Maximus the Confessor, Amgibua, 10).

The Place Where No Human Had Trod

And finally, those who received His teaching were confirmed in the hope that He gave them, thanks to His sealing His words to them with His very own blood. Through His death and resurrection He confirmed the twelve men who had been chosen, through the foreknowledge of God, out of the entire race of Adam for this ministry.

Then, amid ineffable splendour (the Father) raised Him to Himself to heaven, to that place which no created being had trod, but whither He had, through His own (action), invited all rational beings, angels, and human beings, to that blessed Entry, in order to delight in the divine light in which was clothed that Man who is filled with all that is holy, who is now with God in ineffable honor and splendor. (St Isaac of Nineveh, Isaac of Nineveh, p. 61)

What the Blind Man Sees

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing. Therefore the neighbors and those who previously had seen that he was blind said, “Is not this he who sat and begged?” Some said, “This is he.” Others said, “He is like him.” He said, “I am he.” Therefore they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He answered and said, “A Man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and I received sight.” Then they said to him, “Where is He?” He said, “I do not know.” They brought him who formerly was blind to the Pharisees. Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also asked him again how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Therefore some of the Pharisees said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. They said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him because He opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind and received his sight, until they called the parents of him who had received his sight. And they asked them, saying, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered them and said, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.” His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So they again called the man who was blind, and said to him, “Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner.” He answered and said, “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” Then they said to him again, “What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already, and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?” Then they reviled him and said, “You are His disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from.” The man answered and said to them, “Why, this is a marvelous thing, that you do not know where He is from; yet He has opened my eyes! Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.” They answered and said to him, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” He answered and said, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” And Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.” Then he said, “Lord, I believe!” And he worshiped Him.  (John 9:1-38)

Two short meditations based on the Gospel lesson:

The healing of the man born blind highlights an essential and very practical implication of the incarnation. God is pure spirit. But when God the Word united himself with his material creation, the spiritual acquired materiality, and conversely, the material was infused with the spiritual. (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 41)

…when we imagine what it could have been when Christ healed the man born blind. He was born a blind child. He had lived all his life without ever seeing anything around him And the first thing that he saw was the face of God incarnate and the eyes of the divine Mercy and Love looking into his eyes. What an experience!  (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Churchiantiy vs. Christianity, p. 30)

Praying the Annunciation

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An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And seeing you, O LORD, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:

Rejoice, for through you joy shall shine forth!

Rejoice, for through you the curse shall cease!

Rejoice, recalling of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

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Rejoice, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men!

Rejoice, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for you are the throne of the King!

Rejoice, for you hold him who holds all!

Rejoice, star causing the sun to shine!

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Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, for through you the creation is made new!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2509-2517)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

I Worship the Creator Who Became Matter

“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through  matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”

(St. John of Damascus from Eugen J. Pentiuc’s The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 263).