When Can I See God?

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“How Moses struggled! He asked God to be allowed to see Him, face to face, but God showed him only His back parts (Ex 33.20-23). Many centuries had to pass before Moses was granted a face-to-face encounter with God, and it occurred, not on Mt. Sinai, but on Mt. Thabor, on the day of the Transfiguration (Lk. 9.30-31). Are you better than Moses? Are you able to ascend the mountain of theology, endure the blasts of the trumpets, and withstand the terror of the fire and the lightning? Even if you could do all that, you wouldn’t be satisfied. At some stage, you’ll have to get to Mt. Thabor – which is the mountain of the heart – for only there will you see God as he is (1 Jn 3.2).”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit, p. 291)

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.

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)

Jesus is the Light of the World

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  (St. Simeon, Luke 2:29-32)

“In the Old Testament, Moses entered into that light, that luminous cloud on the mountaintop. In Exodus, when Moses is coming down from the mountain, his face is shining with the light, and they have to put a veil over his face because people could not look at him (see Ex. 34:29–35). In the synoptic Gospels, at the Transfiguration, Jesus goes up on Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured, shining with the uncreated light. The disciples see Him, but they have to hide their faces (see Matt. 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36).

These passages show the real, divine light that is in the world, a light that human beings can actually experience. We can know it and see it, and as creatures we can participate in it. The mystical saints, when speaking of this light, name it Jesus. If there are holy and righteous people anywhere who have pure hearts and seek the true God, God in His mercy may reveal to them His divine light.

We, as Christians, would say it is Jesus Christ they see. The others may not know it is Jesus, but we do. This glory St. John speaks about—“we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14)—is the uncreated splendor of God that Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah in the temple saw in the Old Testament.

It is the light St. Paul saw when he was struck down on the road to Damascus. This light of God, we Christians confess, is hypostatically, personally, Jesus Christ. Not only does this light shine from Jesus’ face in the Transfiguration, but in St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘I am this Light.‘ Jesus Christ is the Light and the source of light.”

(Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 2855-2866)

Christ Jesus – The Epitome of Human Beauty

“In continuity with the Old Testament passage in which “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you’” (Gen 12:1), Jesus encourages His disciples to seek detachment. Following Him implies a reversal of our values. It means going in a direction other than the way of the world, which advocates the acquisition of every kind of possession: money, power, possessions and property, with every sort of passion they entail: ambition, greed, envy and hard-heartedness. In a world where wealth is idolized, Jesus warns against laying up treasures for oneself (Mt 6:19). Instead, He preaches dispossession, abnegation and sharing: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). It is well worth reading the passage of the temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11), in which the Prince of this world appeals to a possessive instinct which Jesus strongly condemns. If we realize that every form of greed stems fundamentally from a mental condition, it becomes easier to understand the efforts of the great ascetics, which consist in focusing their minds on their repentant hearts.

In the same way that our disorders, loss of inner harmony and personal disintegration can lead to similar conditions in the world around us, those who are truly “in Christ” can shape and nourish science, culture and humanity as a whole.

The audience for whom the following words of Dostoevsky‘s were intended seems to be growing day by day:

You who deny God and Christ have not even considered that without Christ, everything in the world would be impure and corrupt. You judge Christ and you dismiss God; but what sort of example do you yourselves offer? You are petty, debauched, greedy and arrogant! By eliminating Christ, you remove from humanity the epitome of beauty and goodness, you make Him inaccessible. For Christ came precisely for this reason: that humanity might know and recognize that a true human spirit can appear in this heavenly condition, in the flesh and not merely in a dream or in theory – that it is indeed both natural and possible.

Christ’s disciples proclaimed His radiant flesh to be divine. Through the cruelest of tortures they confessed the blessing of bearing this flesh within themselves, of imitating His perfection, and of believing in Christ in the flesh (Carnets des Demons, Belov An VI, 281, 155).”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pp. 229-230)

Although some Christians deny that humans descended from the apes, Christianity’s real message is that humanity’s true origins and fulfillment come in the God-man Jesus Christ.  The Fathers didn’t deny that humans live an animal life – one according to biology, the flesh – rather they admitted and lamented it.

“Therefore, if we want to know why we, since we were created for honor and placed in Paradise, became finally ‘compared to the beasts that possess no understanding and were made like to them’ (Ps 99:12, 20), having fallen from the pristine glory, know that we, by transgression, became slaves of carnal passions.”  (4th Century monk Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, p 160)

However, we were created in God’s image and we find our destiny in Christ, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Each human is created capable of bearing the radiant beauty of the divine.  We don’t deny our animal nature, our claim is that God grants us the potential to rise above a merely animal nature, to share the divine life.  As Jesus Himself said of humanity:  “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?”   (John 10:34)  The true human condition – the one for which we humans were created by God to have – is to share in the heavenly glory.   Whatever our relationship to other animals, to an animal ancestry, God created us with the ability to rise above all animal limitations and to realize our full potential which is in God.  We are not predestined by our biology, rather we are destined by God to attain our full potential which is to rise above any genetic or biological predetermination.  God Himself became incarnate, took on our animal nature, and united flesh and blood to the divine.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God…    (1 John 4:2)

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

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.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

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)

Truth Relies on Us All

The Lord Jesus said: “‘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.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?'”  (John 14:21-22)

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) offers an answer to the Apostle Judas‘ question as to how it is that God’s manifestation may be seen only by some when “objectively” the event should be visible to everyone.

“…True doctrine conforms to the dispositions of those receiving the word, for although the word presents to all equally what is good and bad, the one who is favorably disposed to what is presented has his understanding enlightened, but the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth….

In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod [Exodus 10:21-29], while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be.

Jesus & Moses at the Transfiguration

According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness. while others are made radiant by the light of virtue.”  (The Life of Moses, p. 69, 72-73)

St Gregory’s answer is based in a clear idea of synergy – God’s revelation, God’s manifestation requires also observers who prepared/open to receive what God reveals.  This idea is reflected in quantum physics where the observer affects the outcome of what is being observed.  God does not even impose His revelation on humanity.  Our inner disposition toward God will determine what we experience of God in our life.  Almost 200 years before Gregory of Nyssa’s writing, St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) offered a very similar idea:

“In respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, no man shall see God and live (Exodus 33:20), for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict.  For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God (Luke 18:27).  For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills.  For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to everyone from the fact of his seeing God.

For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor.  But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.  And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith.  For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him.  It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.”  (ADV. HAERESES 4.20.5)

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And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

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)