“Taking the disciples up, upon the lofty mountain before Thy crucifixion, O Lord, Thou wast transfigured before them, illumining them with effulgence of power, desiring both in Thy love for mankind and in Thine authority to show them the splendour of the resurrection, which do Thou vouchsafe unto us in peace, in that Thou art merciful and lovest mankind.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
Greetings as we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Saviour!
What a wonderful feast this is, overflowing with the promise of the resurrection, the vision of Kingdom of God, and a token of the Divine Glory which is yet to be fully revealed.
On Mount Tabor the chosen disciples glimpsed the glory of the Kingdom, and a foretaste of the resurrection, but a resurrection that would only come after the Lord’s suffering and passion – and for them personally after the podvig and sufferings that their ministry would bring to them and to the whole company of the apostles.
The Lord strengthened them and readied them for what was to come in His and their earthly lives, by allowing them to glimpse the nature of the life of the age to come.
However, St Gregory Palamas, clarifies the fact that the disciples did not see something new, which was turned on and then off, but the ever-present Glory of Christ which their eyes ordinarily did not see, because of their fallen nature. Rather, the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to spiritual reality:
“Thus, the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is not something that comes to be and then vanishes, nor is it subject to the sensory faculties, although it was contemplated by corporeal eyes for a short while upon an inconsequential mountain top. But the initiates of the Mystery, (the disciples) of the Lord at this time passed beyond mere flesh into spirit through a transformation of their senses, effectualized within them by the Spirit, and in such a way that they beheld what, and to what extent, the Divine Spirit had wrought blessedness in them to behold the Ineffable Light.”
It was this hidden spiritual reality that St Seraphim’s disciple Nikolai Motovilov beheld when the staretz was transfigured with the Light of Tabor in the midst of the Russian winter snow. The words of his spiritual son are famously recorded: “I cannot look at you, father, because lightning is pouring from your eyes. Your face has become brighter than sun and my eyes ache.”
However, this was nothing new or unknown as we read of the same manifest-grace in the lives of the desert fathers.
Before his death, the face of St Sisoes the Great was seen to shine like the sun, and the bodies and faces of Saints Silouan and Aresenius were seen to be bright and fiery. The monastic life embraced by these holy fathers, and each of the ascetic fathers and mothers, is designated the ‘angelic life’ by the Church and in hymns, we recall that they became earthly angels and heavenly men/women, in whom the glory of the Kingdom was glimpsed.
However, we often forget that before the fall, this was the nature of humanity, in which earthly clay was animated by the breath of God. Divine Grace was manifest in Adam and Eve, for whom the Taboric Light was part of their state as spiritual, not simply physical beings.
St John Maximovitch said that, “God’s image and likeness, in which our fore-parents were created, was fully reflected in them before the fall…” but we forget what the fulness of that image really was.
In the aposticha of vespers we chanted, “For, having ascended that mountain with Thy disciples, O Saviour, Thou wast transfigured, and didst cause the darkened nature of Adam to shine again…”
In other words, Adam and Eve once shone like St Seraphim, and on the mountain the radiance of Christ – the Second Adam -is a sign of the restoration of humanity, as created and intended by God.
The Incarnation of the God-man, was the divine condescension and earthly mission in which God became man in order to call and restore us to paradise, and the radiance of the saints, like Adam and Eve in paradise, is a sign of the restoration of humanity made possible by the Incarnation, Cross and resurrection.
Our baptism is the beginning of our resurrectional journey into the Paschal Mystery, and the tasting the fruits of Christ’s victory over death and hell.
When the saints shone with heavenly light and were enveloped in the divine fire, the power of the resurrection already shone forth, and restored-humanity radiated Divine Grace.
Yet, so much in our lives obscures the image of God in us and counters the Grace with which He wishes to clothe us. It blinds our spiritual eyes, so that we do not behold God’s glory, and dulls our senses, so that we do not physically experience His Grace.
In the Paschal Canon we sing,
“Let us purify our senses and we shall see Christ shining in the unapproachable light of His resurrection. We shall clearly hear Him say: Rejoice, as we sing the song of victory.”
How can we ever hope to experience any Grace, let alone glimpse the Glory of God? Perhaps the saints who were transfigured asked the same question at the beginning of their active, spiritual labours. The answer was in that labour itself.
In the readings of vespers, we read of the how Moses and Elijah ascended the Mountain of God to meet and converse with Him, with Moses glimpsing His Glory as He passed by, and was himself transfigured by his encounter with God’s Holiness.
At the Transfiguration, the disciples ascended Mount Tabor with the Lord, who was not transfigured by the sea or in the plain, where He so often preached. Rather, it was only after the labour of climbing and ascent that they beheld and glimpsed the Divine Glory.
St John Climacus writes of the active and virtuous Christian life as the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as do the Syriac fathers, and the ladder like the mountain speaks of the labour and struggle we must actively realise in our lives to ‘climb’ towards God.
This is the cruciform aspect of our baptism – one of praxis, of doing, and acting. We cannot approach God without obedience and repentance. If we think otherwise, there is no Cross in our lives, and if we are unwilling to be cross-bearers, then in no way can we be Christ-bearers, which is at the heart of the meaning of our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
St John Maximovitch made this clear in one of his homilies for the feast:
“The cross that we must take up is that very struggle with our own weaknesses, vices, and sin. Gradually freeing ourselves from them, man comes closer to God, in Whose image he was created. Man himself does not have sufficient strength to accomplish this, but he is aided by God’s grace, which He gave through the Church created by His incarnate Son. For this He became incarnate—to raise once again His fallen image.”
Christ’s Transfiguration is the sign of the heavenly glory attained by bearing the Cross: our personal cross of repentance; the cross of spiritual-labour/podvig; the cross of prayer; the cross of battling hate with love, and ego with selflessness; the cross of accepting and living the way of the Gospel, and not our own misguided, fallen path; the cross of swimming against the tide of humanity, struggling towards the Kingdom.
It was through the self-willed human path that the fall deepened its effects in humanity and the Divine Light faded in the human race, and restoration is only possible by working with the Saviour.
Only then can our eyes be opened, and only then will we understand the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” This was the vision of Moses on Sinai, and of Peter, James and John on Tabor.
Even before death, the general resurrection and the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, we are called to strive, not simply to behold the Divine Light, but to become torches of this Light ourselves.
We return to St Gregory Palamas,
“Let us, considering the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord… strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty, purifying our spiritual eyes of worldly thoughts and refraining from perishable and quickly passing delights and beauty which darken the garb of the soul and lead to the fire of Gehenna and everlasting darkness. Let us be freed from these by the illumination and knowledge of the incorporeal and ever-existing Light of our Savior transfigured on Tabor, in His Glory, and of His Father from all eternity, and His Life-Creating Spirit, Whom are One Radiance, One Godhead, and Glory, and Kingdom, and Power now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
May God bless you on this feast, and may the Transfiguration be an invitation to each of us to climb the mountain, in labour and repentance, longing to behold Christ in His Glory, that our blinded spiritual-eyes may be opened by the Holy Spirit, so that we may see Him as He is.
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark