Dear brothers and sisters,
Festal greetings to you on this glorious feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – not just metaphorically glorious, but truly so, as Mount Tabor became a place where the glory of Christ-God was revealed to the disciples, as far as they were able to bear it.
The Saviour revealed something which had not been seen by the men and women of the Gospels: not by the magi, even though they fell down and worshipped Him as they laid their gifts before Him; not by the shepherds, even though an angel revealed the new-born Lord to them; not by Symeon the God-Receiver, even though he took the Infant-Saviour into his arms and recognised Him as the Light to enlighten the gentiles; not by the many sick, disabled and possessed people whom He healed and set free, even though He, as their Creator made them into new creations through the miracles He wrought.
Peter, James and John beheld the Saviour in a way that none of the disciples had so-far beheld Him, as Christ revealed His divinity on Mount Tabor.
The glory that radiated from the Saviour and enveloped Him in the Transfiguration was not something put on for the occasion. As the Church Fathers clarified, when Jesus was transfigured He did not take upon Himself something new that He did not formerly possess, or change into something or someone else. Rather, in the radiant splendour of the godhead, He showed Himself to His disciples as He already was, and as He always had been, though His divinity was temporarily hidden when He was incarnate, as the Saviour of the World
In the words of St Gregory Palamas,
“We believe that at the Transfiguration He manifested… only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine.”
The Saviour revealed what His humility, His love and compassion had hidden when He was obedient to the Father’s will in the incarnation, clothing Himself in Adam and hiding what the Prophet Ezekiel had seen and struggled to describe when the Lord-Yahweh, the pre-incarnate Saviour, appeared on the heavenly chariot-throne in
“… a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also, from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the colour of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
The uncreated-light of Christ’s divinity on Mount Tabor echoed the glory that Ezekiel could only approximate in words and images, and also the glory that Moses encountered when he ascended Mount Sinai: glory that was such that Moses himself was transfigured by his encounter with Christ-Yahweh, as St Gregory reminded his listeners:
“Even the face of Moses was illumined by his association with God. Do you not know that Moses was transfigured when he went up the mountain, and there beheld the Glory of God? But he (Moses) did not affect this, but rather he underwent a Transfiguration.”
On Mount Tabor, Moses, present in spirit, again reflected the divine-glory, whilst Elias who had ascended into heaven reflected the light of the Transfiguration both physically and spiritually.
And, the Saviour appeared in glory, not simply to show the glory of His divinity to the disciples, but to prepare them for the suffering which would obscure this glory more and more, as He went to His voluntary passion like a lamb to the slaughter, with the appearance of the suffering-servant foreseen by the Prophet Isaiah, who
“hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely, he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.”
Behind this sacrificial-suffering, self-emptying and selfless giving was the same Christ who was transfigured, to show the certainty of the glory which lay beyond the Cross, in the eternity of the Kingdom, and His divinity which was concealed beneath the robe of His suffering flesh.
The Transfiguration pre-empted His great suffering, so that the necessity of the Cross and the sacrifice of Christ, as the Lamb of God and New-Passover, could be understood by those closest to the Saviour, so that they would not be scandalised by the Cross of Christ, and His crucifixion.
In the words of St Leo the Great:
“And in this Transfiguration the foremost object was to remove the offense of the cross from the disciple’s heart, and to prevent their faith being disturbed by the humiliation of His voluntary Passion by revealing to them the excellence of His hidden dignity.”
Paths of suffering-for-Christ would also be the lot of the disciples, given courage by the glimpsed glory of the Kingdom, which would be reinforced by their experience of the resurrection, of the glorious ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost. Through their spiritual labours and ascent, the Saviour sought to share His glory with them, so that they – and every generation of faithful – might be partakers and inheritors of His glory, to be transfigured like Moses and Elias, radiant in His light.
Similar paths have been trodden by the Saviour’s followers throughout the history of the Church, from the Roman persecutions to the trials of the new-martyrs and confessors of the Communist Yoke in the 20th century, and through this suffering countless people were transfigured, not literally, but spiritually – encountering God, with their endurance and courage buoyed by the promise touched upon by St Leo in his homily for the feast,
“About which the Lord had Himself said, when He spoke of the majesty of His coming, Then shall the righteous shine as the sun in their Father’s Kingdom Mat. 13:43, while the blessed Apostle Paul bears witness to the self-same thing, and says: for I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the future glory which shall be revealed in us Rom. 8:18: and again, for you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. For when Christ our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with Him in glory Col. 3:3 .”
– and in this he reminds us of the obvious: that most will have to wait for the life of the age to come to behold God’s glory, when the righteous shall shine like the sun.
Few will have the foretastes of this glory, like St Symeon, St Seraphim or St John the Wonderworker, but we live in hope of this promise of the glory of God manifest on the mountain.
But, to attain to this promise, glimpsed on Tabor by the disciples, we must take up our Cross to follow the Saviour in selfless love and obedience: thoroughly, faithfully, and maximally.
This is the only way each of us can begin to climb the mountain, even its lowest and gentlest slopes: embracing Orthodox life as podvig/ascetic labour – praying, fasting, struggling for purity, through repentance and making the Gospel and the Law of God the entire rule of our lives, day by day.
Above all, let us pray, as this communion with God joins time and eternity, our finite and transient human lives with the changeless eternity of the life of God who always IS.
In prayer there is a certain transcendence of time and place, as there was when the Lord was transfigured on the mountain, and prayer may be the catalyst of our metamorphosis and transfiguration.
St Gregory, (taking the Transfiguration Gospel from St Luke) observes that
“That same Inscrutable Light shone and was mysteriously manifest to the Apostles and the foremost of the Prophets at that moment, when (the Lord) was praying. This shows that what brought forth this blessed sight was prayer, and that the radiance occurred and was manifest by uniting the mind with God, and that it is granted to all who, with constant exercise in efforts of virtue and prayer, strive with their mind towards God. True beauty, essentially, can be contemplated only with a purified mind.“
Let us raise up our hearts and minds to God, as even in wordlessness, this is prayer. And, through prayer – sometimes easy, often a struggle – let us labour to purify our intellect, thoughts and senses, so that we may contemplate things divine and eternal, and join ourselves to things heavenly and changeless: racing to the mountain in this prayer, eager to behold and experience the glory of the Lord.
“Arise, ye slothful thoughts of my soul, which have ever been dragged down to the earth! Be ye upborne and rise aloft to the summit of divine ascent! Let us make haste to Peter and the sons of Zebedee, and with them let us go to Mount Tabor, that we may see the glory of our God with them, and may hear the voice which they heard from on high; and they preached that Thou, in truth, art the Effulgence of the Father.”
Ikos of the Matins Canon.
In Christ –