The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

Published: Aug 19, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

The Transfiguration, the School of Theophan the Greek. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending the Feast of the Transfiguration with The Communities of New Skete, celebrating their feast day with the monks, nuns and companions. At vespers each evening, we sang the hymns of the feast, and each time I was struck by two recurring themes: first, the glory of Christ is revealed so that we understand that he chose to freely suffer. This is a crucial point in Christian theology, one often missed. Suffering is not itself redemptive, it is simply miserable. It is the freedom of choosing to suffer on behalf of another, or suffer with another (the heart of the word “compassion”) that is central to this feast. I say that it is often missed because it is so easy to slip into looking for meaning in suffering, of assuming that suffering is sent by God to test us, or even believing that suffering itself is somehow a good that we should seek out and be grateful for the opportunity it brings. Orthodox asceticism can at time run dangerously close to imposing suffering for the sake of suffering. But this is not the emphasis of this feast. Instead, suffering is freely chosen on behalf of friends.

Kondakion of the Feast, New Skete translation</br>You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, showing your friends as much of your glory as they could bear, so that when they see you on the cross they will understand that you suffer freely, and they will tell all the world that you are indeed the radiance of the Father.
Second Apostichon of the Transfiguration, New Skete translation</br>Of old, God spoke in symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: I am the One who is, while today Christ is transfigured before his three friends on mount Tabor’s heights. Here, in his own person he shows them our human nature arrayed in the original beauty of that image. Calling Moses and Elijah to see this wondrous grace and share in his joy, they foretell his death on the cross, and his saving resurrection.

The second theme mitigates even further any idea that suffering is itself a glory of human existence. In the Transfiguration of Christ, we see divinity shine in the midst of the humanity of Jesus, and we see “our human nature arrayed in the original beauty of that image” in which we are created, and which is never lost, merely obscured. Our goal is not suffering, it is radiant light, beauty. In the Transfiguration, we see who we are becoming. I could say more, but Br. Marc’s homily during the festal liturgy says it better than I can paraphrase.  I have reproduced it in full below as it is no longer available on the New Skete website.

Vision of Transformation

Scripture Reading: 1 Kg. 19:9-14a; 2 Pet. 1:10-18; Mt. 17:1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen!

Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s a great cartoon character named Pogo had a great line: “We have seen the enemy—and it is us!” Now to turn this on its head, today we have seen the Light—and it is us!—Each of us and all of us together in the body of Christ reflect the brightness of Christ who is our head, as St. Paul might say. Today three disciples witnessed the complete transformation of Jesus’ appearance. And later they lived through his passion and death and resurrection and now tell us about it. Also today the apostle Peter gives us his last will and testament in which he remembers and encourages us by this event. Later he exclaims that “We look forward to new heavens and a new earth, as he promised, where the upright will be at home!”

But how did people in those days, who knew the Jewish Bible, understand this story? There was Peter, along with James and John, on Tabor, like Moses on Sinai, experiencing an incredible revelation, not in a burning bush but in the blinding light of a person, and also hearing the voice of God. But now the divine voice confirms what was heard at the Baptism in the Jordan: “You are my Son, the beloved. Hear him.” Moses was again seen here, too, along with Elijah, both of whom had heard the voice of God before, and who together represent the Torah and the great prophets of Israel. And now they stand in conversation with Christ, the author of the new law and a new prophecy or witness to the infinite love of God. As Peter had said earlier, “You are the Messiah!” And later in his epistle, “Christ is our Lord and Saviour!” (—the first time this phrase is used in the New Testament.)

This is not just an experience of Jesus’ noble glory or special holiness, a glimpse of enlightenment and fellowship: no, this event shows the meaning of who we are, where we are from, and where we are going—in spite of and beneath all the suffering, sorrow, and sighing of life in the world below that mountain.

We are urged to live by this vision of transformation, to recognize even in ourselves the divine power and divine acceptance and divine kindness. Christ is shown as he really is, and in his body includes us and humanity and every living creature and the earth itself. This prepares the disciples for the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it also encourages each and every single one of us. It gives balance to the burdens of suffering, hostility, and death, by exposing love, rising, and grace as the essence of our life.

The biblical prophet Jeremiah says that in the kingdom of God the just, the upright, will shine like the sun for all to see and feel. St. Paul says that in the final reckoning every one of us will see Christ clearly as, and we will be like him and reflect his light ourselves, because through faith we are considered just in the eyes of God.

You know, this is not an uplifting summer story to hold us until the Christmas story comes around next winter! Here is a crucial new way of looking at things, and the only way to transform ourselves and the world. We know the hymn: “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, and we have found the true faith.” We have been enlightened at baptism; we have been confirmed through the gospels, we have found the source of life, we have been healed and made whole in the depths of our being. It is in there! Is this our daily way of thinking?

Where can we see evidence of this transfiguring light? We look up at the saints that surround us, who encourage us even in these anxious times. These people have shown how to come to true self-knowledge and full possession of ourselves and our unruly ego-natures.

They portray a beauty of soul and vision not only immortal and holy but fragile — redeeming yet elusive. They became free and deeply compassionate in the midst of weakness and sickness, or greed, hatred, delusion, wrong-doing, and shame. As Jesus said, “Take courage!” “Do not be afraid! I am with you always!”

Yet, it is so hard for many to accept what is beautiful and good in us. That’s not the image we first have of ourselves, full of secret wounds, shame, and lack of confidence, and at times wondering why we exist. A dark vision controls us even without our knowing, and hijacks our good intentions. On top of this, out there is the need for protection from people who are unstable, controlling, dangerous, and deluded.

Yet beneath the armor of self-protection, there is the inherent original beauty of our nature created by God, who said “It is good!” An ancient and hallowed Eastern text was written to guide those who are dying, and it clearly says it: “You are of noble birth; you come from glory; remember your shining true nature, the essence of your soul: Trust it, return to it, for it is your home.”

People can see and feel and taste it when they visit a monastery. Love and deep respect for ourselves and others will show in any of us when we remove the weeds that choke it out, those miserable thoughts and obsessions, those bad habits and thoughtless ways of acting that we have. This is the way we can transform and change our own lives and inspire each other to become whole and joyful: the world is hungry for simple acceptance, compassion, and truth. As my mother once said, “I love you just as you are: but can you try to remember to do what I am asking here…?”

The monk Thomas Merton wrote, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.” Then finally he exclaims: “…I suppose the big problem would be that we would all fall down and worship each other!”

Christ is in our midst!