Friday, August 6, 2010

The Transfiguration of our Lord

Today, August 6, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. Arguably one of the more forgotten festivals because it occurs in the summer and during a fasting season, Transfiguration is nevertheless well placed at this time because, like the Dormition of the Theotokos, which we will celebrate in a week's time, it is a foreshadowing of the glory that awaits us in the heavens as we are taken "from glory to glory."

This feast is perhaps my favorite outside of Pascha and Theophany. And I think that it has become my favorite simply because I never celebrated it growing up Lutheran. The Lutherans moved the feast of Transfiguration to the beginning of Lent because, according to Church tradition, this event happened 40 days before Christ's crucifixion which does make sense. However, I can remember no time, not one single instance, when it was celebrated prior to the start of Lent. Perhaps it is that lack of it in my youth that made me appreciate the wonders of the feast.

The Lutheran placing of Transfiguration before Lent does seem logical, but the Orthodox place it here for several reasons not least because Great Lent, and every Sunday is already saturated with hymns to the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. First, this feast does confirm that old Theopaschite formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria, that it was God who died in the flesh on the cross. And this feast is sandwiched in between two important feasts of the cross, the first on August 1 and the second on September 14 (August 6 is 40 days prior to Septmber 14), that being the exaltation of the Cross. In fact, the seasonal Katavasiae that we sing at the Canon for Orthros are all from the Canon of the Cross.

Second, as already mentioned, we are in the Dormition fast when we commemorate the falling asleep of the Mother of God. We contemplate that "strange mystery, great and marvelous" where the Virgin Theotokos, the Ark of God who carried the Uncontainable God in a containable place, died and was taken up in glory to the heavens. As the apostles Peter, James and John were present at our Lord's Transfiguration, but unable to bear the uncreated light of our Lord and God, so were they present as they gathered at Gethsemane to bury the New Eve and be witnesses to her partaking of the first fruits of the Resurrection which will be for us all. Transfiguration and Dormition, thus go hand in hand. When we die, we will be taken up for death has no longer any power over us and when we are called to Christ's right hand, we will partake of that uncreated light in true communion. And unlike Peter, James and John our faces will not be downcast.

There are many stories of various saints whose life in Christ was so perfected and profound that the uncreated light literally shone forth from them. St. Seraphim of Sarov, for instance, was said to wear a veil because his face beamed so powerfully with the created light of Christ that no one could look directly at him. Some would decry that as a mere fiction. But our Lord said that if we had but the faith of a mustard seed we could move mountains and such faith is from prayer and fasting. Why wouldn't the uncreated light of God be accessible as well by prayer and fasting? If our goal in life is to have a Christ like life, wouldn't that not also include physical manifestations?

It is regrettable that Transfiguration is lost amongst the "dog days of summer" and that so many people are worrying more about last minute vacation plans before school starts and before the fiscal year begins. But the Church Calendar places it here with great precision. We do not look at individual feast days as individual events but within the context of the whole. Just as the Liturgy is the re-presentation of all of God's saving acts in Christ's life and the saint's lives, thus the Church Calendar. We cannot examine any great feast as some independent happening; it exists in the context of what comes before and after. The life in Christ is not only living out his way to Golgotha, but also being baptized at Theophany, being resurrected at Pascha, being made vessels of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, ascending at Ascension and being transfigured here on earth before partaking of the communion of God in the heavens.

Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O Christ our God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as much as they could bear it. Let Thy everlasting light shine upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!--Apolytikion of the Transfiguration


  1. Question - is there in the Orthodox tradition information on how quickly the dormition of Mary took place? I ask because you connect James to her burial -- which would seem to have her dormition happen relatively quickly, as James is the first Apostle martyred.

  2. Rev. Brown, I'd have to check, but I don't think it was very soon after our Lord's crucifixion and resurrection since Mary accompanied John the Theologian to Ephesus and spent awhile there. I don't know when James was martyred but unless I'm mistaken it happened during the reign of the Herod Agrippa around 50 A.D. Let me get back to you.

  3. See, that's what had me wondering. . . James' death is right around 50A.D., and the disciples scatter after that (so John would head towards Ephesus after that)... which means James wouldn't have been around. (The only reason this pops up is because on the Western Calendar we just celebrated the Feast of St. James, so this is fresh in my head -- and now to work on the Sermon for August 15th - Mary, Mother of our Lord).

  4. The Proto-Evangelion of James says that all the apostles, save Thomas, were present for the death of our Lady, that though scattered, they were brought back by a whirlwind for this great event.