Monday, August 6, 2012

The Great Feast of our Lord's Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor

On August 6, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt. Tabor in the presence of His apostles, Sts. Peter, James and John.  This feast is of particular importance in the Eastern Church, which informs much of her theology particularly with regards to how it distinguishes  between the essence and energies of God and the deification of Man (theosis).  Unfortunately, though celebrated by the Roman Church also on this day and nominally celebrated by the Lutheran churches before Lent begins (I don't recall it ever being celebrated while I was Lutheran), those churches' celebrations seem to mark  only the event than its overall importance in the Christian life. In short, the Transfiguration is an historical event that manifests Christ's glory, but it is also an end to strive for in our lives, a transfiguration of our very self.

This feast, primarily, should fill the Christian with not only awe before the Godhead, but humility.  We pray, in the Apolytikion for this feast that Christ revealed His glory to the disciples as much as they were able.  And they weren't able to endure his glory for very long.  In the icons of this event, the three disciples who were present could not look at the manifestation of glory for very long at all. They are all seen turning away from the uncreated light which proceeds internally from Christ.  That light is one of  His uncreated energies.  We should be mindful of how the glory of God, when it is manifested in the Old(er) Testament, is described.  In the Hebrew, the word  which describes God's glory is best translated as oppressive or burdensome.  It weighs one down because of its majesty.  Peter, James and John were not able to endure the light for very long at all, weighed down because of the brightness and its majesty.  The glory of God, in its truest form, is not something we can endure and it is not something that we can only casually observe.  The true glory of God takes time to become manifested towards us and, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear, we should recoil in dread when it is manifested.  Entering into a church does not equate to entering into God's glory.  God's glory is there yes, but to truly experience it is to be brought to the ground because of it.  Since most of us can only experience God's glory mystically, such is why we make bows and prostration to the ground so routinely during Orthodox services.

Notice, too, that the Transfiguration only occurred after Jesus prayed.  We do not know how long he prayed, though we may assume it was for quite some time as the three disciples who accompanied Him fell asleep but awoke in time to see Christ transfigured.  How many of Jesus manifestations of glory occurred only after prayer?   I don't know, but this occasion, certainly and also before His willing Passion.  For us to enter into theosis or deification requires prayer and a lot of it.  I'm certain that such is the reason that Orthodox liturgies and offices are the lengths that they are.  I know a lot of Orthodox Christians who wish that the services be radically reduced in time, but the attainment of the Kingdom does not happen with only haphazard phrase with a timestamp on it.  (My wife has often joked about putting a dial on the icon of the Mystical Supper which stands over the Royal doors so people know how much longer the liturgy will last).

Finally, the Transfiguration of our very selves can only be accomplished by the possession of three virtues.  Have you ever wondered why our Lord chose only Sts. Peter, James and John (the two sons of  Zebedee) to accompany Him when He prayed alone?  I have.  I found out the answer today in the sermon.  According to many of the fathers, St. Peter is the icon of faith.  Contextually, the description of the Transfiguration is very short, but if you read around it (both before and after), you will find that its occurrence in the Gospels is well timed.  St. Peter had just made the confession to Christ that He is the Son of the Living God to which Christ responds that upon this confession, this rock, Christ's Church shall be built.  After that passage, Jesus prophesies His Death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection, also at the heart of the faith.  St. James is the icon of hope.  He was the first of Christ's disciples to be martyred and did so in the hope of the Resurrection.  St. John is the icon of charity or love.  John's Gospel, unlike the synoptic Gospels, vividly portrays God's love for us throughout, but nowhere so poignantly than in the famous 3:16.  Faith, hope and charity, the virtues St. Paul describes as the greatest virtues, are all required before Transfiguration of the self.

I love this feast day.  With transfiguration comes renewal and rebirth.  Such is why we bless grapes on this day, a symbol of the fruits produced from the earth.  May fruit blossom forth in our celebration of this great feast so that one day we may be transfigured.

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