It is fitting that the Church chooses to place the liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the middle of the summer; that time when the light of the sun is so plentiful. St. Maximus the Confessor notes, "The sun that rises and illumines the world makes itself visible as well as the objects it illumines. It is the same with the Sun of righteousness."
The Transfiguration of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ (Matthew 17:1-9) is one of the twelve great feasts of our Lord commemorated in the Church and is an opportunity for us to reflect on the themes of light, sight, and love and how they are intimately connected. What does this strange and mysterious event in the Gospels tell us about our lives as Christians? What does the light of the Transfiguration teach us about Jesus Christ, our neighbor, and the telos of our lives?
In St. John's first epistle, we are told that "God is light and in Him there is no darkness." (1 John 1:5). It is no wonder how St. John can make such a bold statement since he was one of the three disciples (Sts. Peter and James being the other two) who saw the Transfiguration first-hand. But what does it mean to say that 'God is light'? It is to say, as Georgios Mantzaridis notes, that the light that the disciples saw was "the natural brightness of His divinity...the radiance that was His from the beginning." While we can never see or know the Essence of God, we can see and know Him as He manifests Himself to us in His Uncreated Energies. This is important because, as St. Basil the Great tells us, "we come to believe in the Essence by virtue of the Energies."
When we think of Christ being transfigured, it is tempting to believe that He somehow changed. But this is far from the truth. St. Gregory Palamas says that "Jesus is transfigured, not by assuming what He did not posses, nor by changing into what He was not, but by revealing Himself as He was to His disciples, opening their eyes and healing their blindness."
Like scales falling from their eyes, the disciples saw, for a few brief moments, Jesus as He really is and always was during his earthly ministry-the perfect union of two natures in one person "without confusion or division." In fact, one could say that the Transfiguration is the transformation of the disciples more than anything else.
Throughout the history of the Church, we see that those who see the Uncreated Energies of God are themselves transfigured into light. The blinders of sin, self-centeredness, and short-sightedness are lifted through repentance and the Christian sees his goal-union with God. "Just as many lamps are lit from one flame," says St. Macarius, "so the bodies of the saints, being members of Christ must be what Christ is and nothing else...our human nature is transfigured into the power of God, and it is kindled into fire and light."
But how does this kindling take place? One of the troparians of the feast gives us a hint. It says, "You were transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God, revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it." As far as they could bear it. One of the many challenges this feast poses to us is this: how far are we willing to bear the light of Christ? How seriously do we wish to throw off the scales of sin from our eyes (Heb 12:1b) so that, like the disciples, hesychasts, and saints, we might begin to see God for who He is? "See! The Lord is our mirror: open your eyes, look into it, learn what your faces are like!" (Odes of Solomon).
Is this our prayer? If so, we must want to see reality for what it is, our lives for what they are, and our neighbor for who he is. This kind of light, this type of revelation is a gift of God and thus requires our assent before it can come about in our lives. Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it well when he says that "faith is also a plea for the everlasting light, a thirst for this illumination and transfiguration... 'Lord it is good for us to be here!' If only these words might become ours, if only they might become our soul's answer to the gift of divine light, if only our prayer might become the prayer for transfiguration."
Participating in the sacramental life of the Church, keeping a rule of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy will make our souls and bodies light, and open the eyes of our heart to God's grace and light.
One of the beautiful moments of the Presanctified Liturgy occurs when the priest comes forth from the Royal Doors and, lifting a large candle, proclaims, "The light of Christ illumines all mankind!" Met. Anthony Bloom (of blessed memory), reflecting on a particular icon of the Transfiguration, remarks that "these rays of divine light touch things and sink into them, penetrate them, touch something within them so that from the core of these things, of all things created, the same light reflects and shines back as though the divine life quickens the capabilities, the potentialities of all things..."
How difficult it is to see this potentiality in our neighbor! How easy it is to open our eyes, not to the image of God in those around us, but only to the sins and human foibles we so readily want to see! The Feast of the Transfiguration shows us a different way; a vision of the human person that neither subsumes him into nor isolates him from his Creator.
Bishop Kallistos Ware has a beautiful way of looking at it. He says that "[in] the Transfiguration each person and each thing stand out in full distinctness, in their unique and unrepeatable essence; and at the same time each person and each thing transparent, to reveal the divine beyond and within them."
In "The Weight of Glory", C.S. Lewis says something similar. "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."
Which creature do we wish to be ourselves? One who is filled with light, overflowing with the love of God, seeing the image of God in others? Or one who voluntarily shuts his eyes to the light, refuses communion with God, and thus only sees darkness--the sin and isolation of his own soul projected onto all he experiences. "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)
Let us celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration by asking the Lord to grant us purification of heart since without this we will not rejoice in the light of Christ's resurrection. "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." (Matt 7:8). Amen.