On Sunday, August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. This key event of our Lord’s Ministry is recorded by the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three describe the Transfiguration as taking place on a mountain, Mount Tabor by tradition. The mountain was a most appropriate setting since our Lord frequently went up onto a mountain to pray. St. Luke relates that the Transfiguration began with prayer:
“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9: 28-29)
Within Christian tradition biblical ascents and encounters with God upon the mountains, or any efforts recorded in Scripture to follow the divine will, are often viewed allegorically (symbolically) as signs of man’s spiritual struggle, his movement toward the Creator. Mountains are further associated with divine revelation, God’s presence. We only need to remember Moses’ vision on Mount Horeb (or Sinai) of the burning bush, at which time he was called by God to free the Israelites, and the divine name was revealed, “I am Who I am…” We can also recall Moses receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb.
Liturgical hymns, as well as Old Testament readings appointed for the feast, recall these specific episodes from Exodus and 1 Kings. In the New Testament, however, on Tabor a greater experience is conferred, prefigured by prior events. So, whereas the Law was given to the Jews on tablets of stone, the chief disciples beheld the divinity of the One Who is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets. Whereas Moses received a written word and was told that he could not see the face of God, the Lord’s glory was revealed to the apostles in the face of the Living Word, Jesus of Nazareth. And whereas God was found in “the still, small voice” heard by Elijah, so His divine glory is found in those who are humble and still of heart, unassuming with regard to worldly glory, in imitation of the Incarnate, Transfigured Christ.
The exalted vision of Christ’s divinity on Tabor, indicating also the glory to which man is called; the connection between Tabor and God’s prior appearances to Moses and Elijah; and the Tabor experience as preparation for the apostles to behold the Lord’s crucifixion; these themes make up the focus of the Church’s worship on Transfiguration. As one example from Vespers:
He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am Who I am,”
Was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples.
In His own Person He showed them the nature of mankind
Arrayed in the original beauty of the Image.
Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace,
He made them partakers of the gladness,
Foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.
(1st Aposticha verse)
The Evangelists indicate with one accord, that only Peter, James and John were privy to Christ’s glorious revelation. They were part of the inner circle of disciples. The fact that they were chosen to be witnesses of this sight teaches us – at least symbolically – that, “the privilege of contemplating God, and of entering into the joy of the Transfiguration is reserved for those who have followed the Master, long and faithfully…” (Anthony Bloom).
The writers of the Gospel describe the vision on the mountain as including Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. The two Old Testament figures represent respectively the dead and the living of whom Christ is Lord, as well as the Law and prophets, of which Christ is the fulfillment. The fact that Moses and Elijah were witnesses to Christ’s Transfiguration influenced the Church’s use of readings from Exodus and 1 Kings.
On Tabor, the Father bore witness to His Son, and the Spirit was also revealed, indicated by the bright cloud overshadowing those present. Transfiguration therefore is looked upon as a great Theophany, similar to our Lord’s baptism, at which time the Holy Trinity was made manifest. The Transfiguration is a revelation of Christ’s glory as God, but as mentioned, a sign (a promise) of the glory for which man was created, and to which he is called through the Incarnate Lord.
And then, all three of the Synoptic Gospels tell us that immediately prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, that there are some standing here who will not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Generally, the Church affirms that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of that prophecy.
As the Church celebrates this event in Jesus’ life – marking its significance as both a revelation of divine glory, and of man’s destiny in Christ – Christians would do well to reflect upon the fact that Peter, James and John were prepared by our Lord for this experience. They were among the first of the chosen apostles; they were with Jesus from the beginning; they witnessed miracles and heard our Lord’s teachings; they saw how Jesus interacted and dealt with people; and in addition, they were familiar with the Law and the prophets.
All of that would have meant little, however, had they not been receptive to guidance and instruction. Their steadfast endurance led to the experience of greater realities, including the vision on Tabor. So it is with members of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe in a God Who at each moment is intimately involved with His creation, engaged in human affairs. It behooves each person to remember the tangible preparation for a higher way of life that Jesus gave to His disciples, and then to realize that He does the same with His followers in every generation. With each personal encounter, each situation, each moment of both faith and doubt, Christ is present strengthening and fashioning His people into recognizable icons of Himself.
More specifically the Church calls people to ascetic efforts as preparation for their own encounters with God experienced in daily life, as well as through prayer and the liturgical life of the Church. Striving toward inner purity (repentance) is requisite for those who desire to approach the Lord. Commenting on the Israelites drawing near to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), and God’s insistence on preparation for such an approach, St. Gregory of Nyssa likens the Jews’ external efforts (i.e. sexual abstinence and the washing of clothes) to the need for a clean heart, a virtuous life on the part of those who desire to come close to God.
…The man who would approach the contemplation of truth must cleanse himself and remove all impurity from both soul and body, so as to be completely stainless and pure in both. Our exterior behavior must correspond to the inner state of our soul, that we might be pure for Him Who sees the interior. Hence by the divine command, before climbing the mountain we must wash our garments; and here clothing is a symbol for the external virtuousness of our lives…When this has been done…the soul begins its ascent to higher truth…
(From Glory to Glory, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY., 2001, pages 97, 98).
And finally, as St. Innocent of Alaska specifically taught – while distinguishing inner from outer Crosses – our Lord calls His disciples to bear everything with faith and love, as He Himself bore it all for the sins of the world. If Christians can affirm, if they can recognize the benefit of faithful endurance, indeed the glory of the Cross, then they will be worthy to see also the glory of Tabor, the light and life of the Kingdom of God.