The Transfiguration of Christ

Transfiguration of Christ

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


By Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos [source: The Feasts of the Lord]

The Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor took place a little before His Passion, forty days before the passion and crucifixion, to be exact. Moreover, the purpose of the Transfiguration was to confirm to the Disciples in the faith that this was the Son of God, so that they would not be weakened by the things that they would see in those days. This truth is seen in the troparia (hymns) of the Church. In one we sing: "Before Thy precious Cross and Thy Passion, taking with Thee those among Thy holy disciples that Thou hadst specially chosen, Thou hast gone up, O Master, into Mount Tabor". And in the Kontakion of the feast it says: "...that when they saw Thee crucified, they might know that Thy suffering was voluntary, and might proclaim unto the world that Thou art truly the Brightness of the Father".

So, canonically Christ's Transfiguration should be celebrated in the month of March, corresponding to the time of the year when Pascha is celebrated. But since this time coincides with the period of Lent and could not be celebrated festively, the feast was transferred to the sixth of August. This date is not chosen at random, as it is forty days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September) which is similar to Holy and Great Friday.

The events of the feast are preserved in all three synoptic Gospels, for the Transfiguration is a central event in the life of Christ and contains many theological messages. (St. Matthew 17:1-8; St. Mark 9:2-8; St. Luke 9:18-36).

The Transfiguration of Christ is a crowning event in the life of the Disciples which relates to Pentecost, for it is great experience of God. To be sure, there is a difference between the Transfiguration and Pentecost, in that at the Transfiguration the Disciples were not yet members of the deified Body of Christ, as they became on the day of Pentecost.

However, there are also other events in the life of Christ which constitute a transfiguration, when the Disciples were granted to see some rays of Christ's Divinity. I shall cite two of these events.

One was the calling of the two Disciples to whom Saint John the Baptist pointed out Christ. The Disciples had no sooner heard the Worthy Forerunner saying: "Behold the Lamb of God", than they followed Him. And then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, asked them what they were looking for. To their question about where He was staying, He invited them to come with Him. And the Evangelist notes: "So they went and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day" (St. John 1:35-39). The fact that Christ turned His face and saw them means that He revealed the glory of His face to a small degree, which prompted them to want to stay with Him. Christ's home is the light, for He is God "dwelling in unapproachable light", and the fact that they stayed in His home that day means that the Disciples stayed a whole day in the vision of the uncreated light.

The second case is the calling of the Disciples, among whom was the Apostle Peter. Christ met them after the unsuccessful fishing and told them to cast their nets into the lake again. When against all expectation they caught many fish, Simon Peter threw himself as the feet of Christ and said: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." The Apostle Peter's sense that he was a sinful man was a fruit and result of the amazement, and of the ecstasy in which He was left by the miracle. It was an experience of the Glory of God, the sense of the presence of the Son and Word (Logos) of God, but also of his own impurity, his sinfulness.

The word 'transfiguration' ('metamorphosis') means change of form. In other words, at a certain moment Christ revealed what He had been concealing. He manifested the glory of the Divinity with which His human nature was united from the moment of His conception in the womb of the Theotokos. Through His great love for mankind Christ concealed what He always had, in order that the Disciples should not "be burned" by reason of their unfitness, because they had not yet been prepared.

At that moment Christ was transfigured, "not assuming something that He was not, nor changing into something which He was not, but manifesting what He was to His own Disciples" (St. John of Damascus). Essentially, when we speak of the Transfiguration we mean that He manifested the glory of His divinity, which He kept unseen in the visible body, because men were not able to face it.

Saint John Chrysostom says that Christ did not show His whole divinity, but a small energy of it. And He did this, on the one hand, to give information about what the divine glory of the kingdom is like, and on the other hand, out of love for mankind, lest they even lost their life on seeing the full glory of the Godhead. Therefore the mystery of the Transfiguration is both a revelation of the Kingdom and an expression of God's love and His philanthropy.

Christ's Transfiguration took place during the day. The Disciples saw two suns, sensory and noetic. In one of his troparia St. John of Damascus writes: "The visible sun was eclipsed by the rays of the divinity when it saw Thee transfigured on Mount Tabor, O My Jesus." That is to say, the sun of our senses was hidden and made to disappear by the rays of Christ's divinity.

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite says that on Mt. Tabor at the time of Christ's Transfiguration there was a great and frightful sight. First, because two suns rose, something which creation had never known. It is not a question of one sun, the so-called parhelion, the image of the sun appearing before sunrise and then the real sun appearing, but of two suns, and indeed at midday. Secondly, it is a frightful sight because one is the sun known to our senses rising from the Heavens and the other is intelligible, rising from the earth.

Christ's Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor took place after a proclamation by Christ. "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the Kingdom of God present with power" (St. Mark 9:1). And at once the Evangelist describes the event of the Transfiguration which happened six days later, for, as we see in the Gospels, no other event was placed between them, neither teaching nor miracle. This means that these days between Christ's word and His Transfiguration were spent in silence.

In what He says Christ connects the Kingdom with vision: "Till they see the Kingdom". It is a matter of seeing the uncreated light. The word 'come" does not mean that the Kingdom is coming from somewhere else, but it points to its being manifested, because wherever Christ is, the Kingdom is, for it is not a matter of any location, but of a manifestation. And this manifestation-revelation happens through the energy of the All-Holy Spirit. It points to the "with power." Man cannot see the glory of God unless his psychosomatic senses are empowered by the uncreated energy of God.

The Church and the Divine Eucharist can be called the Kingdom of God, if those who live in it attain the vision of the uncreated glory of God, which is the real Kingdom. If we speak of the Church and of the Kingdom of God and do not link them with seeing God, the vision of the uncreated light, we are making a theological error Moreover, the Sacraments of the Church manifest the Kingdom of God and guide man to it, precisely because they are very closely connected with the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God.

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite points out the difference between the shining of the sun of the senses and the illumination of the Sun of Righteousness. The light of the sensory sun, since it is temporal, comes to the eyes of man through time, that is to say, little by little and not all at once. Thus from dawn it changes to east, and from east to noon and from there to west. There is a change of illumination and it is given at corresponding times. But the same thing did not happen with the Disciples on Mt. Tabor. Since the Light of Righteousness is uncreated and transcends time, it did not shine on the Apostles "little by little, advancing and shifting, but directly and all at once."

This light of God works in two ways, illuminating and burning, according to the degree of the person's spiritual condition. According to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, coal too has its earthly and material aspect, since it becomes ash, but also its illuminating and fiery aspect. So in some cases it burns and in other cases it illuminates. This happens also with the light of God in the human nature of the Word (Logos). Christ is like a burning coal, because He has human nature, the material, but also the light of Deity. However, this is not what happens with coal, which does not give light to those who are far away but burns those who are near, but is otherwise something else. He becomes light for those who are pure form sin and fire for those who are impure.

Just as at the moment of Christ's baptism there is also a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, so also at the moment of His Transfiguration on Tabor the Trinitarian God is revealed. The second person of the Holy Trinity, Who was made man, shone before the Disciples and manifested the glory of His Divinity. The Father affirmed that this was His Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit was the bright cloud which overshadowed the Disciples.

The Trinitarian God is light, for light is the shining of the divinity, the vision of the grace of the Trinitarian God. The Church sings: "Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy light, O Word…we have seen the Father as light and the Spirit as light…" The face of Christ shone like the sun, the voice of the Father was a very powerful vision of light, and so, as Saint Gregory Palamas says, 'just then the Disciples were unable to bear it and they fell to the ground, and the cloud, which was the presence of the Holy Spirit, was bright.' Everything expresses the glory of the divinity.

It is known from the patristic tradition that it is those who are in a state of vision of God who partake of God's energy, for the revelation of God to impure people is punishment and condemnation. Thus, also at Christ's Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear, not only because they are representatives of the law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, but because they both were men who saw God during their lives.

At the great event of the Transfiguration of Christ there were only three Disciples present: Peter, James and John. These three persons are included by Christ also at all the great moments, such as the raising of the daughter of Jairus and his prayer in Gethsemane. The three disciples had some qualifications which made them fit to share this vision of God. All three were superior to the other disciples (St. John Chrysostom). Their superiority is seen in the fact that Peter loved Christ very much with the warmth of faith, John was very much loved by Christ because of his superlative virtues, and James because he was extremely disagreeable to the Jews, for which Herod even killed him (Zygavinos).

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George