August 2, 2010 Length: 51:34
On August 6, we will celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, and Fr. Thomas Hopko helps us understand the pivotal nature of this event in Christian history.
If we read the synoptic gospels—that means the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called synoptic because they kind of look the same and they have the same material; there’s always the synoptic question, how they are interrelated, and the scholars can debate that, but in any case, we have those three gospels: Mark and Matthew and Luke—I honestly believe, personally, that they pattern the Old Testament genre. I think Mark is a kind of an apocalyptic writing; Matthew is certainly the Christian Torah, the instruction, patterned after the Pentateuch; and Luke-Acts, the two-volume work there by St. Luke, it’s the chronicles, it’s the history, it’s the universal understanding of Christianity for the nations.
In any case, if you look at those three writings structurally, they have the same structure. We might even say—it’s possible to interpret it this way—that the structure is what is called chiastic. Chiastic means that you have a beginning, where the narration is set, and that that beginning is then concluded at the end of the work. Then you have a second part of the book, which in the synoptics would be the ministry of Jesus—the signs, the teaching, the activities that he performs, the powers that he shows. Then that of course would be picked up again in the dialogue with the leaders of the people at the end of the book, during the passion; the passion would be the parallel.
Then at the center of the book, if we did it simplistically, would be the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ. In Matthew it would be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And then you have the event of the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, on the feast of booths, the festival of tabernacles, in the presence of the pillars of the apostles—Peter, James, and John—so that the center point of Luke is the Transfiguration. The beginning leads up to the Transfiguration, and then the Transfiguration inaugurates the second part of the evangelical narrative, and ending with the passion, the crucifixion, the death, and, of course, the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Let’s take a look at that in a little more detail. First of all, Mark begins immediately with the baptism of Jesus and plunges in the very first chapter into his public ministry. Matthew and Luke begin with infancy narratives, narratives about the birth of Jesus. They are essentially the same, but really very, very different in their catechetical, doctrinal, and theological purposes. In fact, I think they can’t be harmonized historically; it’s pretty hard to do that.
Matthew is Judaic: the annunciation is to Joseph, it takes place in Judea, Jesus is the new Moses, they take him to Egypt, they come back out, they try to kill the children. You have all of those prophetic lines of the Old Testament being quoted by Matthew, practically every few sentences you have a sentence referring… “as it was written in Isaiah, as it was written in the prophets,” and so on. Then you have the public ministry of Jesus, where you have the Sermon on the Mountain in Matthew, which is a kind of new instruction, a new Torah, interpreting the law of Moses. Then you have Jesus doing the messianic signs of his ministry, showing his powers as the Son of God, coming in conflict with the people. Then you have the center, the high point of the narrative, where he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
You have the same thing in Mark. I mention Mark. You have the baptism, the ministry, and then the Transfiguration.
Then in Luke you have the infancy narrative of Luke: it takes place in Galilee, the annunciation to Mary. You have the five early Christian hymns there in the first two chapters of Luke: the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, the Gloria, the Ave Maria. You have all that in Luke, Mary pondering these things in her heart. You have Jesus fulfilling the Law: circumcision and the 40-day purification rites in the temple. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three of them, you have the baptism of Jesus beginning the public ministry. In all three of them you have him going into the desert to be tried and tested for 40 days and 40 nights, like the Israelites were in the desert for 40 years wandering. Then you have his public ministry. And then in Luke, right in the middle again, you have this event of the Transfiguration of Christ.
Now, in all three… And by the way, in St. John’s gospel you don’t have the Transfiguration of Christ, and you have a very different literary style and a very different literary intent. The purpose of John is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In any case, getting back to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this is how, very quickly, it’s set up. Jesus is born, Jesus is raised, Jesus appears in public, John the Baptist prepares the way. In all three gospels, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. It shows that he is the Son of the Father, the beloved and the chosen. It shows that he is one of the blessed Trinity, the voice of the Father bearing witness to his Son, the Holy Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove. It’s different in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but it’s essentially the same.
Then you have the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Again, very brief in Mark, longer in Luke and Matthew, but in a little different order. And then you have the public ministry of Jesus.
Now, very simply put, Jesus says a lot of things and does a lot of things in his public ministry. He says a lot of things—he interprets the law, he forgives sins, he casts out demons, he has the prerogatives of God, he acts like God himself—he never says, “The word of God came to Jesus, son of Joseph”—he speaks like one with authority, greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple. I mean you just have this “Who is this man, anyway? Who is this man?” Who can say the things that he says? Your sins are forgiven and so on—and who can also do the things that he does? Who can heal all manner of diseases by his own action: lunatics, epileptics, paralytics, blind, lame, deaf, halt—he heals them all, so to speak. He casts out demons, he calms the winds, he walks on the water, he sets a table in the wilderness—that’s in all three gospels: feeding the multitudes in the wilderness, two times actually: once in Judaic territory, once in Gentile territory: the seven baskets, the twelve baskets.
And then you have what we want today. He asks this question. In Mark, in the gospel according to St. Mark, it’s very simple, like Mark’s gospel is, very abrupt, and very sharp. This is how it says it in Mark.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesaria Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him: “John the Baptist.” Or others: “Elijah.” And others: “One of the propehts.” And he asked them, “And who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And then he charged them to tell no one about him.
Very brief, but then in Mark, just like in Matthew and Luke, the narrative continues, and it says from that moment on—not before, but after—he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, be killed, after three days rise again. He said this plainly. Peter took him and began to rebuke him, but, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” He calls the chief apostle “Satan.” Archbishop Demetrios, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, when he taught at Harvard, he wrote a book on St. Mark’s gospel called Passion and Authority, and he says, “The only one that the Lord ever called ‘Satan’ was the Lord’s apostle, Peter.”
Then he launches into: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, follow me. He who would save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s sake will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his own life, or his own soul? What can a man give in return for his life, his psyche, or his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Then he says to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God has come with power.” And then it says, “After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, led them up to a high mountain, apart by themselves, and was transfigured before them.” That’s how we get to the Transfiguration. Jesus asks who he is, they say he’s the Christ, he says that he has to suffer and die and be crucified, Peter says no, he says yes, and then he teaches how the disciples and apostles will also have to suffer with him and not be ashamed of him and die with him, take up their crosses with him in order to enter his glory. And then he says some will actually see the kingdom come in power before they die themselves. And then you have the Transfiguration.
In Luke[‘s] gospel, it’s very similar, very similar to Mark, and this is how it’s given to us in the gospel of St. Luke. It says, “Now it happened that as he was praying alone with his disciples”—his disciples were with him—“he asked them…” There’s no Ceasarea Philippi; they’re not walking; they’re praying alone, apart from the people, in Luke, and then Jesus asks them:
“Who do the people say that I am?” And they answered: “John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others say one of the prophets has risen.” Then he says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” And he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
And then there’s no objection by Peter; there’s nothing about Satan in Luke. In general, Luke is a kinder person, especially to St. Peter, than Mark is, and Matthew. But then you have Jesus does give the teaching in Luke:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily (you have “daily” in Luke) and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit himself?”
It doesn’t say “soul” or “life”; it says “himself.”
“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father with all of the holy angels. But I tell you, truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
Then in Luke it says, “Now, about eight days after these things, he took with him Peter and John and James and went up to the mountain to pray, and as he was praying the appearance of his countenance was transfigured, was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” Then you have the Transfiguration.
Now, Matthew is a little bit longer and a little more detailed than Mark and Luke. It’s in the 16th chapter in Matthew, but it’s the same scenario. Jesus is saying things, doing things. He asks the disciples who do the people say he is, or “Who do you say that I am?” And then it proceeds just like in Mark and Luke. So let’s read it here in Matthew, where you have a greater detail.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
So you see the little difference there.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It’s interesting that in Mark, Peter simply says, “You are the Christ.” In Luke, he says, “You are the Christ of God.” But in Matthew, you have: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Mark, no one confesses Jesus as Son of God until the end of the gospel. When Jesus is on the cross, the centurion says, the soldier says, “Truly, this was God’s Son.” But no living person calls Jesus “Son of God” in Mark, only the devils do, and then the soldier at the end.
But here you have Peter saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now, Jesus, he elaborates on that in Matthew.
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah (son of Jonah or son of John), for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
So Jesus says very specifically: This is a revelation of God. You didn’t figure this out. You didn’t come to it by flesh and blood. That means in any human way. That hasn’t done it. “My Father who is in heaven has revealed this to you.” So he calls God his Father, as he always does in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact, in the gospels, Jesus never calls God anything other than the Father, Father, or my Father. Always. But he says, “My Father in heaven revealed this to you.” And then you have: “And I tell you, you are Peter”—petros, which in Greek means a stone or a rock—“and on this rock…”—petra in Greek, and in the Aramaic Hebrew it would be Cephas or Kephas—I don’t know the proper way of saying it, but it means rock). “You are rock, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
And it says in the RSV: “And the powers of death…”; in the King James, it says “gates of Hell,” but actually RSV is better, because it’s not Hell, it’s Sheol. “The gates of Hades,” it says, “shall not prevail against it,” meaning the Church. This is only one of the two places in the entire four gospels where you have the word “church.” Both times, the word only appears in Matthew. This is one place; the other place is when he says if a person doesn’t agree and you bring two or three and he still doesn’t agree, bring them to the Church, the Ecclesia, the Qahal of God, the assembly of God. But here you have: “I will build my Church. I will establish my Church, and the powers or the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Then he says to Peter, “I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
So here you have Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter. Actually, in John’s gospel he gives the same power of keys to all of the disciples. He does that on the Easter night, the day of resurrection in the evening. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.” So it’s not given at all exclusively to Peter. The Roman Catholics traditionally would interpret this text as some conferring of some special authority to Peter that then is transferred to the bishop of Rome and the pope of Rome and then ultimately, by the 19th century he becomes infallible and the Supreme Pontiff and the one with episcopal jurisdiction over all the Christians in the world including all the other bishops. Orthodoxy does not accept this. The early Church never taught such a thing.
But here Peter is the rock; he is the center. But the rock is his confession of faith. All the holy Fathers say this. The rock upon which the Church is established and built and founded is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God—and on those who would confess it. St. Cyprian of Carthage, for example, he said everyone who confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, becomes a rock, becomes a Peter. Then he said every single bishop is a Peter, a successor of Peter. Every single bishop is a successor to the Twelve Apostles. So every bishop sits on the throne of Peter: not just the bishop of Rome; all the bishops. And they have that authority to bind and loose the sins of men as successors of the apostle, because of the Holy Spirit that is given to them for the sake of the Church. That’s the ancient understanding of this text relative to Peter and his authority.
But what we want to see here now is not that issue so much, but the issue that he teaches this and then he tells them not to tell anybody. Don’t tell anybody he was the Christ. But then you have in Matthew the same as in Mark and Luke.
From that time, from that moment—not before, but only after the confession that he is the Christ—Jesus began—notice that word: he began—to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying—you have this in Mark but not in Luke—“God forbid, Lord. This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus turned and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” Just like in Mark. “You are a hindrance, a skandalon, a scandal, a stumbling block to me, for you are not on the side of God, but of man. So anyone who says that the Christ should not be crucified is on the side of the devil, not God.
Then you have the same thing as in Mark and Luke:
Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life, or his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his life, or his soul? For the Son of man is to come with his angels and the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”
And that’s a very clear biblical teaching. You have it in Proverbs, you have it in the Psalms, you have it in St. Paul: that on the day of judgment we will answer for what we have done, our kat’ ergon, according to work. The judgment is according to works; it’s not according to faith. Yeah, it’s according to faith, but faith is proved by works. If there’s no works, then a person doesn’t have faith. If a person has faith, then there’s works, and the works are what prove it. So we’re going to answer for what we have done. This is also in the Apocalypse; it’s in the book of Revelation. It’s a clear biblical teaching: psalms, prophets, gospel, Paul, apocalypse. It’s there everyplace. It’s written in the book what we have done. We will receive according to our work.
Then it says, “Truly, or amen I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Then it says:
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up to a high mountain apart, and he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to him, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. It is well that we are here. If you wish, I will make three booths, tabernacles, here: one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.”
He was still speaking when, lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, or My Son, my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him. Obey him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and they were filled with fear, filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise and have no fear. Don’t be afraid.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”
That’s how we have it in Matthew. That’s the Transfiguration in Matthew. In Mark, it’s almost exactly the same, and I’ll read it. It’s good to read.
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, led them up to a high mountain apart by themselves, and he was transfigured before them. His garments became glistening intensely white as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses, and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, or Rabbi, Teacher, it is well that we are here (or in King James: it is good for us to be here). Let us make three booths (skenia or tabernacles): one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.
And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud: “This is my beloved Son (or this is my Son, my beloved). Listen to him. Obey him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them, but only Jesus. And as they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. (Then it even says:) So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
Now Luke is a little bit different, so let’s read how this same narrative is given in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The first difference that we see in St. Luke is that it says, “After eight days.” In Mark and Matthew, it says, “After six days”; in Luke it says, “After eight days.” What are these six or eight days after? What are they after? Well, it could be that it’s after the confession; it’s after the confession of Peter. But most likely it could be that it was during the octave of the festival of booths, that all this took place during the festival of booths, the feast of tabernacles in the Old Testament. Mark and Matthew say six; Luke says eight. Probably it simply means depending how you count them. If you count the first day as one and the last day as eight, you’ll have eight; but if you just count from the first and not include it, and to the last, and not include it, then of course you have six. So it basically means the same thing, six or eight, it probably amounts in fact to the same thing.
When in Luke’s gopsel, however, they go on to the mountain, you have a little bit more detail even than Mark and even Matthew. This is what you have in Luke:
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, or changed or transfigured. And his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him: Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his—in the RSV it says—departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Actually the word in Greek there, very, very interesting, is “exodus.” [They] spoke with him about his exodus, that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Of course, “exodus” is a loaded term. “Exodus” is connected with Pascha, Passover. It’s the deliverance from Egypt. It’s the most central saving event of the old covenant. So this means his exodus is going to be his death on the cross and resurrection, the exodus that he was to accomplish at Jerusalem, because he is the Kaine Pascha, he’s the new Passover. It’s the new covenant; it’s no longer Mosaic: it’s Christian; it’s in Christ. That’s a nice touch there. Then it says:
Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep.
Maybe they were celebrating the feast of booths too much! Like when they fell asleep in the Gethsemane garden, they were celebrating the Last Supper too much. They ate and drank too much. But anyway, it says they were heavy with sleep.
And when they wakened, they saw his glory—(and that’s a technical term, too: Kabod Yahweh, splendor, shekinah, indwelling, and so on, tabernacling)—and the two men who stood with him. As the men were parting from him, Peter said to him, “Master, it is well that we are here. (Or, again, it is good for us to be here.) Let us make three booths or tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” not knowing what he said.
And as he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud, and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my chosen. (Some texts say “beloved” also, like Matthew and Mark. Here it says “chosen” or “beloved.”) Listen to him. Obey him.” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
So the story is the same in the three gospels. It’s essentially the same. Little touches here and there: eight days in Luke, six days in Matthew and Mark; entering the cloud in Luke and Matthew, not in Mark; the word “exodus” being used in Luke—but in all three, it takes place on the feast of booths. Now, the feast of booths or the feast of tabernacles is one of the Mosaic feasts. It’s prescribed in the law of Moses, in Leviticus, in Exodus, and also in Deuteronomy. I’ll just read what Deuteronomy says. It’s in the Pentateuch. Here’s what Deuteronomy says in the 16th chapter.
You shall keep the feast of booths seven days. When you make your in-gathering from your threshing floor and your wine-press, you shall rejoice in your feast. You and your son and your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, the widow who are within your towns, for seven days you shall keep the feast of the Lord your God at the place which the Lord will choose, for the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.
So the feast of tabernacles was one of the major feasts of the Mosaic law, together with Pascha, Passover; together with Pentecost, the feast of the harvest, the seven-times-seven feast. Then you’ll have the festival of lights, atonement day, and so on. But here you have definitely the feast of booths, and certainly in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—this transfiguration takes place during the feast of booths. That is the reason why Peter says, “Let us build three booths for you, for Elijah, for Moses. It is good for us to be here. Let’s just stay here.”
The feast of booths was a harvest feast at first. It was simply celebrating the harvest and having the wine, and everybody would rejoice: men and women, slaves and menservants and maidservants, and pilgrims and sojourners, and everybody would rejoice together. But as all of the feasts of Yahweh in the Old Testament, it got connected with historical events and with eschatological events, in other words, the coming kingdom, the end of the world. Historically, it was connected with celebrating the victory of coming out of Egypt, entering the promised land, reaping the harvest, and rejoicing that God had saved them. But then that became an image of the future age that was expected, the age of the kingdom of God, the messianic age, when there would just be joy and gladness and eating and drinking with God in the kingdom that doesn’t have any end. So the festival of tabernacles came to be a prefigurative feast, where you anticipated what was happening in the future.
Here, of course, the Old Testament is much more future-oriented than past-, or at least equally futurely oriented as the past. All the past events are interpreted in view of what’s still to come, what’s still going to happen. So the Christians of course believe that the ultimate act of what was going to happen was the coming of the Word of God in human flesh, the Son of God as the Son of Mary, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, that he would be crucified, he would be raised, he would be glorified, he would be enthroned, and he would come again in glory to establish that ultimate tabernacling of God with man forever and ever in the kingdom that has no end.
What happens is the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prefigurative festival of booths or tabernacles, but then it itself comes as a prefiguration of the life of the kingdom to come when Christ comes again in glory.
In the narrative of the Transfiguration, what do you see? Well, you see the glorified Christ. He’s shining with the Kabod Yahweh, the doxa Theou. The shekinah is there, in his body, in his Person. His face is what shines. His body is what shines. His clothes are what shines. There’s a real metamorphosis. That’s what transfiguration is: a change of form. And Peter and James and John are the only three who are allowed to see it. And even on the Church’s icons, the transfiguration is in a mandorla, and so are Elijah and Moses, which means nobody could have been hiding on the mountain. They wouldn’t have seen anything. They wouldn’t have seen any light; they wouldn’t have seen anything. Only Peter, James, and John saw it.
And then they were frightened to death, and they had to be told, “Don’t be afraid.” If you look at the icons, they fall on their faces and they’re scared and they can’t look, but at the same time, they say, “It’s good for us to be here.” Peter, the spokesman: “It’s good. Let’s stay here forever. Let’s build three booths.” Because on the festival of booths, the Israelites would build booths where they would eat and drink for these seven days.
In fact, in Brooklyn, in New York City, I saw with my own eyes the Orthodox Jews who would build their booths on the fire escapes of the tenements in Brooklyn during this time of year, during the festival of Sukkoth, it’s called: Sukkoth, booths. They would build them, and they would go stay in them, and they would rejoice: they would party, party for a week, celebrating the blessings and the gifts of God and anticipating the coming kingdom that the Orthodox Jews were waiting for when the Messiah would come. So they would build those booths. That’s why Peter said, “Let’s build the booths! Let’s build the booths. You’ll get one, Moses will get one, Elijah will get one, and we’ll celebrate this glory forever.”
However, that can’t happen. That can’t happen, because even, as in Luke, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah about the exodus. It’s not over. This is only anticipatory to what’s going to happen when he is risen from the dead and is enthroned in glory at the right hand of the Father.
Why Moses and Elijah? Well, the Church services of Transfiguration say very clearly. Moses and Elijah were the two big figures of the old covenant. Moses stood for the Law; Elijah stood for the Prophets. Moses stood for the dead, because he was buried outside. He didn’t cross the Jordan; he [didn’t] enter the promised land. The Law can’t enter the promised land. He dies; he is buried. But Elijah doesn’t die. He’s taken up into heaven to show that Christ is the Lord of the living and the dead. And then Elijah stands for heaven, because he’s taken into the realm of God. Moses stands for earth, because he’s buried in the earth. The Law stands for the earth, because the Law can’t lead you into paradise; only the grace of God can. So Moses and Elijah here are symbolical figures.
They’re historical figures, but they’re symbolical figures, too. They stand for the completion of everything in Christ, the fulfillment. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He’s the Lord of heaven and earth and the living and the dead. He is God’s very own Son, the beloved and the chosen. And the very Kabod of God that Moses saw on the mountaintop and that Elijah entered into with the clouds and so on in the old covenant.
By the way, at the vigil of Transfiguration in church, that’s why the readings are about Moses being on the mountaintop and entering into the cloud, and his face was transfigured, and he was shining so brightly that when he came down he had to cover his face with a veil and so on. As St. Paul says in the Corinthian letter, “But now this shining light of God, the kabod, the glory, is apo tou prospou tou Kyriou, from the very face of Christ himself, the Lord.” And he is the source of that radiance. St. Paul will even say in the letter to [the] Hebrews, “He is the radiance of the Father’s glory, the apavgosma tes doxis tou Patros, the splendor of the glory of the Father, the exact image of the Father’s Person.” That’s who Jesus is. As it will say in the letter to [the] Hebrews, Jesus is so far superior to Moses as the owner of the house as to its builder and its tenant, as a son to a slave.
In any case, you have Moses and Elijah for very good reason, very good reason, and they appear there to show who Jesus is and what he’s going to do. But then it is still what he is going to do. Because they can’t stay there forever. They have to come down. And after the discourse and the conversation takes place, Peter, James, and John just see Jesus alone again, and he says, “Don’t tell anybody until the Son of God is risen.”
It’s interesting that before the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it says that Jesus, when he says he’s going to get crucified, he has to be raised and glorified, he says, “Some of you standing here will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God coming in power.” That led some scholars, like Albert Schweitzer and others to think that no one would see Jesus coming in power or the kingdom of God coming in power until the end of the world. But our ancient Christian exegesis, interpretation, says, well, in a certain sense that’s true, but some of us will see it before the end of the world.
Who are those who would see it? Well, Peter, James, and John see it on the Transfiguration mountain even before the crucifixion of Christ, before his passion. Then the apostles will see him risen from the dead after his passion. So they will see the kingdom of God coming in power in the Person of Christ: at the Transfiguration before the Passion, Peter, James, and John alone, and then the apostles and even more of the brethren will see the glorified, risen Christ after he is raised from the dead, after his passion. So they do see the kingdom of God coming in power. That’s, of course, what they preach and expect to come for everybody at the end of the ages.
In the Orthodox Church, this is what is said when this festival is celebrated, if you go and hear all the songs and the hymns and the canons and everything for the festival. Go to church on August 6. Go to the vigil on August 5. Go to vespers, listen to the readings, and you will see. What is sung is:
Thou wast transfigured on the mount, O Christ God, revealing thy glory to thy disciples as far as they could bear it. Let your everlasting light shine upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Theotokos, your holy divinized mother. Glory to you!
Then the kontakion:
On the mountain you were transfigured, O Christ God, revealing your glory to your disciples as far as they could see it, so that when they would behold you crucified, they would know that your suffering is voluntary, and would proclaim to the world: Truly you are the apavgosma tes doxis, truly you are the radiance of the Father, the radiance of the Father’s glory.
But that’s very important. It’s prefigurative; it’s preparatory. Before the passion, so that they would know it’s voluntary, that you really are God’s Son before you’re raised from the dead, and that you empty yourself and die and are crucified and killed and beaten and mocked and scourged and everything, executed in the most vile death, so that you could raise in glory and glorify and transfigure the entire world. This is what the festival is about.
On the festival in Church, which is still August 6; it’s still at the time of harvest… This is shown in the Orthodox Church, by the way, because the firstfruits are blessed on Transfiguration. If you go to any Orthodox church, they bless grapes—the vineyard, the vine; that’s the ultimate type of fruit symbol—but then all the fruits are brought: vegetables, apples. Some Orthodox won’t eat an apple until Transfiguration. But you have the blessing of the fruits in church. Sometimes it’s very beautiful. You have these fruits all over the place, and they’re blessed with prayers about the transfiguration of the universe at the end of the age when we can celebrate in glory all of the good gifts of God, all the fruits that God gives us, the physical ones, the fruits of the earth.
So you have that, but on the festival also, in addition to the reading about Moses going into the cloud on top of the mountain, and Elijah encountering the still, small voice that wasn’t in the thunder, wasn’t in the lightning, wasn’t in the fire, but it was a still, small voice, and therein was the Lord with Elijah, where they see the back-parts of God on the mountain, because God can’t show his face, and now he shows his face in the Person of his Son in the man, Jesus—all that is beautifully celebrated on the feast of the Transfiguration. At the vigil and at the liturgy, you have the readings from the New Testament. Matthew and Luke are read there; it might be Mark and Luke. Certainly, Luke is read at the Divine Liturgy. But you also have another reading from the New Testament that has to do with the Transfiguration. It’s from the second letter of Peter, 2 Peter, where the author—Peter; it’s put in the mouth of Peter, however it got constructed—Simon Peter, servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, he says that in Christ we become partakers of the divine nature. We escape corruption of the world. We enter into the glory of God. And then he speaks specifically about the Transfiguration, and this is what he says.
Therefore, I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body—
Actually, in Greek it says, “As long as I am in this tabernacle, as long as I am in this tent, in this booth”: it’s like a play on words because of the festival of booths.
—to arouse you by way of reminder. Since I know that the putting-off of my tent (my tabernacle, my booth) will be soon—(that means he’s going to die)—as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. (And then it says:) And I will see to it that after my departure (my exodus), after I leave and go from earth to heaven and from death to life, you may be able at any time to recall these things.
Then he says this:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the appearance (the dynamis and the parousia, the epiphania) of our Lord Jesus Christ. (The power and the coming, the power and the manifestation.) But we were eyewitnesses of his majesty, his greatness, his splendor, his highness.
For when he received honor and glory (thyme and doxa) from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the majestic glory, “This is my beloved Son” (or “My Son, my beloved”) with whom I am well-pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain, and we have the prophetic word made more sure. You would do well to pay attention to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, and until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.
First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men were moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God.
Or: “Moved by the Holy Spirit, holy men of God spoke.” It depends how you translate it, but he’s referring to the Transfiguration. He said: We saw it. We saw it. It says, “We heard this voice. We were with him on the holy mountain. We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So the letter of Peter in the New Testament testifies to the Transfiguration as the climactic central point of the gospels as given to us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Everything leads up to the Transfiguration. Christ shows who he is and that he must die. He must make his exodus. He speaks about the crucifixion. He reveals his glory. People see the glory of the kingdom. They come down from the mountain.
Then as one of my students once said: After that, it was all downhill. He enters into conflict with the leaders of the people, and ultimately he’s arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, reviled, scandalized, slandered—as a destroyer of the temple, as a blasphemer of God, as a corrupter of the people, as a Samaritan with a devil—and put to death. And then God raises him, glorifies him, and enthrones him in the heavens in a permanent state of transfiguration. Then those who belong to him, who are baptized into him, who are clothed with him, who are sealed with his spirit, who eat and drink of his body, broken, his blood, shed—they enter into the same transfiguration, too.
We have saints who were seen transfigured in glory. Many of the Desert Fathers were seen flaming and shining light, just like Moses and Elijah, like Jesus himself. St. Anthony the Great, for example, St. Arsenios, many. St. Seraphim in our own time was seen shining by Motovilov with the very light of God, completely transfigured. Starets Sophrony, Elder Sophrony, who someday will certainly be canonized a saint of our Church, he bears witness that he entered into that glory himself, and he knew at least six or seven other elders on Mount Athos who also shined with the uncreated light and knew the glory of God. Gregory Palamas, who also had this experience, he fought with the Western Church, saying this is real; this happens. If you are purified, if you live by faith, by grace, if you attain the Holy Spirit and live by the spirit, you yourself can be transfigured even before you die. It says in the Coptic Life of Anthony that they saw him shining and transfigured in his glorified body 105 years old even before he died, and he looked young and powerful and glorious and full of dynamis, power, from God, even in this flesh.
So all of this is real. This is what salvation is. But we should remember one final thing as we contemplate the Transfiguration. The world and humanity is not saved on the mount of Transfiguration, which traditionally was Tabor. Tabor and Hermon, you know. The world is not redeemed on Tabor. The world is not atoned and redeemed and deified and sanctified on the mount of Transfiguration; the world is redeemed and humanity is saved on Golgotha, the mountain of Golgotha, the place of the skull. Jesus redeems and saves and glorifies and deifies us by his crucifixion, not by his transfiguration: his crucifixion and his resurrection. He saves us by being crucified. The Transfiguration shows who he was and what was going to happen and that it was voluntary and he really is God’s Son, but it’s not the saving event in and of itself.
This is very important, perhaps more important for Orthodox than for any other people, because Orthodox like to get into the Transfiguration. We say, “We’re a Church of the Transfiguration; we’re not a Church of the Cross! We’re a Church of glory and sanctification and deification, not of redemption or atonement,” and so on. That’s just not true! That’s just plain silly. There is no glorification or transfiguration without atonement and redemption. None of this can take place without the cross. Jesus— God Almighty, cannot save us through his Son except through crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He’s got to take his body into Sheol and smash the gates of death and Hell so that the gates of Hell and Hades and Sheol cannot overcome the Church.
The Transfiguration is central and crucial, but it’s very important that it is penultimate; it is not ultimate. It is to be understood in terms of the passion, death, resurrection, glorification, and enthronement of Christ through what he suffered in the flesh. That’s why all the saints say it’s important that when he rises from the dead and is risen by God the Father that he shows the marks on his hands and in his side, that they testify that we are redeemed and saved and sanctified and glorified and deified on Golgotha through the Cross. The Transfiguration— and even the baptism in the Jordan prefigures the Transfiguration and the passion, because already when he’s baptized, he shows that he is the Son of God, but in the baptism he shows that he has to die. That’s what baptism means: the baptism in the Jordan, the Epiphany. But even in Luke’s gospel in the Transfiguration, he speaks about the exodus, that he has to die, and that you can’t stay there forever. He’s got to come down and go into the pit of Hell to redeem the world.
So we celebrate this Transfiguration as a central, climactic event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, but it prefigures what comes at the end and what will be permanent and forever when the risen Christ comes and [is] seated on his throne with the light and the glory of God shining from him—and not only from him but from all the cloud of witnesses and all the saints who are glorified and deified in him, if they take up their cross and suffer with him. As St. Paul says, we will be transfigured and glorified with him provided that we suffer and die with him. He had to suffer and die, and so do we. That’s the way to transfiguration and glory that is permanent and unending.
But before that is effected, by the passion, death, and resurrection and glorification of Christ, it is shown, it is revealed on that mountaintop just to three of them—Peter, James, and John—and Moses and Elijah are there—five—and then the Lord Jesus Christ himself, with the voice of the Father and the cloud of the Spirit—the Holy Trinity. So the Transfiguration is precious; it is beautiful. It’s glorious, and we celebrate it.
I think it’s even a bit ironic, I think providentially ironic that it’s celebrated on August 6. Of course, it’s a festival time, it’s a harvest time, it’s the booth period. We don’t know exactly why it’s the sixth. There’s a church in Constantinople consecrated on the sixth, but it was probably connected with the festival of the booths. But in our time, no one can ever forget that the sixth of August was the day that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki. Talk about a transfiguration! Every time we see that big mushroom cloud of that atom bomb, wiping out millions of people, we should think of the cloud that was on the mountain with Moses and Elijah and with Christ with the Transfiguration. That’s the cloud we want to enter into. There’s some sense in which the dropping of the bomb is like the antithesis of the Transfiguration. It’s a transfiguration into death, destruction, warfare, madness.
So every time we see that photograph of that big cloud of the atom bomb, let’s remember the day on which that happened. It happened on the Christian feast day of the Transfiguration of Christ, foreshadowing that great glory, the divine cloud, and the cloud of witnesses who are transfigured and deified and glorified by the crucified, resurrected, and enthroned and glorified Son of God, who was transfigured on the mountain to show that when he was crucified it was voluntary and that that crucifixion had to take place, but it took place by the One who showed his glory to Peter, James, and John, with Moses and Elijah, on the mount of the Transfiguration.