Today we are linked to the Transfiguration of Christ when we receive the body and blood of Christ. As each of us comes to communion, we receive the same person, Christ, whose Transfiguration in northern Palestine in the early years of the first century was a sign of His coming resurrection and ascension. The loving Jewish teacher Jesus was revealed in the Transfiguration as the Cosmic Christ whose Light shines in the whole of the universe. It is this transfigured Christ who lives today and invites us—this small group of His followers—like another small group of His followers—Peter, James and John—to be transformed by His Transfiguration. The vision of His magnificent glory which He shared with Saints Peter, James and John He now shares in the Eucharistic communion with us. Just as the face of Christ “shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” according to the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 17, Verse 2, so we too are invited to witness and to participate in the Light of Christ.
Now, perhaps like me, you are somewhat overwhelmed by the idea that Christ is going to transform each of us by His Light now—suddenly and unexpectedly. Saints Peter, James and John had the same reaction and were “sore afraid” when that cloud enveloped the site of the Transfiguration, and the voice of God the Father came out of the cloud, as set out in the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 9, Verse 35, “This is my Son, my chosen one, hear ye him.”. The response of the three disciples was to fall on their faces to the ground. St Matthew reports to us and reports to all humanity, “Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise and be not afraid.” That is precisely what Christ says to us when we are confronted today with His Light shining into our lives: “Arise and be not afraid.”
What actually happened at the Transfiguration? Writing some thirty years after the event, St Peter reminds us in the epistle for today from the Second Letter to Peter, Chapter 1, Verse 17, that Christ “received honour and glory from God the Father, [when] such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’—and we ourselves, “says St Peter, “heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” Then, there was also the Light so that, as St Matthew told us, Christ “was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.”
Writing about this Light, St Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth century Orthodox theologian reflected: “At the time of the Transfiguration, Christ bestowed a divine power upon the eyes of His apostles and enabled them to look up and see for themselves. This Light then was not a hallucination, but will remain for all eternity, having existed from the beginning. . . . Christ always possessed this Light and always will have it with Him.” As St Gregory points out, what changed was not Christ but the disciples, because their eyes were opened and they were healed from “their blindness.” That same “divine power” which opened the eyes of the disciples and healed them from their blindness is offered to each of us today and every day that we “look up” and seek Christ.
Now, in the midst of the Transfiguration of Christ, Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all inform us that Moses and Elijah both appeared and that Christ talked with them. That would have been some conversation! What might they have said? We’ll never know. However, it is striking that the last words of Moses in Chapter 33, Verse 29, of Deuteronomy were to bless the people of Israel, “a people saved by the Lord;” and the last problem that Elijah faced in the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 2, Verse 9, was the wish of his friend and successor, the prophet Elisha, to receive “a double portion” of the spirit of Elijah. Now both the people of Israel and Elisha were indeed blessed; and for Elisha the confirmation of that blessing was to see Elijah being taken up to heaven in “a chariot of fire and horses of fire,” as set out in the subsequent verses of the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 2.
Today we associate the phrase, “chariots of fire” with the 1981 film and with the music that accompanied the victories of Harold Abrahams in the 100 meters and of Erick Liddell in the 400 meters at the Olympics of 1924. Both men fought and prayed for their victories; and the words of Elijah to Elisha would apply to both of them: “You have asked a hard thing,” but here the victory is spiritual when Elisha sees Elijah being taken up to heaven. For us, to experience the fullness of the Light of Christ in our lives is indeed “a hard thing” but it is possible through prayer.
What Christ offers us now through the Transfiguration is the possibility of drawing closer to Him. Because we believe in Christ, we listen to Him. We pray with Him and to Him. As Father Christopher said on Sunday, “We have a choice”—to try to escape from God’s presence in our lives or to worship God. The Transfiguration shows us that Peter, John and James chose to worship Christ, rather than to run away. We can make the same choice.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus is indicating to His key disciples that they, like the people of Israel and Elisha, will be blessed—not blessed with earthly victories as Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell were, but blessed with spiritual victories. Remember that Christ has just told His disciples that He is going to suffer and die. Now, through the Transfiguration, Christ is pointing out to His key disciples that just as Moses died but still blessed the people of Israel and just as Elijah died but still blessed Elisha, so Christ too is going to bless them after His death.
The blessing that Christ gave to Saints Peter and James and John He now offers to us. As Father Gregory mentioned at the end of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the Transfiguration of Christ offers to each of us the possibility of a personal transformation. In our own lives, we cannot be sure precisely where and when this personal transfiguration will take place, precisely where and when the Light of Christ will empower our lives. Despite the uncertainty, our response can be the same as St Peter—simply to welcome our coming transformation, with the words, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,”—the precise words reported by Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke in their gospels.
Like St Peter, we might offer to build tabernacles—holy homes for Jesus, for Elijah and for Moses. We want to protect Christ and the prophets and the Law of Moses that has been deepened by the presence of the Church—protect all of them from the world and its problems and confusions. We can’t do it. When we recover from our fear and look up, all we can see is Christ. However, even if we cannot build a holy tabernacle we can be aware that Christ has been transfigured by a divine Light that reaches into our lives.
Make no mistake. Like Saints Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration of Christ, we too are awed by the Light of Christ shining forth in the Eucharistic communion. To experience a deep and personal communion with Christ we do not have to become martyrs or monks, priests or prophets, theologians or historians, brilliant linguists or athletes. We simply need to receive communion now in faith. Because we worship Christ, we are worthy of His love. Because we are in awe of the divine Light shining into our lives, we are changed by that Light. So let us rejoice now in the completion of this Divine Liturgy which links us so fully to the Transfiguration of Christ.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn The Transfiguration, 6 August 2013