Transfiguration

September 9, 2014 Length: 47:02

On this special edition of Ancient Faith Presents, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware speaks on the Transfiguration during the course of a weeklong pilgrimage to Mull and Iona that was organized by Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona.

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His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia: First of all, I want to show you a picture. This is from the apse of the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna. What you see in the center of the apse is a great cross, and it’s only when you look more closely at the picture that you realize that this is in fact a depiction of the Transfiguration. Usually we are accustomed to a picture of the Transfiguration showing a full-length figure of Christ set in a mandorla on the top of a mountain, but here you only have a tiny face of Christ in the center of a great, jeweled cross, and behind it the firmament of heaven with the stars. But then when you look more closely at this representation from Ravenna, you can see a hand pointing out from the sky above the cross, and that symbolizes the voice of the Father speaking from heaven.

Then you see, up in the clouds, Moses on the one side, clean-shaven, Elijah on the other side, with a long white beard. Looking down below, you see a row of sheep, twelve sheep, and in the center a bishop, St. Apollinarius. Well, that has nothing to do with the main subject, but then higher up you see three sheep; these sheep are apostolic sheep. The twelve apostles, and then the three sheep who are higher up on the mountainside, they are Peter, James, and John, who accompanied Christ at the Transfiguration. And you see the mountainside covered with trees and flowers and plants, but the remarkable thing here is that the figure of Christ is shown within this great cross.

I emphasize this particular representation of the Transfiguration because it fits with my sermon this morning, where I stressed that you are to see the two hills of Tabor and Calvary going together, that Christ speaks of his coming crucifixion immediately before the Transfiguration, and of course the Transfiguration happened on the journey up to Jerusalem, immediately before his passion. The next event after the Transfiguration would have been his entry into Jericho and the raising of Lazarus. Because we celebrate the Transfiguration in August, we often overlook the fact that if we were following the historical sequence, we would keep the Transfiguration during Lent, but in fact it’s got moved to August; perhaps it has some connection with the feast of the sun, being close to the summer solstice, but that is speculative. At any rate, here is the depiction, if you’d like to pass it round, showing you the link, the Tabor-Calvary syndrome, the two hills of Tabor and Calvary being close together, the Transfiguration being linked to the cross.

Now at our session today, I would like to ask the question: What is the meaning of the light that shines from Christ on the mountaintop? We heard in the gospel today he was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. The account in Mark is even more vivid. His clothes became dazzling white such as no fuller, no laundryman, on earth could bleach them. This all-powerful radiance, this dazzling glory, is the heart of the mystery of the Transfiguration, but what is this light that shines from Christ?

St. Matthew says that our Savior’s face shone like the sun. St. John Chrysostom goes further. He says Christ’s face shone not merely like the sun, but more than the sun. As it says in one of the liturgical texts for the feast, “It was a glory brighter than light.” The Orthodox view, extending back at least to the late second century, as set forth by St. Clement of Alexandria, is that this light on Mount Tabor is not just a natural, but a supranatural light. It is not just a physical, created light; it is a spiritual light, uncreated and eternal. St. Gregory Palamas says more specifically that the light shining from Christ on Mount Tabor is the divine energies, though not the divine essence.

In the texts for the feast, it is said of this light that it is infinite, unapproachable, divine, the burning coal of the godhead. In the kontakion for the feast we are told the disciples see the glory not as it is in itself, but “as far as they were able.” Human eyes cannot fully compass this uncreated, divine light. Yes, the disciples see the light through their physical eyes, but it’s not just an ordinary light of the senses. St. Maximus the Confessor says, “It is a light that transcends the operation of the senses.” St. Gregory the Theologian says, “It is a light too fierce for human eyes.” That is why, on the icon of the feast, you will see the disciples thrown, prostrate, to the ground by the force of this uncreated light.

When I was ordained priest, I asked the bishop for his advice in my future ministry, and he said, “Always have three points in your sermon, not less, not more.” [Laughter] He’s not the first person to have said that. Actually, I think three points is too much. It’s quite enough to have one point in your sermon. [Laughter] And a great deal of sermons that we hear have no point at all! [Laughter] When I was consecrated bishop, I asked the chief consecrator about my future episcopate, and he said, “Always fold up your own vestments at the end of the service. The deacons will make a mess of it.” [Laughter] Well, I folded up my vestments at the end of this service; we didn’t have any deacons. However, I’m going to disobey my archbishop and fail to follow my own advice. Instead of three questions or one question, I’m going to have four questions today, so I hope you’ll stay awake. [Laughter]

Actually, as I’ve told some of you before, some time ago when I was giving a lecture sitting down I went to sleep in my own lecture. [Laughter] I could hear a voice droning on and suddenly I realized it was my own voice, and I had no idea what I was saying. [Laughter] So if that happens today, I’ll invite Jim Forest to continue, because he writes books and always has something to say. [Laughter]

So, then, my four questions are these: What does the divine light of Tabor tell us? First, about God the Trinity; second, about Christ; third, about ourselves; and fourth, about the world round us. I was listening to a sermon by an Orthodox priest recently, and he said he had six points in his sermon, and he spent 23 minutes over the first point, and my heart sank. [Laughter] But he dealt with the remaining [five] points in three minutes. Perhaps I shall finish more quickly than you expect—perhaps not. [Laughter]

Now, we first ask: What does the light of Tabor tell us about the Trinity? The non-material light, shining upon Tabor, brighter than the sun, is in the first place a light of the holy Trinity. The glory of the Transfiguration manifests God as tri-unity, three-in-one. As we say at Great Vespers of the feast, “Christ, the light that shone before the sun, this day has mystically made known upon Mount Tabor the image of the Trinity.” Seeing as how it’s a trinitarian celebration, the feast of the Transfiguration is closely similar to the feast exactly eight months previously, the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany, sixth of January, the baptism of Christ. Both are feasts of light. The Greek name for Theophany in popular usage is ta phota (the lights), but the parallel extends further than that.

Both Theophany and Transfiguration are occasions that manifest the joint action of the Three Persons of the Trinity. In fact, they are the two occasions when the Trinity is most clearly revealed. At the baptism of Christ, the voice of the Father speaks from heaven, bearing testimony to the beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends from the Father and rests on the Son. In the words of the troparion for Theophany:

When thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest, for the voice of the Father bore witness unto thee, calling thee the beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed his word as sure and steadfast.

So that’s the pattern you have on the sixth of January, but today, the sixth of August, we have exactly the same pattern. Today at the Transfiguration the Father speaks from heaven, testifying to the Son—“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”—while the Spirit is present in this occasion, not in the form of a dove, but as a cloud of light. In the gospel account it is not explicitly said that the cloud signifies the Spirit, but in fact that is the way the cloud at the Transfiguration has been understood from a very early period. It’s the regular interpretation of the Orthodox Fathers that the cloud indicates the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, descending from the Father, resting on the Son.

In this way, the glory of the Transfiguration is a trinitarian glory. “Let us gaze,” it says in the canon, “with our mind upon the non-material godhead with the Father and the Spirit shining forth in the only-begotten Son.” And in the exaposteilarion at matins for the feast, it says, “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of thy light, O Logos, thou unaltered light from the light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as light and the Spirit as light, guiding with light the whole creation.” So that’s the first point: trinitarian glory. Are you still awake? [Laughter]

But the glory of the Transfiguration, while trinitarian, is more specifically a Christological glory, and here we come close to the heart of the mystery of Tabor. On the mountain we see the incarnate Savior manifested in his true character as totally divine, totally human. The Transfiguration is a disclosure of both the Godhead and the humanness of Christ. The eternal, uncreated light shining from Christ’s face reveals his Godhead. As we say in the liturgical texts, “The divine beauty beneath the flesh.” But at the same time, the Lord’s human body, although radiant with non-material glory, still remains genuinely physical, genuinely human. Christ’s human flesh is transfigured but not abolished. In this way the Transfiguration expresses in visible form the truth of the dogma of Chalcedon. It reveals Christ as one in essence, consubstantial with the Father in Godhead; one in essence, consubstantial with us in humanness; one single, undivided Person in two natures.

As it says in the text of the second canon at matins, “Being complete God, thou hast become complete man, bringing together manhood and complete Godhead in thy person, which Moses and Elijah saw in two natures on Mount Tabor.” And again: “Thou wast revealed as non-material fire, not burning the material substance of the body, when thou hast appeared to Moses and the apostles and Elias, O Master who art one from two natures and in both of them complete.” A union without confusion, that is what we see on Tabor.

And developing this point, we can say at the Transfiguration nothing is taken away from Christ, nothing is added. Nothing is taken away. Transfigured on Tabor, Christ remains still as fully human as ever he was at any other moment, as fully human as you or I. His human flesh is not obliterated or swallowed up in the divine light. It’s rendered transparent. The Godhead shines through it and from it, but it continues to be authentically human.

Yet if nothing is taken away, at the same time nothing is added. The eternal glory revealed on Mount Tabor is something that the incarnate Christ has always, from the very first moment of his conception in the womb of the holy Virgin. This glory is with him throughout his earthly life, even during the moments of his deepest humiliation, as at the agony in the garden of Gethsemane or at the cry of dereliction on the cross. It still remains true that, as St. Paul says, “In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily.” The difference lies simply in this: At other points in his life on earth, the glory, although truly present, is hidden beneath the veil of the flesh. On the mountaintop, on the other hand, for a brief instance, the veil grows translucent, and the glory is partially laid bare.

So at the Transfiguration no change happened in Christ himself. The change came, rather, in the apostles. In the words of St. John of Damascus, “He was transfigured, not by assuming what he was not, but by manifesting to his disciples what he was, opening their eyes.” St. Andrew of Crete says, “He did not at that moment become more radiant or more exalted—far from it—but he remained as he was before.” The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, says, “The gospel story speaks not about the Transfiguration of the Lord, but about that of the apostles.” The change comes in them rather than in Christ.

So today, at the feast of the Transfiguration, I invite every one of you to reflect upon the double fullness of the incarnate Savior, reflect with the utmost vividness, how Christ is fully and completely God, fully and completely human. Tabor shows us in Christ’s Person human nature—your and my human nature—taken up into God, filled entirely with divine life and glory, permeated by the uncreated energies, yet still continuing utterly human. True God, true man—that’s the heart of the feast of the Transfiguration. Let’s renew our faith in who Christ is.

Now I come to question three. What does the Transfiguration tell us about ourselves? Looking at Christ transfigured on the mountain, we see revealed not only the glory of the Trinity, not only the glory of the incarnate Logos—one person in two natures—we see also the glory of our human personhood. The Transfiguration is a disclosure not just of what Christ our God is, but of what we are. I quote from some of the texts of the feast:

Today in the Transfiguration all human nature shines forth divinely and cries aloud with gladness.

Again:

Upon Mount Tabor in his mercy, the Savior of our souls transfigured has made disfigured man to shine with light.

The Transfiguration reveals to us the normal human state, the original beauty of our nature. Christ, the New Adam, transfigured on the mountain, shows us the state before the fall, human nature as it was in paradise. I quote from the texts for the day:

Transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples, in his own Person, Christ showed them human nature arrayed in the original beauty of the image.

Having gone up, O Savior, with thy disciples on the mountain, transfigured, thou hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of thine own divinity.

[How about Moses and Elia?] Yes, I’m not going to talk about Moses and Elias too much today, because you might want to have lunch. [Laughter]

But this is not all. Not only does the Transfiguration look back to the beginning, but it also looks back to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming. The feast of the Transfiguration is an eschatological celebration, a feast of our future hope. It is, in the words of St. Basil the Great, “the inauguration of Christ’s glorious parousia.” At the Transfiguration, as one of the texts for the day says, “We magnify both the comings of Christ, the second along with the first.” So Transfiguration reveals not just human nature as it was originally, but also what in Christ it will eventually become at the ultimate consummation of all things. And this last state is incomparably higher than the first.

Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor (we sing at matins), showing the exchange mortals will make with thy glory at thy second and fearful coming, O Savior, to show plainly how, at thy mysterious second coming, thou wilt appear as the Most High God, standing in the midst of gods. Up on Mount Tabor thou has shone nobly upon the apostles, upon Moses and Elias.

So what we see on Mount Tabor is the ultimate capacity of our human nature at its truest and fullest, something that will be fully evident to us only on the last day, but whose firstfruits are apparent even now. So the Transfiguration is a feast of the state of sanctity. It’s a feast when we celebrate, as St. Andrew of Crete says, “the deification, the theosis, of human nature.”

Today on Mount Tabor Christ has changed the darkened nature of Adam, and, filling it with glory, he has deified it.

How are we doing? Only one more question to go. [Laughter] The Transfiguration shows us the true value of our human nature, and it shows us more particularly the true value of the human body, because the light and glory of Christ shines from his face, from his hands, from his physical body, and it falls upon the physical bodies of the apostles. So Tabor also shows us the unity of human nature, body and soul together.

But there’s something more to be said. In Great Vespers, we say, “Thou hast sanctified with thy light all the earth.” Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain points forward to the transfiguration not only of all human nature, but also of the whole material creation. This is a cosmic feast, an ecological feast. We humans are not to be saved from, but with the total created order. As it says in Romans 8, the universe in its entirety waits with eager expectation for the revealing of the sons of God.

So Tabor, in this sense, is the inauguration of the new earth which is to be manifested at the last time. On the mountain we see not only a human face transfigured with glory; the light shines equally from Christ’s clothes. So the light of Tabor transforms not merely the body of the Savior in isolation, but also the other material objects associated with Christ: the man-made clothing that he wears, and so, by extension, potentially the Transfiguration embraces all material things.

What, then, does the Transfiguration tell us about our human nature? It tells us that we are a unity of body and soul. What does it tell us about the creation as a whole? It tells us that every physical object is capable of transfiguration. Every physical object can become a channel of the divine light. In the light of that one face that was altered, of those particular clothes that were white and glittering, all human faces have acquired a fresh radiance; all common things have been given new depth. For those who believe in the transfigured Christ, nothing whatever is mean or despicable. All created things can become a vehicle of uncreated light. The glory of the burning bush is all around us, waiting to be revealed.

In the words of a Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

[Laughter] Now, there’s nothing wrong in plucking blackberries, but we can also discern the glory of God in all the created things round us.

All things are capable of transfiguration, but such transfiguration is possible, as I was saying earlier, only through cross-bearing. As we sing at Sunday matins throughout the year, “Behold, through the cross, joy has come to all the world.” Through the cross—there is no other way. Thank you. [Applause] Thank you very much.

Now, what about Moses and Elijah, who didn’t come into the story? Well, they are taken to symbolize, in the first place, the Law and the Prophets. Moses gave the Law; Elijah was the first among the Prophets. So the two aspects of the Old Testament are represented. But also, Moses and Elijah show that Christ is Lord both of the living and the dead, because Moses died and was buried, though we don’t know where his place of burial is, but Elijah did not die; he was taken up in a fiery chariot into heaven. So Moses among the dead, Elijah among the living, show that Christ is Lord of both. Those are two of the interpretations; there are plenty of others that you can find if you search.

Q1: From where did Moses come? From the underworld? Where did Jesus take him from? Moses died, and where had he been during his…?

His Eminence Kallistos: Well, he would have been, at that moment, in the place of waiting.

Q1: Hades.

His Eminence Kallistos: Yes, Hades or Sheol, not quite the same as Hell as a place of torment. You may recall how, in the first epistle of Peter, it is said that after his death on the cross and before his resurrection, Christ went and preached to the spirits who were in prison. That would be to all the men and women of the old covenant, because Christ’s redemption extends not only to the future but to the past. So Moses would have been in the place of waiting, in Sheol, in the underworld. I don’t know what it’s called: the prison. But it shouldn’t be thought of as a place of torment, but it’s what you see in the icon of Paschal midnight, Christ breaking open the gates of death, so that would have been where he would have been waiting, and he was brought out by a special economy of God to be present at the Transfiguration.

Q1: And Elias was where?

His Eminence Kallistos: Well, Elias was received into heaven.

Q1: Paradise.

His Eminence Kallistos: Paradise, yes. Whether paradise is different from heaven is a matter for discussion, but the usual view is that where, by God’s mercy, we all hope to be at the resurrection of the dead at the last day, with Christ, by anticipation, Elijah is already there, along with Enoch, because it is said in Genesis in a puzzling passage that Enoch did not die, but God took him. And, of course, we believe the same of the blessed Virgin Mary, that she, too, though she died, was, after death, taken up into heaven. So those three already dwell in heaven, but we hope that you and I will also be there with our bodies as well as our souls at the resurrection of the dead by God’s mercy on the last day.

Q2: With the body?

His Eminence Kallistos: With the body, yes.

Q2: Is there enough space?

His Eminence Kallistos: But it will be… in some ways it will be the same body as we have now, but Paul also says, 1 Corinthians 15:44, that it will be a spiritual body. That doesn’t mean a dematerialized body—we shall have a physical, material body, but it will be spiritual in the sense that it will be permeated and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Q3: I thought they met Christ after he came through the closed doors and ate fish afterwards?

His Eminence Kallistos: That was his resurrection body. It was a physical body, but not subject to the restraints that our physical bodies are subject to. So Christ’s body after the resurrection was the same body. That’s why he shows his hands and his feet, the wound in his side, to make it clear: This— Here am I in the same body as you saw me suffering on the cross. But it is a body that is released from the limitations that our bodies are subject to. It has a likeness that our bodies do not have, so we see that Christ was not immediately recognized after the resurrection. The disciples on the road to Emmaus walked with him, and it was only at the breaking of bread that they recognized him, so he was in some way different, but he was in the same body. The fact that he eats in front of the disciples—and there’s a great point made of that: he asks for food just to make it clear that he does have a physical body. Yes, it is a body that can pass through closed doors.

So what Christ has is a resurrection body, and we hope to have similar bodies in the age to come. We shall be recognizable by our physical traits as we are now. We know each other through our bodies, so we shall in the age to come recognize each other through our bodies, but yet our bodies will be transfigured. Yes?

Q4: You mentioned that the state in which Christ was on Mount Tabor is our original human state or nature, how we were created, but then did you go on to say that only that can be achieved at the second coming?

His Eminence Kallistos: Well, I said, yes, that the transfigured Christ looks back to the state of our body before the Fall, and I said that it looks forward to how our bodies will be at the last day, but this is partly anticipated in the lives of the saints, because we have many cases of saints whose bodies were transfigured by divine light. The most famous instance is, of course, that of St. Seraphim, where he’s talking with his disciple, Nicholas Motovilov.

At these words (says Motovilov) I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man, talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes. You hear his voice. You feel someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands. You do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light, spreading far around for several yards, and lighting up with its brilliance the snow blanket which covers the forest glade and the snowflakes which continue to fall unceasingly.

So there you see in that famous account of St. Seraphim with his disciple Motovilov that his final transfiguration at the last day is anticipated. So he appears as we hope and pray that we shall all, by God’s mercy, shall appear. We shall all be full of light as St. Seraphim was. But the lives of the saints anticipate the second coming, and St. Seraphim doesn’t stand alone; there are many other such instances.

Yes, the transfigured Christ shows the original glory, but it shows also the final glory, which is higher than the original glory. Adam and Eve were clothed with glory before the Fall. That is why, after they had fallen, they saw that they were naked, but before they’d fallen they did not see their nakedness because they were clothed in glory, but the glory was taken away from them when they fell into sin.

Q5: And in the life of St. Columba there’s a story of one of his monks spotting Columba in the cell, sort of looking through a keyhole, and seeing Columba bathed in uncreated light, and Columba telling the disciple, “Don’t tell anybody about this until my repose.”

His Eminence Kallistos: Yes, yes, that’s good to emphasize that this is not something limited to the East. It’s here in the Western Christian tradition.

Q6: There was no East and West at that time.

His Eminence Kallistos: That’s true. There was one Church, orthodox and catholic.

Q7: Your Grace, is the divine light… is it the same as the image and likeness of God that we’re all created in, and is this image and likeness of God also in those who do not believe in Christ, and does it remain with them throughout life?

His Eminence Kallistos: Most of the Fathers make a distinction between image and likeness, eikona and homoiōsis. It’s not done by all the Fathers, but this is the normal tradition: in St. Irenaeus, in Origen, in St. Maximus the Confessor, in St. John of Damascus. The image represents the basic elements which make us human, which distinguish us from the animal creation. Of course, we’re not to be separate from the animals, but we are distinct from them. So the image is present in everyone, Christian or non-Christian. And at the Fall, the image was obscured, but it wasn’t abolished. The likeness, on the other hand, represents not our initial equipment that makes us human that we all possess; the likeness is our final aim and fulfillment.

So the image represents the starting point, the likeness the end point. All humans are in the image of God, says Maximus, but only the good and the righteous are in his likeness. So the likeness is our final aim. It is sanctity; it is deification. So at the Fall, the likeness was taken away, but it can be recovered, in part or wholly, through a life of prayer and service to others. So what the sacrament of baptism does is to restore the image to us, cleansed, no longer obscured by sin, but the likeness is to be acquired throughout our life, through our cooperation with God, through our living out of the grace of the sacraments. Does that illustrate the distinction?

Q7: Yes. Can we think of the light as being the image and the likeness?

His Eminence Kallistos: I would say the light represents the likeness rather than the image. Well, it represents the image restored to its original glory, that’s true, but still more it is the state of sanctity in Christ that we are all called to. I think perhaps we are called to lunch now, so we’d better draw to a close. [Laughter and applause]