Transfiguration: Daring to Hope and Struggle in the Light from the Mountaintop / Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip
Celebrations of the feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ adorn a prime place in the liturgical tradition of Orthodox churches. A Christian initiated into Christ’s body by Holy Baptism, is called to grow stronger in fellowship with Christ in the pilgrimage of our transient life. Most of the feasts concerning Christ and the sacraments help us to enjoy this redemptive remembrance of the Lord. Celebration of the feast of Transfiguration on 6th August, every year, is a unique opportunity to experience the glory of our Lord and Redeemer.
There are four Biblical passages which depict the transfiguration experience of our Lord on the top of the mountain, generally assumed to be Mount Tabor: Mathew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36 and II Peter 1:17,18. Jesus, while praying on the top of the mountain with his three disciples Peter, James and John, was transfigured and the apostles saw him in dazzling light in the company of the prophets Moses and Elijah. A saying of Christ, recorded in the synoptic Gospels, before the Transfiguration, is as follows, “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not take death till they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Can we understand this prediction as fulfilled a week later when the three apostles experienced the divine glory on the transfiguration mount?
According to St. Mathew and St. Mark, Jesus led Peter, James and John to the mountaintop after six days of his saying these words and in St. Luke it is after eight days. Perhaps, St. Mathew and St. Mark were counting the days between the saying and the transfiguration event; whereas St. Luke might have included both the days in which Jesus says about His coming in glory and the day in which the actual event of glorification took place. In both cases, the reference is to one week. At the same time, the reference to the ‘eighth day’ which comes after the six days (of creation) and Sabbath (seventh) denotes a vision beyond this physical and historical realm. What we experience on the mount of transfiguration is a foretaste of the eschatological event or the glorious second advent of our Lord. Moses was able to have a glimpse of the Promised Land, from the mountain of Pisgah, (Deuteronomy 34:1). Likewise, through this experience of transfiguration on the mountaintop, the apostles and with them we could also have a glimpse of the glorious inheritance we are going to have at the end.
Transfiguration reveals the glory of Jesus Christ. In the incarnated life, His glory was hidden. Christ was seen as any other human being because of His willful self emptying. Our hope and prayer is that Christ “will come again in His great glory.” The whole life of Christ, particularly His glorification on the mount of Transfiguration and His resurrection, manifests His great glory in a limited and special way. Three apostles, as representatives of the whole humankind were able to experience this. The bright light, in which the Son of God appeared as a sun, was uncreated light proceeding from His divinity. That light was not from sun, moon, or any stars or light from any kind of fire. It was pure Divine uncreated light.
The Divine voice, the apostles heard from the overshadowing clouds, was from the Heavenly Father: ‘This is my beloved Son. Hear Him.” The Father was honoring and glorifying Christ. St. Peter describes this unusual experience thus: “He received from God the Father, honor and glory, when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory. ‘This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:17-18).
The Transfiguration experience also attests that the whole Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah represent law and prophecy of the Old Testament respectively. Presence of the Apostles represents the New Testament. Thus, the whole Bible gives glory to Christ, the centre and fulfillment of it. Moses, Elijah and the Apostles who witnessed this transfiguration of Christ also represent the dead and the living. In short, the world was able to witness the glory of Christ through a few representatives, since Christ the true Light from true Light, was willing to reveal His glory for a short while for our enlightenment.
When we celebrate the feast of Transfiguration on 6th August, the world refreshes the memory of ‘a mega tragic event.’ It was on August 6th, 1945, that the American-made Atomic Bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, Japan, annihilating more than hundred thousand people. The American President who gave the final green signal for this bombing was Truman. Immediately after this event, peace activists like Dorothy Day hailing from American soil itself, criticized Truman and highlighted the need of following Christ, the ‘True-Man and True God’. The destructive light of fanaticism, communalism and violence and unbridled consumerism is spreading darkness in the world. What we need today for the liberation, peace and justice of the world is light of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
Transfiguration of Christ also reveals the potential of the creation to manifest Divine Glory. Glory of the Son of God was revealed through His human body. The human nature He took from this world became a medium to manifest His glory. From its inception till today, this cosmos bears witness to the majesty of God the Creator (Romans 1:20). In addition to this general revelation, this creation becomes instrumental in the special revelation of the glory of God. This principle is further affirmed in our sacraments. The Creation is eagerly waiting for its ultimate transfiguration (Romans 8:18-22). The hope of the “new heaven and new earth” and resurrection at the end, point to glorious future fulfillment of the whole creation. Transfiguration of Christ gives us a foretaste of that glorious eternity.
The Transfiguration experience on the mountaintop also refers to the glorious orientation of the Cross. The conversation of Moses and Elijah with Christ was about Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem (St. Luke 9:31). Sufferings and the Cross are not glorious in common human viewpoint. Hence, St. Peter tried to discourage Christ from such a painful death for which Christ responded with the words “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to me” (St. Mathew 16:23). This is narrated in synoptic Gospels just before the description of the glorification of Christ on the mountaintop. In continuation of this, Christ says “if any one desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Ancient Christian tradition as a whole, confesses that the Cross is the way to glory. After resurrection and ascension, Christ is on the throne with the Heavenly Father in glory (Hebrew 12:2, Revelations 3:21). A deeper understanding of these passages will help us to know that as Christ we will also be sharing the same glory. The wisdom of globalization and the popular consumerist culture seem to vehemently oppose the divine wisdom of the glory of the way of cross.
Glory is misunderstood by many as accumulation of possessions and positions. Prayers are misused to have this perishing ‘glory’. Once, Jesus was on the top of another mountain not with Moses and Elijah, but with Satan. The temptation was to consent to a different worship to own the glory of the world, which Christ overcomes. On the mount of transfiguration, prayers and communion with the saints are for being strengthened to face sufferings and the cross boldly.
In the Orthodox tradition, martyrs have a unique place and the tradition says that God will adorn them with special crowns at his second coming. It is essential for the living members of the Church to remember continuously the self-sacrifice of martyrs. St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who was martyred around AD 155, has written about the great martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch, Rufus and Zosimus who have entered into glory with Christ. In Polycarp’s words, “they are now in their deserved place with the Lord, in whose sufferings they also shared” (Letter to Philippians, 9:2). While describing the importance of the way of sacrifice, St. Polycarp says, “Whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil” (Letter to Philippians, 7:1)
Many members of the Church, while facing their own death, have witnessed the comforting presence of their relatives who passed away years ago. Likewise the saints comfort and strengthen us when we face painful experiences of the cross and death in our life. That is why we seek St. Mary’s intercession every day as: “O Virgin Mary, O Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and always, and in the hour of our death.” The presence of Moses and Elijah at the time of Christ’s glorification might have been such a comforting and strengthening experience to Christ in his human nature.
The vision of glory on the mountaintop, leads one to the ministry of transformation in the valley later. Though Peter and his companions wanted to continue on the top of the transfiguration mount, their Guru led them to face the harsh realities of life. As witnesses of the divine glory, our calling is to spread the light of Christ with a sacrificial commitment to transform our world to a better community of freedom, peace, justice and love. In the midst of the weeping and lamentation from Hiroshima, Beirut, Delhi, Mumbai, New York, Baghdad, Peshawar, Paris, Orlando, Brussels, Dhaka and Mynmar’s Rakhine , the redemptive remembrance of the Light from mount Tabor enlightens us, to hope and to rejoice in taking up the cross for a better world. Transfiguration experience also points to the coming Glory which will be revealed beyond this struggle in history. The feast of transfiguration is a reminder to struggle with confidence and to dare to hope in a groaning world.
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