The Feast of the Transfiguration encompasses the end to which we as Christians struggle, namely - to see Christ. Depicted before us in this feast is, on the one hand, the Christian, in the person of the Apostles, who are enabled to “see” Christ, and on the other hand, we have Christ, in the splendor of His glory.
Throughout the Gospels, the divinity of Christ is revealed whether it be through the Annunciation, at His Nativity or at His Baptism. Similarly, there are several accounts where the light and glory of God is made manifest such as with Saul on the road to Damascus, or at the martyrdom of Stephen. However, in these events, His divine nature is not so manifest as it is during the Transfiguration. It is at the Transfiguration where the fullness of who Christ is becomes apparent alongside the means by which His creation is able to receive this, that is, through the opening of their spiritual eyes.
THE SCRIPTURAL ACCOUNT
Looking to the account of our Lord’s Transfiguration, in the reading today, we began with, “After six days.” That is six days after the events just described wherein the Apostle Peter proclaims Christ to be “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and Christ responds by saying, “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”After this event, the Apostle Matthew writes that from this time forward, Jesus spoke to his disciples about his upcoming betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection (vs. 21). Therefore, the weightiness (the gravity) of what follows rests on Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah, the indication by Christ that it was only by revelation that Peter knew this, and then Christ’s continuing instructions and preparations for His upcoming death and resurrection. Now we come to today’s passage.
It begins by Christ choosing Peter, who preeminently loved the Lord; John, who was preeminently loved by the Lord; and James, who showed his superiority by his readiness to drink the cup of suffering which the Lord was to drink (Matt. 20.22).
Where do they go? Christ leads them up a high mountain. It is not a short distance or a level plain, but up a mountain which indicates a bit of arduousness, a bit of difficulty, labor, strenuousness, for them to arrive at their destination. When they arrived, we are told that Christ “was transfigured before them” followed by an explanation of what that meant: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (vs. 2).
THE CHRISTIAN’S LIFE
The Veil of the Passions
We know that Christ revealing His divinity in this way is not a usual occurrence. There are instances in the Gospels where the demons recognize who Christ is and say so but otherwise is it not obvious when others looked at Him, even His apostles.
The reason being, which we are all familiar with, is because we are blind spiritually due to sin and the passionate desires that remain in us. Through the Fall of the first man Adam, the eyes of the flesh (carnal eyes) were opened and his spiritual eyes were closed. With carnal eyes, he now perceived the reality around him, instead of with spiritual eyes, and so it is with us to this day. The result, as Larchet notes, is “the disregard for, and ignorance and forgetfulness of God, as well as [the intellect’s] submission to all the other passions, the intellect is darkened, becomes blind, becomes lost, plunges the soul into obscurity and moves the whole of man into a world of darkness.” (Therapy of Spiritual Illness, I. 51).
The Action of the Holy Spirit in Opening the Eyes of the Soul
What is unique at the occasion of the Transfiguration is that all of a sudden, by the power of the Holy Spirit, carnal eyes were changed to spiritual eyes, the veil was removed, and the Apostles were enabled to see Christ as He is (St. Maximos, Ambigua to John10.28).
Throughout the New Testament, this is what the goal of the Christian life consists of, that, God helping us, we struggle to uproot the passions in order to be purified knowing that in the end, the pure in heart will see God. (“Cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly,” Matt. 7.5; “Cleanse first that which is within the cup,” Matt. 23.26).
However, in this case, in one moment, the eye of their soul is enabled to see clearly, with no distortion, Him Who stands before them. Moreover, in one moment, we are given a glimpse of whom we will see, a glimpse of Him who is the reward of our labors, the desire of our heart. Not only this but, take note, this is the goal for each one of us.
In this account, the Apostles receive it ahead of time in order to strengthen them for what is to come, namely Christ’s crucifixion, yet this is what salvation/deification looks like, it looks like being able to see Christ as He is. Before this, as the Apostle Paul writes, we only see, we only understand in part, as through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13.12). However, when the veil is taken away, we shall, with unveiled faces, behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord, and are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3.18).
What is it that the Apostles see, when the Evangelist tells us, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light”? It is Christ as He truly is, seen with spiritual eyes. As St. John Damascene writes,
Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality He did not possess previously, nor by changing into something He never was before, but by revealing to His disciples what He truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what He had been before, he appeared to the disciples in His splendor. (Oration on the Transfiguration)
Christ remains the same, but we, blind to Him, are the ones who become transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit in a way which enables us to see with the eyes of our soul as we were created to do. Moreover, this is the whole of the Christian life – to see Christ, and we attain this through the path that is laid out for us in the New Testament – the life of piety and ascesis. As we chanted last night in Vespers:
Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues: let us be transformed this day into a better state and direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ. For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man and made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor. (Tone Four)
Sometimes this goal of the Christian life seems so unrealizable, so far off and ourselves, so incapable of reaching this destination. Some may say that it is impossible to attain to this, to be free of the passions, on that path to perfection, participating fully in the Holy Spirit without grieving Him. And for all of us who may think this - it is true; but it is only true because apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15.5) yet with God, all things are possible (Matt. 19.26). Otherwise, Christ Himself would not say, “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5.48) or the Apostle Paul would not say,
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; [WHY?] For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4.11-13)
Or do we doubt the Scriptures themselves? and those who do, do you not then try to attain perfection but instead think that you have arrived at the height of spiritual life, or the best that you’re ever going to get, when you truly have not?
So where should one start? St. Symeon Metaphrastes says, “We receive salvation by grace and as a divine gift of the Spirit. But to attain the full measure of virtue we need also to possess faith and love, and to struggle to exercise our free will with integrity” (Paraphrase of the Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt). May God increase our faith in and love for Him, so that we would struggle to overcome our passions with His help. With His help may we carry our cross and may His yoke be easy.
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as [Christ] is pure. (1 John 3.2-3)
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.