Each year, August 6th is consecrated to the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. It is a very great mystery which we are led to contemplate in following the three apostles whom Jesus too with Him on the mountain: Peter, James, and John. But it is especially in following Peter that we will witness this unique event in the life of Jesus. For if there was one person that day who dared to react to this mystery, it truly was Peter. The Transfiguration of the Lord marked the spirit of this apostle to such an extent that he spoke about it at length in his second epistle (2 Peter 1:16-18). With Peter, and in following him, let us see what took place on that 6th of August before the death of Jesus.
The mystery of the Transfiguration, for Jesus, consists in expressing all the light and glory of His divinity. Jesus, who is man, wants to show in the clearest possible way that He is also, and first, God. Also, that which is human in Him, while remaining truly human, takes on an appearance which completely surpasses all that the mind of man can conceive within itself; in transfiguring Himself before His apostles, Jesus presents Himself to them as a man who, if it were taken any further, would appear to no longer be man, but only God. In short, Jesus wants to show to those who belong to Him everything that God offers, for all eternity, to the whole of humanity that he assumed and regenerated through the mystery of His Incarnation and that of the Paschal Redemption.
All that the Prophets announced on behalf of God, all that Moses taught the People of God had chosen for Himself: all of this, the transfigured Jesus accomplishes and perfects in Himself. There is no other way than this: we must believe the Prophets and do what they say. We must observe the Law of God that Moses taught in the form of the Ten Commandments, if, with Peter, we want to witness the Transfiguration of Christ. In other words, if we want to merit the glory of Heaven at the end of our life on earth, we must obey the Law of God and follow the Spirit of the Lord who speaks to us through the Church and Her bishops. In Heaven, the beatific vision of the Glory of God in Christ is reserved for all those who, during their life on earth, had seen in Jesus,, through the vision of faith, all the Power of the Divinity.
“And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.”
As we can see from this passage, truly Peter is happy! James and John are happy too, but only Peter dares to tell Jesus. Truly, the enthusiasm of Peter made him the privileged witness of this event. And he wants it to last for a long, long time! So long, in fact, that he wants to set up shelters – tents of a sort – so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah would be able to remain there, before him, in the light and the splendor of Glory! Truly, the transfiguration of Christ left its mark on the spirit of Peter. This is what he wants to see with his eyes, forever and ever and ever. And Peter will remember it for a long time, recounting the event in his second epistle, as I have already said. Would it not be this memory which he held before his eye when he died some thirty years later, crucified, but, unlike his Master, crucified upside down?
“And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.’ And suddenly looking around they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus.”
This episode ends with the words of the heavenly father, who declares concerning Jesus: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” Vision is no longer enough. It is also necessary for the sense of hearing to be satisfied by the bliss of Heaven. And it is precisely these words of the Father which will bring the vision to an end. A paradox? Certainly! But it is a paradox of the Gospel. The Transfiguration is a but a step, a path to the glory of Heaven, the anticipation and a beginning of eternity, if one can speak of it in this way. You see, my dear people, the Transfiguration opens a window into the inner life of God, window which opens to our view the intimate relationship that exists between God the Father and Jesus Christ, His Only-begotten Son.
The Christian already lives in Heaven through faith, hope, and charity, but he or she nonetheless remains on earth, obliged to faithfully follow the Law of God and the inspirations of the Spirit of the Lord. In following Peter, James, and John, we must all listen to Christ, our Master. Within our soul, the Son of God satisfies us with His Word, and in our body, He satisfies us with Divine food, with His precious Body and Blood.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus not only reveals in human flesh the divine glory that is His for all eternity but He also reveals how we are to be transformed so as to share the glory of God. Moreover, as our Orthodox Catholic Tradition developed and unfolded, learned writers and saints have seen in the mystery of the Transfiguration the model or paradigm for the sacramental life of the Church. The glory of God the Father can touch us and change us only when, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we have contact with the Body of Christ. In truth, the splendor, the beauty, the brilliance of God’s glory shining forth in the mortal body of the Incarnate Son of God is the foundation for the entire sacramental life of the Church and it manifests to us what it is God wants us to bring about in the humanity of those who follow His Son unreservedly.
But what is this radiance, this glory, this beauty revealed to us atop Mt. Tabor. Scripture tells us that the glory of Jesus witnessed by the three Apostles is not due to any earthly cause. The brilliance of Jesus’ garments is not due to any detergent or whitening agent. St Mark gives us this description: “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Scripture also teaches us that the glory of the Jesus is not a myth; that Peter, James and John did not invent the vision or imagine it. Listen to the words of St. Peter himself, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eye witnesses of His majesty.” Nor did Jesus’ glory consist in His fame or popularity nor even His glittering ability to outwit His opponents.
What, then, is God’s glory? Scripture describes God’s glory as light. Indeed, Jesus refers to Himself as “the light of the world.” In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Yet, even this does not answer the question of what God’s glory is, because “light” is but an earthly image made to describe a heavenly reality.
Beloved, when we persist in asking what God’s glory is we will find, with St. Gregory of Nyssa, that the glory of God revealed in the Transfiguration ultimately is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who appeared as a cloud overshadowing Jesus at the Transfiguration, the Spirit who is the bond of charity and the bond of unity between the Father and his beloved Son. The glory of Jesus is His complete union of love with the Father, a union of love so complete and so perfect that it is not just an idea or a feeling but a Person, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, for “God is love”.
In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus says, “The glory You gave Me, I have given to them,” that is, to His disciples. And Jesus did indeed give His glory to His disciples, after His Resurrection, when he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”, the Holy Spirit who pours forth the love of God into our hearts, forgives our sins, and binds us together in a marvelous unity of faith. (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs, Liturgy of the Hours, Volume 11, p 958).
So, you might say that when we climb Mt. Tabor with Peter, James and John, our eyes of faith behold the divine origin of that charity and unity which are at the heart of the Church. My predecessors did not just invent these principles to be defining characteristics of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church but they drew them from the very heart of the Gospels they knew so well and loved. They knew that if we were to share the glory of God with others, if we were to set ourselves apart from other Christian communities, we must be a people united in charity, united in opening our hearts to the love of God poured forth by the Holy Spirit, united in bearing witness to the love of God we have received by leading lives of unhesitating charity, especially on behalf of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.
Transfigured by the love and Word of God, by the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and by faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our lives should amaze and astonish the world; they should reveal souls that have been transfigured, changed, and transformed by the Holy Spirit into the living image of God’s glory, that is to say, His love.
So when we think about this Transfiguration that we celebrate today and the fact that in His humanness Jesus allowed the divinity for this one particular moment to shine forth in His humanity as a prefiguration of the Resurrection, not only for Himself but for each one of us, it is something that we also share in already because in the Eucharist that is Who we receive – not only just the Resurrected Christ, but the Glorified Christ.
So like Peter, James, and John, we can ponder it. We will not fully understand it until it happens, but it is a truth, a truth that we have entered into in Baptism, a truth we celebrate every time we receive Holy Communion, and the truth that will find its fulfillment only when for each one of us there is a rising from the dead.