Transfigured Life

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration differ in some small but significant details. With typically colorful language, St Mark emphasizes Jesus’ garments, describing them as “glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” St Luke adds that “the appearance of his countenance was altered”; and St Matthew declares, “his face shone like the sun.” Each of these narratives makes the point that Jesus manifests what came to be called the shekinah, a word used in the Jewish Targums (Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch). The term basically signifies “dwelling place,” but as the divine abode it connotes as well “glory.” The Jerusalem Targum on Leviticus 9:6, for example, reads: “the glory of the Shekinah of the Lord” will come upon the people as they seek atonement with God through various sacrificial offerings.

Each evangelist also offers unique details concerning the other figures in the Transfiguration scene. Luke elaborates most fully, declaring that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus concerning the “departure” he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. The term used is exodon, a clear allusion to the New Exodus Jesus will endure through his crucifixion and fulfill by his resurrection. For his part, Matthew shows the interaction between Jesus and the disciples. They fall on their faces with “awe” or dread, only to be commanded, “Rise, and have no fear!” Those who read or heard the Gospel account would immediately have recognized here a double allusion. The consoling words, “have no fear” is what has been termed a “formula of revelation,” as uttered by the archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation to the Theotokos (Lk 1:30), or by Christ himself as he approached his disciples in the darkness of night, walking on the water (Mt 14:27). And the initial order, “Rise!” is the same word that signifies “resurrection.” “Rise,” Jesus implicitly commands, “as you shall one day rise with me in glory!”

The Holy Fathers of the Church recognized in this passage not only a revelation of the true meaning of Jesus’ person and a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, analogous to the scene of Jesus’ baptism (the Father’s approving voice, the central focus on the Son, the presence and activity of the Spirit in the light or in the overshadowing cloud). They also found in this account a promise extended to all those who actively long to share in Christ’s death, resurrection and glorification.

In his “Second Century on Theology,” St Maximus the Confessor makes a startling claim, which was nevertheless understood as both a promise and an exhortation to be received by anyone who lives “in Christ.” “In those found worthy,” he declares, “the Logos of God is transfigured to the degree to which each has advanced in holiness, and he comes to them with his angels in the glory of the Father. For the more spiritual principles in the Law and the prophets—symbolized by Moses and Elijah when they appeared with the Lord at his transfiguration—manifest their glory according to the actual receptive capacity of those to whom it is revealed.” To the faithful believer, Christ’s Transfiguration becomes an inner reality, a transforming gift of grace.

St Gregory Palamas similarly stresses the intimate link between the Transfiguration of Christ and our own transformation into his divine glory. “In his incomparable love for men, the Son of God did not merely unite his divine Hypostasis to our nature…but, O incomparable and magnificent miracle! He unites himself also to human hypostases, joining himself to each of the faithful by communion in his holy Body. For he becomes one body with us (Eph 3:6), making us a temple of the whole Godhead (Col 2:9). How then would he not illuminate those who share worthily in the divine radiance of his Body within us, shining upon their soul as he once shone on the bodies of the apostles on Tabor? For as this Body, the source of the light of grace, was at that time not yet united to our body, it shone exteriorly on those who came near it worthily, transmitting light to the soul through the eyes of sense. But today, since it is united to us and dwells with us, it illumines the soul interiorly” (Triads I.3.38).

Fr John Meyendorff gives a poignant commentary on this passage. “Since the Incarnation, our bodies have become ‘temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us’ (1 Cor 6:19); it is there, within our own bodies, that we must seek the Spirit, within our bodies sanctified by the sacraments and engrafted by the eucharist into the Body of Christ. God is now to be found within; He is no longer exterior to us. Therefore, we must find the light of Mount Tabor within ourselves. The apostles had only an exterior vision, for Christ had not yet died and risen from the dead, but today we are, all of us, in living reality members of His Body, the Church.”[1]

As we meditate on Christ’s Transfiguration and celebrate the mystery of his glorified life, it is important that we be aware of an aspect of Orthodoxy that stands at the very heart of our faith. It is the fact that we are called—invited—to assume an extraordinary responsibility that can lead to an ineffable end of glory and joy. That responsibility is simply to accept, with gratitude and faithfulness, the ascetic way that leads from repentance and “purification” through “illumination,” and on to “deification.” This was originally proposed as the pathway for catechumens, who progressed toward baptism and full participation in the Body of Christ. Under monastic influence, it came to signify the pilgrimage open to every Christian believer who is drawn toward the eternal Light that illumines all things and gives meaning to it all.

The apostles, on Mount Tabor and in the Upper Room on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, had only an “exterior vision” of that Light, that Presence. Through eucharistic communion, we, like they in the aftermath of Pentecost, have Christ dwelling in us. We have become the shekinah of the Lord. And if we look hard enough, we can even find within ourselves the Light of Mount Tabor.

[1] J. Meyendorff, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (SVS Press, 1998), p. 107, italics added.