The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ
By Father Zacharias Thornbury (08/06/2017)
Many, many years ago, something incredible happened in the land of Egypt. A Hebrew, who had once been a slave of the Pharaoh but had fled, returned 40 years later. And when he returned he did so having been chosen by God to lead his people out of bondage, and into a relationship with God that would have repercussions on the world for the rest of time.
Three months after their dramatic escape from the army of the Pharaoh, the Israelites reached the foot of Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb.
Here, Moses ascended the mountain and spoke to God, and God made a covenant, an agreement, with Moses and with all the Israelites, that they would be His people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, as they long as they lived in the manner which He desired, and which he related to Moses.
And after Moses went down from the mountain and told these things to the people, God again called Moses up to the summit, And so Moses ascended the mountain again, and the glory of God covered the top of the mountain for six days, and after the six days God called to Moses and appeared to him there, and his appearance shone brightly, like a burning fire on top of the mountain.
When Moses descended a second time to speak with the Israelites, his face was shining brightly also, radiating the divine light of God’s presence, so much so that the people were afraid, and he had to cover his face with a veil any time that he went out in public to speak with them.
A third time, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai and spoke with God, now as one would speak with his friend. And Moses pleads with God, asking that he show Himself to him, so that he could be certain that God would help him lead the Israelites through the desert.
God answers Moses saying, “I will do this for you, I will pass by you in my full glory, but when I do you have to huddle behind this rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I pass by you, and only then, once I have passed by, will you be able to look at my back, for no man is able to handle seeing my face and live.”
So great is the glory of God, my brothers and sisters, that not even Moses, whom God has chosen, was able to look directly at it.
Centuries later this mountain would be visited by the divine presence again.
The kingdom of Israel has been divided, and the Northern Kingdom has fallen under the rule of a series of terrible kings. The current king, in an attempt at fostering domestic peace and uniting his people, has given support to the cult of the Canaanite god Baal (bay-el), going so far as to even marry Jezebel, one of the false god’s priestesses.
It is at this time that the great prophet Elijah rises up and confronts the King and the whole nation of Israel, berating them for their fall into worship of a false God. Jezebel is infuriated by Elijah’s words, and promises to have him killed.
And so we find Elijah, running for his life away from the wicked king of Israel and his wife, despondent, ready to give up and die, believing that he is the only follower of the True God left. But an angel comes to him and leads him to Mount Horeb.
There, Elijah spends the night in a cave, and the Word of God comes to him, telling him to go stand at the top of the mountain, where God would visit.
He obeys, and suddenly a strong wind blows, causing rocks to crash down around him. This is followed by a mighty earthquake, and after the earthquake a raging, roaring fire, and in all of these things, Elijah did not find God. It wasn’t until after these things that there comes a small voice on a gentle breeze. And when he hears it, Elijah knows that he is in the presence of God, and he covers his face with his cloak, remembering what it was that God had told Moses, that no one could see the face of God and live.
This is a lot of history, my brothers and sisters, I know, but it is important that we, as Orthodox Christians, not forget, or - God forbid - never learn, the things that took place before the coming of Christ. What we find in the Old Testament, the Old Covenant that God made with his people, is a
record of God’s revelation of Himself to the world, and the response of the people to whom He chose to reveal Himself, to this revelation.
In it we can see the hand of God moving, that Master Craftsman who fashioned the entire created order, laying the foundation for a new temple where He will be worshipped; the ekklesia - we, the Church, the body of Christ. We can see Him laying the stones, which are the laws and commandments, holding them together with a mortar, that is the prophets, and beginning with the cornerstone of Christ, the Word of God, through which he made the world, and completing it with the keystone that is also Christ, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
You see, after another span of centuries, and roughly 390 miles northeast of Mount Sinai, an event would take place on another mountain, that would be the capstone of the experiences of both Moses and Elijah.
On this day a certain Jesus, the son of Joseph, ascends mount Tabor with three of his disciples; Peter, James and John. Six days before Jesus had been conversing with his disciples and asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” He then asked the disciples directly, “But who do YOU say that I am?” It was Peter who replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
After this acknowledgement, Jesus revealed to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, where he would be killed, and rise on third day. Again, it was Peter who cried, “You cannot! This will never happen to you!”
O Peter! You rock on which Jesus has said he will build His church! You, to whom the Word of God has promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven! How quickly you can fall from the heights of heaven back down to the depths of the earth! Rightly did your Christ say to you, “You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
But on this day Jesus leads Peter back up to the heights, along with James and John, ascending Mount Tabor to pray. These same three will later accompany Jesus to pray in the Garden of Gethsemene, and as they will do there, here too they allow themselves to be overcome with sleep while they wait.
But they are suddenly roused by a bright light, and as they open their eyes they are presented with an overwhelming sight: Jesus, the one they have professed to be the Christ, the promised Messiah, is standing within a blinding halo of light, his face shining brighter than the sun, his clothing having turned a brilliant white and sparkling brighter than the stars. And standing on either side of him, speaking with him, are Moses, the Law- bringer, and Elijah, who called down fire from the sky, and who was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot.
That great prophet Moses, who brought the people of Israel out of bondage and led them into the freedom of God, who delivered to them the Law from God himself, speaks to Jesus as a student speaks to his teacher. And Elijah, who rebuked kings, and who silenced false prophets, defers to Christ as a servant to his Master.
In his rapture Peter calls out to Jesus, “Master, this time, this place... it is good for us to be here! Let me build three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah, so that we can stay here, and you will not have to die.”
O Peter! Again you have been shown heaven, but again you have chosen earth! The one whom you have confessed to be the Messiah has told you that he must descend into death and rise back into life, but you still choose to plant your feet on the earth rather than give it up for heaven. It is right that the Physician commented in his Gospel that you knew not what it is that you have said! For this time, this place, this life is not the one in which we should remain, but Christ must die and rise again so that he can bring us new life, so that we can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
While Peter is still talking, the same cloud of glory that covered Sinai appears and covers now Tabor, and the Father speaks, his voice sounding like thunder: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
On hearing the voice the disciples throw themselves down in fear and awe, covering their faces, like the face of Moses was covered, and like Elijah covered his face. But, my brothers and sisters, I want you to pay close attention to what happens next.
The disciples have prostrated themselves on the ground, filled with fear and awe at the voice of God that has thundered around them, and they have covered their faces, remembering what God told Moses, that no one can look upon Him and live.
And in this state, as the voice of God echoes away, suddenly a soft, gentle touch. Remember the experience of Elijah, how after the crashing and roaring it was in the soft, gentle breeze that he found God? Well, here, after the brightness of the divine light, and the thunder of the voice from the clouds, the disciples find God in the soft, gentle touch of Jesus, and Jesus says to them, “Rise, and have no fear.”
As the disciples open their eyes they see only Jesus: Moses and Elijah have vanished, and the brilliant light that had enveloped Christ is gone.
O Peter, do you understand now what has happened? Though you threw yourself down to the ground, Christ has risen you up once more. You have gone from looking at the earth to having seen the face God, and you lived. The light you saw shining from Jesus is the same light that was reflected in the face of Moses after his encounter on Mount Sinai, that uncreated light that is the glory of God!
Moses and Elijah, the two people who best represent your Law and Prophets, stood by while it was of Jesus that God the Father proclaimed, “Listen to him!” Where at first you saw three people, now you see that Moses, the Law, and Elijah, the Prophets, have become one in the Gospel, in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
Peter, James and John have seen with their own eyes their God. Jesus has revealed to them his divine glory and has signaled a new relationship between the Holy Trinity, and the world. Where before He warned Moses that to view his full glory would mean death, now the Word of God has taken the form of his creation, and walks among us. He lowered Himself, so that he might raise us up.
He who created the world by speaking it into existence, now tells the world, “Rise, and have no fear.” He who reached up his hand to set the stars in the sky and divide the light from the darkness now extends his hand to lift us up from the ground.
Today we celebrate this event, the Metamorphosis, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. We are not just remembering an event that happened, but celebrating an event that we are experiencing right now, in this present day.
When Christ was changed, and he shone with a dazzling light, we see what the Evangelist meant when he wrote that Christ is the light of men, the true light which gives light to every one coming into the world. And what the Psalmist meant when he sang, “For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we shall see light,” and Isaiah, when he prophesied that, “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”
Jesus, both fully human and also fully divine, is that light. He came to show us the way back to the Garden of Eden, to Paradise. To return us to that relationship that existed between humanity and God before the Fall.
When Adam and Eve cast themselves out of Paradise we hear that God made for them tunics of leather to wear, since they had darkened the original glory in which they were created. But now Christ shines his light in the world, and when a person is baptized in the sacrament that is also known as Holy Illumination, we sing, “Grant me a new garment of light, you who clothe yourself with light as a robe, O most merciful Christ our God.”
You see, brothers and sisters, if you have been baptized, then God has already clothed you in this robe of light, the garment of salvation. You now wear the same light that shone forth from the top of Mount Tabor 2,000 years ago, the same light that clothed humanity in Paradise at the beginning of our creation, that same light that we were created with when God made us in his image.
Isaiah prophesied more than 2500 years ago, and we now sing his words today, during every Pascha, “Shine! Shine O New Jerusalem! For the glory of the Lord has a risen over you!” Φωτίζου, φωτίζου ἡ νέα Ἱερουσαλήμ· ἡ γὰρ δόξα Κυρίου ἐπὶ σὲ ἀνέτειλε! We, brothers and sisters, are the New Jerusalem! And these words we sing are not just words of celebration, but a command, a call to action!
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians writes, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.”
Now that we have been bathed in His light, we must continue to live in His light. We cannot sit idle and hope that God will somehow transport us into his Kingdom. We are told to “walk,” to move, to continue to progress towards the Kingdom by learning what it is that is acceptable to the Lord.
God did not appear to Moses on the plains, to Elijah in the valley, to Peter, James and John in the fields. They had to walk, had to climb up the mountain. It took effort, but their effort was rewarded. Brothers and sisters, we too will be rewarded for our efforts, if we bother to make them. We too will be lifted up from the ground by Christ, be comforted from our fears, and be able to look into the face of God and live eternally with him.
So let us get up, brothers and sisters, from our idleness, let us come out of our darkness, and listen to the prophet Isaiah when says, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.”
We must seek after that relationship with God which we were created for. The path back to God can be found in the words of Christ, set down in writing by his followers, and taught for generations by the Church. In the writings known as the New Testament, God is telling us how to walk the path back to him. Read it, learn it, hear the voice of Christ. The Word of God made incarnate in the person of Jesus has shown us the way back to Paradise, as the Psalmist knew well when he sang, “Your Word is a lamp for my feet, and a light on my path.”
In closing, let me repeat that last call of the Prophet Isaiah but in the words of a hymn for the vespers of this feast, to show you again hoeOld Testament echoes even now: “Come, let us ascend into the mountain of the Lord, even to the house of our God, and behold the glory of His Transfiguration, glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father. Let us receive light from His Light, and with uplifted spirits let us for ever sing the praises of the consubstantial Trinity.”
He who is worthy of all glory and honor and worship, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.