Today we celebrate one of the Twelve great feasts of our ancient Orthodox Church – the Transfiguration of our Lord. In the hymn for the forefeast it is proclaimes: “The day of holy gladness has come. The Lord has ascended Mount Tabor to radiate the beauty of His Divinity.”
The Gospel reading for this day (Matthew 17:1-9) tells us that Jesus took Peter, and the brothers James and John, and led them up a high mountain – Mt. Tabor – apart from the others, and there He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His garments became glistening, intensely white as light, and there appeared also Moses and Elijah, talking with our Lord. And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will erect three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." But while he was still speaking a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." And when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces filled with fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." And when they again opened their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus.
It's interesting to note, in this Gospel just prior to this account of the Transfiguration Jesus Christ asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mt. 16:13) The disciples – men who traveled with our Lord, listening to His holy teaching, having witnessed the cleansing of lepers, the healing of those paralyzed, the restoration of sight to the blind, the casting out of demons, the resurrection of Jairus’s young daughter, who heard the great parables and ate alongside the 4,000 and again among the 5,000 miraculously fed in the wilderness – these very same disciples reply, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, while still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Then He asks them, "But who do you say that I am?" And it’s Simon Peter who replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." It’s only a matter of days after this confession by Peter that the Transfiguration takes place.
In the Old Testament, the appearance of light and cloud – as we have in today’s Gospel – signify the Divine Presence. We read in Exodus (24:15-17): “Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days: and the seventh day God called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” Likewise, at the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor the bright cloud that overshadowed Peter, James, and John reveals the Divine Presence, and the Theophany here too was accompanied by a brilliant radiance. In other words, like on Mt. Sinai, God is here, but this time it’s God in mortal flesh; bearing our own mortal nature – Jesus Christ.
In their lifetimes, both Moses, the great Lawgiver, and Elijah, first among the prophets, had beheld the presence of God – as the Readings at Vespers last night pointed out – and thus they were appropriate witnesses on Mt. Tabor to Christ’s divinity. In this mystical event they are permitted to witness what they had eagerly anticipated but never seen while they were still in the flesh – the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Law and the Prophets – the incredible mystery of God’s plan for the salvation of a fallen creation, the Uncreated joined to the created in the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
But isn’t it curious that the Lord took with Him on the mountain only these three of His Apostles – Peter, and the brothers James and John? Although God sometimes reveals Himself to us sinners in quite unexpected ways, it is usually those who have followed Him long and faithfully who are privileged to behold the vision of God.
Concerning the selection of just these three out of the twelve holy Apostles, St. John Chrysostom says, “These three were superior to the rest. Peter’s superiority is made evident to us by his exceeding love for Christ” (Homily LVI, On the Gospel of St. Matthew, NPNF, Series One, vol. 10, p. 345.). And the brothers James and John are proven superior by their determination to share in the suffering of their Lord. If you’ll recall it was their mother who came to Jesus asking that her sons may sit, one at His right hand and the other at His left, in His kingdom. “And Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ And James and John replied, ‘We are willing’,” (Mt. 20:20-22). Notice that they do not say that they are able, but that they are willing. This is the willingness of love.
We all, like these three, are given the opportunity to behold the vision of God; to be transfigured in our own lives, in these bodies; to attain to intimate communion with God. How? What must we do? Each day, each moment, we must determine to make a new beginning; and with each new beginning we must determine to love God and our fellow mankind with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength – loving these others more than our own lives. This is the center of the Christian life, of genuine human life, and it is the singular ingredient in the making of eternal life.
How do we know if our love is genuine? In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, "Love, in the Christian sense, does not mean an emotion. It is a state not of the feelings but of the will; that state of the will which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people," (Mere Christianity, Book 3, ch. 9). This is the 'willing' love revealed in James' and John's willingness to suffer and die for their Lord. In Answers to Questions on Christianity, Lewis again reminds us, saying, "Love is not affectionate feelings," but he goes on further to explain that love is "a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained."
As we know, our Lord tells us to love all our fellow man – including our enemies. St. Paul informs us of love saying, “Let love be without falseness. Despise what is evil; keep your minds fixed on what is good. Be kind to one another with a brother’s love, putting others before yourselves in honor; Be not slow in your godly labors, but be quick in spirit, as the Lord’s servants; Be joyous in hope, patient amidst trouble, at all times given to prayer, giving to the needs of the saints," which is to say your fellow Christians; "ready to take people into your homes. Give blessing and do not curse those who are cruel to you. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and share in the grief of those who sorrow. Be in harmony with one another. Do not have a high opinion of yourselves, but humble yourself to men of low estate. Do not put on an air of wisdom. Do not repay evil for evil to any man. Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. As far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men,” (Rom. 12:9-18).
These things are enough to make our beginning. These things alone could occupy our lifetime. We will, however, certainly never achieve them if our eye is fixed upon the failings of others, or upon the achievements of our flesh, or the distractions and common wisdom of this world and our society. Let us then – you and I – make our new beginning here, keeping our eyes and our hope fixed upon our Transfigured Lord, remembering that it is our mortal nature which shone forth with the divine Transfiguration (From the Kontakion of the Forefeast).