The biblical image of the deity as luminous is central to the patristic theological and spiritual vision. How thoroughly the Johannine celebration of the image of light has penetrated the Eastern spiritual vision is clearly seen in Egyptian and Syro-Palestinian desert spirituality, the writings of seminal theologians like the Cappadocians, the hesychast tradition of Mount Athos, Russian spirituality, as well as in the liturgical texts and the practice of iconography. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” is the message John proclaims, which, he testifies, he and his fellow apostles heard from Jesus Christ himself (1 John 1:5). The incarnate image of that light was Christ himself. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). This glorious light has become the life of the world and so the whole creation now is animated by it. The highest aspiration in the Eastern view thus consists not only in walking in this light, which constitutes our ethical being, but in becoming light itself, participating fully in the divine glory.
The image of resplendent divine light is a visual symbol that relates the fleeting experience of beauty in our senses to the abiding beauty of heavenly Jerusalem through the incarnate image of Christ, “the image of the invisible God” and the “effulgence of God’s glory”. The destiny of creation is to become luminous and transparent to the source of all being. As one of the prayers of the Eastern church says: “O God, you started the work of creation with light in order that the whole creation may become light.” The patristic vision of the mutually transparent choirs of angels that encircle and dance around the luminous throne of light and its confident faith in humanity’s possibility to participate in this radiant choreography of beauty is not a metaphorical embellishment to theology, but it is theology at its best. This aesthetic vision is decisive for God-language, and it flows into an ensemble of colours, sounds, smell, taste, gestures and rites. The hope is that the thick, heavy matter that now weighs us down in various forms shall become incandescent by participation in the divine light. As Gregory of Nazianzus, the poet-theologian, says of the transfiguration of Christ, “it initiates us into the mystery of the future”. The light of Tabor, the mount of transfiguration, is for Gregory and other teachers of the church the symbol par excellence of the beauty and goodness of created nature; and light signifies its final destiny as well. This aesthetic experience is unquestionably true to the essential meaning of the incarnation, which signifies the participation of created nature in the experience of divinisation, as formulated in the famous dictum of Athanasius that “God became a human being that human beings may become divine”. The conviction that all matter, including inorganic matter, carries the potential of transfiguration underscores the sacramental vision and spiritual practice of the Eastern church.
K.M. George, The Silent Roots: Orthodox Perspectives on Christian Spirituality (Risk book series) (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1994) 20-21.
Today is the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. I remain puzzled, as I am each year, as to why the Western Church only celebrates it as a feast and not as a solemnity. As I typed this extract I wanted to respond to Father George’s references to the Eastern Church or the Eastern vision by saying “But that is our heritage as well!” Certainly in the monastic tradition, one would expect the Transfiguration to be central. Yet we only celebrate it as a feast whereas the decidedly more problematic – and recent – feasts like Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart of Jesus are celebrated as solemnities. Perhaps this is one more example of a shift having occurred in the Western tradition, the precise nature of which I’m still trying to get a handle on.
In any case, a blessed feast. May we see and become light in His Light!