Transfiguration


The Divine Person of Jesus Christ, Who possessed all the fullness of Divine life, and Who at the same time became perfect Man (i.e. man in all things but sin), not only re-establishes in its original purity the image of God defiled by man in his fall (“having refashioned the soiled image to its former estate”),[Kontakion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy] but also conjoins the human nature assumed by Him with the Divine life – “suffused it with Divine beauty”. The Fathers of the VIIth Oecumenical Council say, “He (God) recreated him (man) into immortality by giving him this inalienable gift. This recreation was more in God’s likeness and better than the first creation – this gift is eternal”, the gift of communion with the Divine beauty and glory. Christ, the new Adam, the beginning of the new creature – the heavenly man bearing the Holy Spirit within him – brings man to that aim for which the first Adam was created and from which he turned away through his fall; he brings him to the fulfilment of the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him: “Let us make man according to our own image and likeness” (Gen. i,26). According to this design, man should be not only an image of God, his Creator, but should also bear His likeness. Yet in the description of the accomplished act of creation “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him” (Gen. i,27), nothing is said about likeness. It is given to man as a task, to be fulfilled by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the free participation of man himself. Freely and consciously, “since the expression ‘according to the image’ indicates capacity of mind and freedom”, man enters into the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him and creates his likeness to God, insofar as is possible for him, “for the expression ‘according to the likeness’ means likeness to God in virtues (perfections)” [St John of Damascus], in this way participating in the work of Divine creation.

Thus, if the Divine Hypostasis of the Son of God became Man, our case is the reverse: man can become god, not by nature, but by grace. God descends in becoming Man; man ascends in becoming god. Assuming the likeness of Christ, he becomes “the temple of the Holy Ghost” which is in him (I Cor. vi, 19), re-establishes his likeness to God. Human nature remains what it is – the nature of a creature; but his person, his hypostasis, by acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit, by this very fact associates itself with Divine life, thus changing the very being of its creaturely nature. The grace of the Holy Spirit penetrates into his nature, combines with it, fills and transfigures it. Man grows, as it were, into the eternal life, the beginning of deification, which will be made fully manifest in the life to come.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Language of Icons,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 34-35.

Central to the vision of the Greek Fathers is their sense of the paradox of God’s distance and his closeness, his majesty and his nearness. On the one hand, God is utterly beyond anything we can know or imagine: he is transcendently unknowable – they would have applauded the opinion of the pagan Greek philosopher, Damascius, who said, ‘we do not even know whether he is unknowable.’ On the other hand, God, as the source of all being, as the source of our being, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

But for the Greek Fathers this is more than just an intellectual paradox about transcendence and immanence. For in Christ the transcendent God has become a human being just like us: the intellectual paradoxes of the infinitely distant and infinitely close are historically true of the of the one the gospels call Jesus of Nazareth, the one born in a stable, the one who died on a cross. The paradoxes intensify as the source of life comes into being in the womb of Mary, the ‘Bearer of God’, and life succumbs to death on the cross, only to be manifest as life triumphant over death in the resurrection. ‘Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the tombs given life!’ – as Greek Christians, Orthodox Christians, sing, with inexhaustible joy, as they celebrate the resurrection at Easter.

But the paradoxes do not end there either. For the Greek Fathers ‘theology’ is not an intellectual exercise, whether practised on matters philosophical or historical: it is an experience, realized in prayer, made possible through responding to God’s self-emptying love in the incarnation by our own attempts at ascetic struggle and self-denying love. The experience is transforming, transfiguring: its fruits are the virtues of faith, humility, serenity (or ‘dispassion’), but what we become in our transfigured state is God himself. So to the paradox of incarnation – God became a man – there corresponds the paradox of deification – the human person transfigured by, and into, God. And all this is celebrated in the services of the church, the liturgy, preeminently the Eucharistic Liturgy, in which the whole material creation – bread and wine, water and oil, smells and colours, music and shape, the beauty of creation and the art of human creativity – is drawn into the celebration of God’s transfiguring love for the whole of his creation.

Father Andrew Louth, “Introduction” to The Wisdom of the Greek Fathers(Lion Publishing, 1997), 6-8.

I’m normally a little hesitant about these sort of anthologies designed for the “spirituality” market! But considering the combination of Father Andrew Louth, the Greek Fathers, my looking for accessible things to provide a slightly different view of Christianity to that which most of my family and friends see as the norm, and my search for suitable quotes for making little books, and I thought this would be worth looking at. And reading Father Andrew’s introduction, I thought that it was defintely worth posting.

What else does he mean by “the eye” than simply the mind, which will never become simple unless it contemplates the simple light? The simple light is Christ. He who has his light shining in his mind is said to have the mind of Christ. When your light is this simple, then the whole immaterial body of your soul will be full of light. If the mind is evil, that is, darkened and extinguished, then this body of yours will be full of darkness. …

We say, “See to it, brothers, that while we seem to be in God and think that we have communion with him we should not be found excluded and separated from him, since we do not now see his light.” If that light had kindled our lamps, that is, our souls, it would shine brightly in us. Our God and Lord Jesus Christ said, “If your whole body is full of life, having no dark part, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.” What other witness greater than this shall we adduce to make the matter clear to you? If you disbelieve the Master, how will you, tell me, believe your fellow servant?

Symeon the New Theologian, Discourses 33.2, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 196-197.

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!