The Holy Transfiguration, August 6 (19), is one of the Great Feasts of the Church – but I’ll bet if you asked Americans “What is the Transfiguration?”, ninety nine out of a hundred would say “Eh?” Or maybe some might think it was the latest super-hero movie. This is our second forgotten Feast.
The first is the Epiphany, which gets ignored because it comes after our cultural celebrations of Thanksgiving, Shopping, Santa Claus and Bowl Games, and after all that commotion everybody is just wiped out and poor Epiphany gets lost.
The problem with Transfiguration here in the West is that other Christians don’t emphasize it, so people here rarely hear about it. Also it falls while half everybody is out of town or otherwise mentally “on vacation”. The result, at least at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, is that those who come to Transfiguration Liturgy feel very blessed but usually also pretty lonesome.
Thus we lose much.
Orthodox theologians have made much of the Transfiguration, and with good reason. Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ appears, for the first time, seen in his heavenly Glory! A wonderful awe-inspiring event which is the key to who He truly is, and what He calls us to become – and so much more.
Thirty years ago as I moved towards Orthodoxy, it wasn’t that I literally saw light, but the only way I could describe what was happening to me was “moving into the light”.
Maybe one reason why the New Testament and Orthodoxy speak so much of light, of Glory, is because of the light in the deserts of the Near East, and the light of the Mediterranean. One morning on an island in the Aegean, Khouria Dianna and I got up early to see the sunrise. The light seemed to jump out of the sea, over the islands suddenly, the rays of the sun almost palpable.
I’ve wondered if light actually is the Glory of God. Scientifically, light is undefinable. OK, they says it’s “photons”, but nobody really knows what a photon is. (I guess ultimately only God know what anything really is, but that’s another story.) Photons have characteristics of matter, characteristics of energy. Could light from the Big Bang till now be the Glory of God pouring out into our universe? Do we live in the literal light of God every day without thinking about it? “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” 1 John 1:5
In my mind all these images are tied up together with the Transfiguration. For the chief reason light is a central theme of Orthodoxy is the Glory of Jesus Christ, and the people of God perceiving His Glory, experiencing the Glory, preparing to enter into the Light. In The Life of Moses, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote that the purpose of the Christian life is to advance “from glory to glory”. Orthodox churches traditionally face east, toward the rising sun, Christ “the daystar from the east”, as we sing.
Now and then people have seen the uncreated * Light of God: Moses on Mount Sinai, his face so bright after he prayed before the Ark of the Covenant, that to protect the peoples’ eyes he had to veil his face. Elijah taken up in the chariot of fire. Radiant angels at the Resurrection. John in his Revelation saw Christ, his face shining like the sun, and then the Theotokos clothed in that same Light.
* Theologians distinguish between the uncreated Light of God and the created light of God. I don’t think I understand this. Can someone explain?
Abba Joseph right in the desert counseled a novice, “If you wish you can be all flame”, and then as he prayed, hands uplifted, fire rose from his fingertips. Saint Seraphim of Sarov walking by night in the forest, his face too brilliant for his disciple Motovilov to look at, the falling snow illumined by it. The Light has been seen by a few who pray the Jesus Prayer.
Eastern saints sometimes radiate light. Western saints tend to have the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on their bodies. But even in the West… my sixth grade teacher (memory eternal, Mrs. Andrews) told how at her home Baptist church in Alabama, the children used to peek when one of the elders prayed (Protestants are supposed to pray with eyes closed, for some reason), because when he really got into it they could see the light shining around his face.
The source of it all is the light of the Transfiguration.