The Transfiguration: Theophany of our Salvation
Troparion — Tone 7:
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God, revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Theotokos. O Giver of Light, glory to You!
Kontakion — Tone 7:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God, And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it; So that when they would behold You crucified, They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary, And would proclaim to the world, That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
August 6 of each year the Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, one of the 12 great feasts for the Church. All Christians, both East & West, acknowledge that the Transfiguration was the revelation of our Lord’s divinity. But for the East this feast reveals this as well as much more.
First, the East sees this event as a theophany (literally: appearance of God), a manifestation of the Holy Trinity of whom all 3 persons perform their role in our salvation with the eternal Godhead. At the Transfiguration of Christ, all 3 persons of the Godhead were manifested. First the Son is present manifesting his divinity. The Father is present speaking out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” The Holy Spirit is present shining forth in the dazzling light that surrounded all present. Moses the Law-Giver, who died, & Elijah the Prophet, who did not, represent more than just the “Law & Prophets” for the East; they also represent the living & the dead. All who will appear before Christ at the Second Glorious Coming. (2 Tim. 4:1)
Orthodox theologians declare that it was not actually Christ that was transfigured so that the 3 apostles, Peter, James & John, could see his divine power & glory. Instead, through the Holy Spirit, their physical eyes were spiritually opened so that they could see the true reality, the true being of the Son of God. By this time in history, they had lived with Christ for almost 3 years; they well knew that He was fully-man through their physical eyes. Now on the Mount Tabor their spiritual eyes were also opened; they now knew full well that Christ was fully-God.
In Orthodox Tradition this experience of the divine glory of the Transfiguration is not a one-time historical occurrence that was reserved for 3 very special apostles. This divine light can be witnessed by us mortal humans today as we pursue the path of holiness—of salvation—as many holy men & women have across the centuries of Church history. St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359 AD) explained the experience of the divine uncreated light of God in his work Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts (1338 AD). He wrote that while God is unknowable in His divine essence (nature, Gr: Ουσία), God can be experienced & thus known through His divine energies (manifestations, actions, Gr: Ενέργειαι).
This brings us to the second revelation of the Transfiguration for the Orthodox, the revelation of the ultimate fulfillment of our salvation, our deification or theosis as it is also called. For the Orthodox our salvation is an ever-deepening union with & in the Holy Trinity through the divine energies. St. John the Theologian, writer of the gospel & 3 letters that bear his name as well as the Apocalypse (Revelation), states that “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2) & again elsewhere “because as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians we all “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Thus the Transfiguration of our Lord is also our transfiguration. St. Athanasius of Alexandria (4th c.) states it such, “For He was made man that we might be made God;” (On The Incarnation). St. Mark the Monk (5th c.) declares, “The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos.” (Letter to St. Nicolas the Solitary) Our Lord Himself stated, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? (John 10:34 quoting Psalm 81 [LXX] / 82 [MT]: 6)
All Christian traditions believe that mankind was created in the image & likeness of God, or at least I am unfamiliar with any that do not adhere to this. For most this means that mankind was created perfect with full knowledge. No differentiation is made between the image vs. the likeness; they are synonymous. The problem with this idea of perfection in creation leaves us questioning how mankind could have therefore sinned in the first place. Such perfection in creation &/or knowledge would have rendered sin, & thus death, impossible. Laying all questions aside though, mankind sinned & perfection was lost. For most Christ restored mankind back to his original perfection of Genesis 1.
The East on the other hand has always maintained a difference between image & likeness. The East holds that mankind was created both in the image & according to the likeness of God. Therefore, mankind was created innocent with limited knowledge, or with “…a certain primordial congruence between man’s being & God’s Being.” (Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, Vladimir Lossky) Through service, obedience & God’s grace, mankind was to develop in holiness & deeper union with God, or to increase in the likeness of God. As Lossky writes elsewhere, “Thus creation in the image & likeness of God implied the idea of participation in the divine Being, of communion with God. That is to say, it presupposes grace.” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church) In other words salvation—deification—theosis, was the challenge & purpose for mankind from the very moment of his creation. For the East Christ not only restored human nature to the original state of the divine image, but also fully bestowed in it the fullness of the divine likeness. For the Orthodox the Transfiguration therefore reveals both this fullness of the image of God as well as the fullness of the likeness of God. This was the ultimate & eternal reality of Christ’s Incarnation as fully-God & fully-man. Furthermore, this will also be our ultimate & eternal reality.
We, however, have to make this image & this likeness manifest within ourselves. St. Diadochos of Photiki (5th c.) in his work On Spiritual Knowledge & Discrimination: One Hundred Texts #89 describes beautifully our transformation according to the likeness of God. We, mankind, have our own role to accomplish our ultimate salvation; we are to become fully divine as well as fully human through our life in Christ, God’s grace. St. John states in the next verse of chapter 3 “And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” This “self-purification” is more than just behaving better or being nicer. Rather involves a real effort & striving for holiness & thus deeper union in Christ. St. Irenaeus of Lyons echoes him: “but following the only true & steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against Heresies). Through the ascetic practices, pursuit of the divine virtues, participation in the mysteries (sacraments), battle against the evil passions & striving in other spiritual endeavors, we not only experience, but actually become the divine light of God, gods by grace. In the words of Abba Joseph of Panephysis (4th c.):
‘If you will, you can become all fire!’
(Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
For more on deification: Deification—Theosis—Salvation in Church Tradition
Hymns for the Transfiguration of our Lord from the Festal Menaion:
Small Vespers, p. 468:
Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues: let us be transformed this day into a better state & direct our minds too heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ. For in His mercy the Savior of our souls has transfigured disfigured man & made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.
Let us who love to see & hear things past understanding, mystically behold Christ shining as light with the rays of divine splendor; & let us make the Father’s voice resound, who proclaimed Him as His well-beloved Son. On Mount Tabor He makes bright the weakness of man & bestows enlightenment upon our souls.
Let the assembly of all on earth & in the world above be moved to praise Christ our God, Lord both of the living & the dead. For when He was divinely transfigured on Tabor, the Savior of our souls was pleased to have at His side the leaders & the preachers of both the Law & Grace.
Great Vespers, p. 475:
Christ, the Light that shone before the sun, who in the body went about the earth, having fulfilled before His Crucifixion, as befitted His divine majesty, all things pertaining to His fearful dispensation, this day has mystically made known on Mount Tabor the image of the Trinity. For taking apart the three disciples He had expressly chosen, Peter, James, & John, He led them up into the mountain by themselves; & for a short time He concealed the flesh He had assumed, & was transfigured before them, making manifest the excellence of the original beauty, though not in its full perfection. For while giving them full assurance He also spared them, lest perchance at the site they should lose their lives: yet they saw as much as their bodily eyes were able to receive. He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses & Elijah, who testified to his divinity, that He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the father, the Ruler of the living & the dead. Wherefore a cloud wrapped them round like a tent; & out of the cloud from above loudly sounded the voice of the Father, testifying & saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, whom I have begotten without change from the womb before the morning star: Him have I sent to save those who are baptized in the Name of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, & to confess the faith that the One Power of the Godhead is indivisible. Hear ye him.’ And do thou Thyself, O Christ our God, supreme in goodness, who lovest mankind, shine upon us with the light of Thy glory that no man can approach & make us worthy to inherit Thy never-ending Kingdom.
Matins, p. 478:
Thou wast transfigured on Mount Tabor, showing the exchange mortal men will make with Thy glory at Thy second & fearful coming, O Savior. Elijah & Moses talked with Thee, & Thou hast called the three disciples to be with Thee. As they gazed upon Thy glory, O Master, they were struck with wonder at Thy blinding brightness. Do Thou who then hast shone upon them with Thy light, give light now to our souls.
From The Canon For The Transfiguration Of Our Lord:
Canticle 3, first Canon, p. 483-4:
The bow of the mighty has waxed feeble & the weak have girded themselves with strength: therefore is my heart is established in the Lord.
Thou hast put Adam on entire, O Christ, & changing the nature grown dark in past times, Thou hast filled it with glory & made it godlike by the alteration of Thy form.
In the past Christ led Israel in the wilderness with the pillar of fire & the cloud; & today ineffably He has shone forth in light upon Mount Tabor.
Canticle 5, second Canon, p. 487:
O Light that never sets, why hast Thou cast me from Thy face? And why has the alien darkness covered me in my wretchedness? But I entreat Thee, cause me to return & direct my paths towards the light of Thy commandments.
No tongue, however eloquent, can declare Thy mighty works. For Thou who art Lord of life & Master of death hast called Moses & Elijah before the on Mount Tabor, to bear witness to Thy divinity.
Thou, O Christ, with invisible hands hast fashioned man in Thine image; & Thou hast now displayed the original beauty in this same human body formed by Thee, revealing it, not as in an image, but as Thou art in Thine own self according to Thine essence, being both God & man.
In a union without confusion, Thou has shown us on Mount Tabor the life coal of the Godhead that consumes sins while it enlightens souls, & Thou has caught up in ecstasy Moses & Elijah & the chief disciples.