Aristotle Papanikolaou, PhD
What happened on the day of our Lord’s Transfiguration? On this day, Jesus took with him three disciples, Peter, John and James, three of the better-known disciples. He took them to a ‘high’ mountain, the Bible tells us (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). They are at the ‘high’ mountain, which is often a place of revelation in the Bible, and at this mountain Jesus is transfigured. St. Matthew tells us, ‘and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.’ St. Luke tells us that the ‘appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.’ St. Mark adds, ‘His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.’
What does this mean? It means two things. First, the presence of the ‘light’ on the ‘high’ mountain is a manifestation, a revelation that in Jesus of Nazareth dwells the fullness of the divine presence. We often ask ourselves, ‘how do we know God?’ or, ‘Where is God?’ The Transfiguration of the Lord is a confirmation for us that if we want to know who God is we look at Jesus; not simply his teachings, but his actions, his entire life, but most especially his crucifixion and resurrection. If we want to see God, we look at Jesus. Where is God? God is there (point to icon of Christ at Iconostasis). ‘Look at Jesus,’ the Bible tells us; he is the Christ, and he is so because he is God’s Son, he is God’s Word, in him God speaks. In him is mediated the fullness of God’s presence. Where is God? God is there, look at Jesus our Christ, and through Jesus, God is with us.
As Jesus is transfigured, the story continues that two people show up beside him. These two people are Moses and Elijah, two of the most important Old Testament prophets. They are there to confirm that this one, Jesus, is the one we were speaking about many years ago; he is the Christ of which we spoke, God’s Word, God’s Son, who will bring salvation to all. The story continues that after Moses and Elijah appeared, ‘a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” The fact that Jesus is the Son of God, that in him God speaks and is present, is confirmed by God, by God the Father. ‘This is my Son,’ if you want to know me, if you want to be with me, if you want me to be with you, then listen to him.
The story, in short, teaches us about what the Church has affirmed for centuries: the divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the God-man, truly God and truly human. As Rowans Williams so eloquently puts it, ‘Jesus’ human life is shot through with God’s, he is carried on the tide of God’s eternal life, and borne towards us on that tide, bringing with him all the fullness of the creator’ ( The Dwelling of the Light, 6). This is a deep mystery, which cannot be done justice in a 10-minute sermon, but probably needs a yearlong bible study. But let not the depth of the mystery obscure one thing, and that is if we want to see God, then we have to look at Jesus, if we want to learn about God, then we have to listen to Jesus, if want to be with God and God to be with us, then we have to be with Jesus and we have to allow Jesus to be with us.
There is one other thing which we learn from the story of Jesus’s Transfiguration. This other thing concerns us — it concerns our humanity. The story of the Transfiguration teaches us what we are called to be, the reason for our creation. We must never forget that in Jesus not only do we see God, but we see humanity, but not just any humanity, but humanity as it was meant to be. In Jesus we must see ourselves and what we are called to be. In short, we are called to be transfigured, to reflect the divine light through our very bodies.
How is this goal possible, how are we to be transfigured? Without our noticing, we see examples of transfiguration all around us, practically everyday. One example that immediately springs to mind is the person suffering from substance abuse who admits her/his problem, receives treatment and is able to remain sober. Somehow the sober alcoholic feels differently, acts differently, experiences life differently. I think also of the person in a therapeutic relationship, who in and through this relationship is able to experience healing and is able to be with others and to be with oneself in a different way. I think of people who have been blessed to experience a loving marriage for 30, 40, 50 years. When discussing love, I often ask my students, ‘do you think that the love shared by people who have managed to be together for so long is the same as when they first met?’ ‘Do you think those people are the same?’ There is a transfiguration of who we are that we experience in relationships of love insofar as who we are depends on the people who love us and those whom we love.
The common thread in all these everyday examples is that transfiguration depends on practices. We cannot experience transfiguration unless we are willing to engage in the practices that lead to transfiguration. If we are impatient and we wish to be patient people, then we have to perform acts of patience before we think of ourselves as patient. The alcoholic has to engage in certain practices, perhaps a 12-step program, before they transfigure themselves into sobriety. A marriage that last for 30, 40, 50 years can never do so unless certain practices are performed, the practices of trust, patience, love, to name a few.
If we want to experience the transfiguration of our being that comes from being with God, as we see in Jesus on the mountain, then we have to engage in certain practices. We have to first perform the practice of faith. We have to believe that such a transfiguration is indeed possible and desirable. Now faith is a tricky thing. It’s not something that one can simply turn on and off. We can’t wake up tomorrow and say, ‘today I’m going to have more faith.’ Faith is something that happens to us. Doubt often accompanies faith, and in the face of doubt, we must try to persevere in the hope that we may grow in faith. We grow in faith when we experience God more, but that can’t happen unless we persevere in the faith that we have and we engage in the types of practices that allow God to be present with us.
There are two types of practices which immediately spring to mind. During these 15 days of August devoted to the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, we fast. Fasting is not something we do to score points with God. Fasting is that practice in which we moderate or give up something which consumes us so that we can somehow make space for God to be with us.
The one practice, however, which is crucial to our transfiguration is the practice of prayer. I have my students read this book by the Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray. Of all the readings I assign, it’s the one they like the most. Prayer is something we need to learn to do, something we can’t force, something which must come from our hearts, and something which needs to begin in small quantities and allow slowly to be more a part of our lives. If we persevere in prayer, slowly allowing it to be more a part of our lives, there is absolutely no question that one will start to see oneself transfigured. We will be transfigured, because when we persevere in prayer, we allow God more and more to enter our lives. And when God enters, one cannot but help be transfigured by God’s presence.
Many of the saints of our church testify to the joy of being with God, of being in God’s presence, of the power of prayer. The saints are those advanced in prayer, who could often pray no matter what they are doing, it just sort of gushes out. Anthony Bloom tells us that this is an advanced level of prayer that only comes with time and perseverance. St. Seraphim of Sarov was one such example. He was a simple man, living in the forests of Russia in the 19 th century. One of his disciples relays the story of how in the midst of having a conversation with St. Seraphim, the saint became surrounded by this radiant light, his very person was transfigured through the constant prayer he keeps with God, even as he speaks with others.
The story of Jesus’s Transfiguration is the story of who Jesus is as God’s Son, it is a confirmation of God’s presence in Jesus and it is a confirmation of God’s promise to be with us. It is a testimony to our ability to be transfigured by God’s presence. As we walk away from church today, let’s think about one thing we can do to help us along the way to experience this Transfiguration. Let’s do that one thing that we keep saying we want to do and never do it; or if we don’t pray during the week, let’s devote 15 minutes of one day to prayer (remember we have to begin slowly); or perhaps, let’s read Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray which you can find on Amazon.com. Let’s do something, something small on our road to experience our own transfiguration, which is the joy of God’s presence with us.
Aristotle Papanikolaou is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University. Between 1996 and 2000 he taught Ethics and Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He received his MDiv from Holy Cross in 1991. In 1998, Dr. Papanikolaou received his Ph.D. in Theology from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. His most recent publication is, “Divine Energies or Divine Personhood: Vladimir Lossky and John Zizioulas on conceiving the transcendent and immanent God” (Modern Theology 19:3).