Holy Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36)
Why do we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration? You find the answer in the troparion and kondakion of the feast. First, because the Transfiguration of Christ revealed His Glory, His Divinity. Second, because this shows us that His Passion was voluntary, that He ascended the Cross out of his own free will. The Glory and the Cross: I shall comment these two points.
Let us deal first with what we learn here about the Glory of God.
If we carefully examine the text of the Gospel, we notice that the event takes place in two sequences. First, the disciples see Christ who is transfigured before them and Peter suggests to build three tents. Only after that the Voice of the Father is heard and only then the disciples are afraid and hide their faces. The disciples are frightened only when they see the cloud and hear the Voice of God the Father, not at the very time when Christ was transfigured.
To understand why, we must answer a first question: why does Peter want to build tents? Because, at the time of Jesus, it was a common belief that the righteous dwell in tents in the world to come, when they enter eternal life. In other words, the transfiguration of Christ is directly related to the life in the world to come.
However, before Peter has finished talking, the cloud overshadows the disciples and, frightened, they fall to the ground. When they return to their senses, Moses and Elijah have disappeared and Jesus stands alone. The Glory of His Divinity is fully revealed. There is no longer need of tents.
What does it tell us? In theological terms, it tells us that the Kingdom has already begun. The Second Epistle of St Peter that we have heard today underlines that the Transfiguration is directly related to the revelation of God in Glory (1:16-19). Today, the mystery of the Parousia ˇthe future Coming of Christ in Gloryˇ is revealed to us, at least as a promise. What is promised in the Kingdom happens already in Jesus.
In practical terms, what does this means? It means that with Christ and our baptism, there is in us an invisible process which takes place already during our life. [2 Cor. 3:18; Ro. 12:2. St Paul says that we see as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and that we are being transformed into the same image by the Spirit of the Lord.
In other words, we change and, progressively, become like Christ. This requires work from us: we prepare the ground to become righteous; but the change is brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is a progressive change: it does not happen at once. At Baptism we have received only the power to become children of God. This means that we are responsible to make it work in our life and effectively become children of God. In our conduct it is up to us to choose to follow, or not to follow, the way to becoming children of God. The possibility of changing is given to us; we are responsible to make it work.
For example, today Christ offers us His Body in the Eucharist. It is not magic. If you have not prepared yourself to receive Him, it will be on no help. The mercy of God is infinite, but, as the Liturgy tells us: God has appointed repentance to give us the means to become worthy of His mercy.
What comes next? The Cross. The Glory of the Lord passes through His Cross.
If you read the Gospels of St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke, you will notice that the Transfiguration takes place after Christ announces that He must suffer, and that we have to take up our Cross. And right after the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts again His own death.
All the Fathers stress the same fact, that the Transfiguration takes place before the Passion. Why? So that we understand the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus-Christ on the Cross. [The reason of the feast is, as St John Chrysostom says it, ūthat He might show the disciples the Glory of the Cross, and bring comfort to them who went in fear of His Passion, and raise their courageŮ.]
Moreover, if you look at the Liturgical calendar, you will notice that in 40 days we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
To use an image, let us say that the ascension of Mount Tabor cannot be made without the ascension of Mount Golgotha. The Glory gets its full meaning from the voluntary Passion of Christ on Golgotha.
In other words, when we see the total oblation and self-sacrifice of Jesus-Christ on the Cross, we see His Glory. Seeing His Glory is seeing Love who gives itself; it is seeing Love who offers itself. The Glory of God takes the form of self-emptying. Life in Christ, which is promise of participation in the Glory of God, is to reproduce in our lives a Love which gives selflessly. The Transfiguration does not exist without this obedience to the Cross.
As it says in the priestís prayer before the Great Entrance, Christ is the One who offers himself; however this prayer says also that Christ is the One who offers. What does Christ offer? Our weaknesses and infirmities. The Glorious Cross conveys these two aspects: Christ is the One who offers and is offered. When Jesus is transfigured, he shows us that which will happen to us. [Of course under two necessary conditions which we must repeat: that we have been baptised and that we are struggling to fulfill the promises of our baptism in our lives.]
What happens then when Christ is present in our life? Let us examine first that which happens without Him. Without Christ, we face alone the realities of the destiny of mankind: evil, struggle, love, and death. Without Christ we are walled-in: no one will help, and our shouts will return to us like echo. It will be a monologue. But Christ has broken the walls through love and self-giving. He is with us. He has transfigured this life. [He has taken upon Himself our destinies. Mankindís destiny has become Christís destiny; and Christ changed it; Christ transfigured it. The salvation of mankind is the transfiguration of man through life in Christ.] Provided that we persevere in works of love and faith, our heart will be filled more and more with a drive which will give us strength to live through all trials. In other words, in Christ we shall overcome what He has overcome.
Always remember that it is to us that Jesus says: ūArise, and do not be afraid.Ů ūFor it is through toil that we come to rest, and through death that we cross over to lifeŮ (St Leo the Great).
To conclude, I would like you to reflect on the following points.
Reflect on how our world has lost the sense of the Glory of God. Either God is declared dead. Or He is refashioned according to our needs. In both cases the fear of God, the reverence due to Him is lost.
Do not look for examples outside. Look at yourself. When you pray, is it to discover your own personality or for the glory of God? When you study the word of God, is it to know better or to know God? When you repent and recognize your sins, is it because you want to have a good conscience or to recognize your own nothingness in the face of God? How much are you influenced by an arrogant conception of mankind?
It does not stop here. When we pray together, is it because we want to feel good, warm, and happy or to worship in truth? Do you think that Christ is a buddy with whom you can have a good time and celebrate at a picnic, or do you see in Him our Lord and Saviour, the Son of God? How much are you influenced by this emotional and familiar conception of God?
There is even more. When you fulfill any type of service in your church, is it because this satisfies your thirst for power and domination (even if you are not conscious of it), or is it in truth a sacrifice of your own person? How much are you influenced by this political conception of God? How much are you submitted to your secret passions?
Modern man pays lip-service to his own nothingness. His real preoccupation is either to develop his own personality or to feel good. Therefore everything going against what you like becomes a source of grumbling. Check yourself, question yourself, and you will see that it exists in you.
Then, change. For the Glory of God will not be revealed to us unless we ascend Golgotha. The beginning of wisdom, the beginning of any ascent to God is the fear of God. Godís mercy is infinite, but it does not correspond to our conception of mercy. Too often we close our eyes to our weaknesses. Godís forgiveness is not a cloak thrown over our uncleanness; all must be washed, restored, returned to innocence.
Reflect on the mystery of the Transfiguration: the essential thing for the disciples was not so much having glimpsed Jesus in glory but having received this command from the very voice of the Father: This is my Son, listen to Him. When they raised their eyes, they saw nobody but Jesus. The place of Jesus is in your life: no longer hearing or seeing anyone but Him alone. As St Paul says: for me, Life is Christ (Phi. 1:21).
The Christian vocation is to cling to the righteousness of God. Then, when looking at us, God will see in us the features of His Son. In other words, be an icon of Christ, put on the Lord Jesus. If we want to be transformed into the inward likeness of Christ, we cannot escape the task of stripping ourselves to the bone. This takes time, and at first the Cross presents itself as an instrument of torture; it only gradually becomes intelligible by the light of Christ who has transfigured it. This is why Christ tells us: do not fear. [Finally, remember that Life in Christ has a condition: you have more to receive than to give. The gift which the Lord expects from you is your receptiveness. The encounter with God must become a necessity for you. No one else understands you as well as He does, and no one else knows like Him to console and help. This sense of Christ is rare; but it must be your goal.]
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