On August 6th, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Prior to the Transfiguration, the disciples followed Jesus as He taught in Galilee. They were growing in faith and understanding, with Peter eventually confessing that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now, as they turned toward Jerusalem, Jesus began to prepare and strengthen them further for His coming passion. He even predicted the experience of the Transfiguration:
“Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt. 16:28)
Six days thereafter, Christ ascended Mount Tabor to pray, taking with Him Peter, James, and John — His three closest disciples.
As we read in the synoptic gospels, while Christ was praying the disciples fell asleep. After some time, they suddenly awoke to find Him transfigured before them. He was standing on the peak of Mount Tabor with the uncreated light radiating from Him, His face shining like the sun and His clothes becoming a dazzling white. His divine energies are represented by the mandorla surrounding Him, and from it we see three rays of light pointing down upon the apostles showing the action of the Holy Trinity upon them.
In this, Christ reveals His divinity. It is not something added, something created, or another nature, but rather, it is His eternal divine nature that can be seen through a revelation, as was granted to the disciples at this time. It is the divinity that was united to His human nature from the moment of His conception through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and it now shines forth, revealing the mystery that was hidden.
In the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah had each encountered the Divine Logos — Moses in the burning bush and in the cloud on Sinai, Elijah in the gentle breeze on Mount Horeb in the shadow of Mount Sinai. And yet now, here they stand on each side of the incarnate Word of God, speaking to Him face-to-face about the coming events.
Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, of which Jesus is the fulfillment. Further, Moses died a natural death and was buried while Elijah rose to heaven in a chariot of fire even while still alive. Their presence thus also symbolizes that Jesus is the Lord of both the living and the dead.
For the three apostles, this is a moment of great awe and revelation. Their eyes were opened, their senses and understanding transformed, moving, as St. John of Damascus says, “from flesh to spirit” and experiencing Christ as He really is, as much as they were able to bear.
To this Peter cried out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, let us make here three booths: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” So sweet was this moment that Peter did not want it to end. This was the moment which Christ predicted a week before; the three apostles were given a glimpse of the kingdom of God in the here and now; they were seeing Jesus in the glory of the uncreated light of His Kingdom.
As a verification of this, “a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5).
The brightness of the vision and the sound of the voice were too much for the three disciples to bear and “they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.” (Matt 17:6).
The disciples were witnessing a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, a theophany, a revelation of God, just as they had seen at Christ’s baptism. For while Christ stands transfigured above them, the voice of the Father is heard from on high and, as chanted in one of the hymns during Orthros on the day of the feast, a “bright cloud spread out like a tabernacle” and surrounded them. The cloud represents the Holy Spirit and is represented by the circles around the mandorla.
What the apostles also witnessed — in seeing Christ’s human nature and divinity — is both our beginning and our end. For, as St. Gregory Palamas explains, His bright robes were the garments which Adam wore before the fall and which “those who are near to God will wear in the age to come.”
For the disciples, this was a great revelation and a powerful experience; a glimpse of the kingdom to come experienced in the here and now. As St. Peter would later write, we too can become “partakers of divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) We too, can see the Uncreated Light!
When the present moment ended, Christ touched the apostles and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”
According to tradition, the Transfiguration occurred forty days prior to the Crucifixion. But because Lent is a more sorrowful and penitential time on the ecclesial calendar, the feast was moved to August, where it occurs forty days prior to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Here, the brightness of the feast can be enjoyed while also retaining its connection with the passion of Christ. For though it is through the cross and resurrection that “joy comes into the world,” it is through the Transfiguration that we receive a glimpse of the kingdom of God and an image of what man can become by grace.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas