Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration and to Orthodox Christians the Transfiguration is a very special event in the Christian year. There is a sense in which it sums up the whole mystery of the Incarnation, and beyond that, the mystery of Creation itself.
A first thing to note about the Transfiguration is that it was a very secret event. There were only three witnesses: Peter, James and John. Why only three of them? Why not the Twelve? The obvious answer is that this event was so mysterious and so holy that it was only vouchsafed to a small inner circle. It is as if they had entered an inner sanctuary where life’s deepest secrets are revealed. Of all the Israelites who came out of Egypt, only Moses saw the glory of God – and even he was not permitted to see God face to face. On Mount Tabor however, Christ manifested his glory to three persons – a sort of human trinity – and they were permitted to gaze on his glorious and transfigured Face. On one level it was the mystical proof that Christ was God; and it was given to them to see it, as the Kontakion of the Feast tells us, so that when they saw Christ crucified, they might know that his sacrifice was voluntary.
But there is another layer of meaning in the Transfiguration; or perhaps I should say another layer of manifestation. Orthodox Christians have always seen the great events of Christ’s life in cosmic terms: in their relation not just to ourselves and to the whole of the human race, but to the whole of creation. Thus when Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin, he took to himself the material substance of the Universe and sanctified it. At his Baptism in the River Jordan, he effectively baptized the waters of the earth; and at his Transfiguration he manifested God’s glory in the material world.
This is one of the central truths of the Christian faith: that life does have a divine aspect, and that there is in this world a hidden glory which, however fleetingly and however selectively, is sometimes revealed to us. As the poet Wordsworth said of his own adolescent experiences:
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light:
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
To put it simply, matter is spirit-bearing. Great music is more than just an arrangement of sounds; great buildings are more than just stones and mortar. To those who can see discerningly, trees are living Presences, the wings of a great bird are like those of an angel, fire is a mystical portent, and the human face is sometimes suffused with the glory of the divine. Evolution itself bears witness to the gradual spiritualization of things. At each stage in the development of the Earth, new spiritual principles are disclosed: the glorious flowering of the plant kingdom, the conquest of the air, feathers, bird-song, animal parenthood and recreation; the gradual emergence of beauty and love. Even the very processes of erosion work to disclose the glory of the Creator, distilling beauty our of flux, fragmentation and change. By contrast sin and evil make things look more purely physical, because the effect of evil is to kill the life in things. Bad people tend to have bad faces; hatred cannot don the mask of beauty – at any rate in its higher manifestations; and when people and societies cease to believe in spiritual things they begin to produce soulless buildings, soulless communities, soulless entertainment – and soulless lives. The world is a book of strange and wonderful symbols, waiting to be read. If we would see God’s glory we have only to cleanse the doors of perception and look about us.
There is one other thing. Of all the great Feasts in the Christian Year the Transfiguration is most obviously a touchstone of our worship. ‘Lord,’ said Peter in his terror, ‘it is good to be here!’ Yes, it was good, but it was also a soul-shaking experience. Glory, radiance, beauty beyond all human telling, so that the Apostles felt compelled to bow their faces to the earth and adore. Now in its original sense, Orthodoxy means ‘right worship’; and without in any way wishing to disparage non-Orthodox Christians, who sometimes lead more Christ-like lives than we do, it does seem to me that it is only Orthodox worship, in its ineffable and celestial beauty, in its sometimes overwhelming sense of the Divine Presence, that enables us to understand what worship is really all about. And there, it seems to me, is a message for our godless, utilitarian Age, and a truth that we do well to ponder.
This mainly contains homilies and messages from our priests, although there is some scope to share thoughts and interesting articles which we may want to share with others