And after six days Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9 (Gospel of the Feast of the Transfiguration)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Savior. It’s hard to imagine the scene in today’s Gospel. On a recent vacation, I hiked up a high mountain. The view from the top was incredible and it was just a normal day. Can you imagine going up a high mountain, and then seeing someone lifted up off the mountain, into the sky, shining as bright as the sun, with garments white as light, so bright that you couldn’t look at him? I’m sure that Peter, James and John would have had a hard time putting the scene into words.
The hymn of the Transfiguration that we will hear in church today uses the word “glory” to describe the scene – “You were transfigured upon the mountain, O Christ our God, showing to Your Disciples Your glory as much as they could bear.” Yes, the disciples could not fully comprehend the glory and majesty of God and neither can we. His glory is beyond our ability to comprehend, that is how magnificent it is.
Added to the scene were Moses and Elijah, the leading figures of the Old Testament. They appeared in the sky on either side of Jesus, giving Him an “endorsement” so to speak, as an authority higher than they. They gave Him a position of honor in the middle, and appeared on either side.
The reaction of the three Disciples was very human. Peter said to Jesus, “It is well that we are here; if You wish, I will make three booths here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I’ve often wondered if the booths Peter was thinking about were like three carnival booths, where Jesus, Moses and Elijah could sit and people could stop by and take pictures with them or gawk at them.
Before Peter can get farther along in the development of this idea, the whole area is enveloped in a cloud and from the cloud is heard the voice of God Himself: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” As if to say, “This isn’t a show or a circus, or some magic trick – THIS is the SON OF GOD”!!!
The reaction of the Disciples is now quite different. They fall on their faces and are filled with awe, and probably a good deal of fear. But Jesus invites them to rise and have no fear.
To be “transfigured” means to “change our figure.” In this case, Jesus’ body changed – it floated in air, it became white like the sun. The Disciples not only saw their friend as a man, but through His Transfiguration, they saw His glory, they saw Him as Lord.
The feast of the Transfiguration is not merely a nice Bible story, or even a historical event that we remember each year. It is an invitation to us to do two things – to behold God’s glory, and to be “transfigured” ourselves. We are called, as the hymn of today says, to behold God’s glory as much as we can understand. No one will fully comprehend God’s glory, but spending time with Him, and standing in His glory (in prayer and in worship) will help us to experience it, and send us away with a sense of awe at His majesty. Is every prayer and every trip to church miraculous? No. I wish it were so. I have felt God’s glory, in ways both subtle and obvious both in prayer and worship. I don’t feel it every time out, that’s for sure. But the more I pray and the more I worship, the more I sense His glory. The more I give to others, the more I love my neighbor, the more of His glory I feel He shares with me.
And experiencing God’s glory “transfigures” us. It changes us. It makes us more like Him. At least it is supposed to. Part of this “transfiguring” work is ours. We have to gaze upon God – we have to be with Him. And part of the work is His. This is what we call “Grace,” a God-like quality that is imparted to us when we spend time with Him, and sometimes even when we don’t. While we will never “master” God, we can have a deep relationship with Him. The goal of life is to become “transfigured,” to become like Him. This is a life-long process, not something that is achieved in a moment of time.
I love the words of the Hymn of the Transfiguration, that the Disciples beheld His glory as much as they were able to bear. Some of us have really felt His glory, and others have not felt it as strong, and that is okay. Keep seeking after Him so that You can be transfigured over the course of your life.
A priest once joked with me, and said “our parishes are like the booths that Peter wanted to build, one for gyros, one for souvlaki and one for baklava.” Sadly, we’ve made our churches in many respects into carnival atmospheres. It’s not about festivals, or even about filling the calendar with programs, it is certainly not about parish meetings, budgets and by-laws. The Church exists to help “transfigure” people. The center of the Church is the Son of God. And we are supposed to listen not to our own voices, but to His-through prayer, scripture, worship and charity.
You were transfigured upon the mountain, O Christ our God, showing to Your disciples Your glory as much as they could bear. Do also in us, sinners though we may be, shine Your everlasting light, by the intercessions of the Theotokos, O Giver of light. Glory to You. (Apolytikion of the Holy Transfiguration, Grave Tone, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Ask for His Light to shine upon you today. Shine in that Light today!