The Feast of the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis) of Our Lord Saviour, Jesus Christ, is one of the major events that took place within the travelling ministry of Christ, and is recorded within the gospels of Matthew (17:1-18), Mark (9:2-8), and Luke (9:28-36). Within the Scriptural narratives of all three cited gospels, the Transfiguration takes place immediately after the recognition and confession of the Apostles that “Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is the Son of the Living God”. This was followed in turn by Christ’s announcement that He will have to proceed to Jerusalem where He will be delivered up to an unjust sentence whereby He will suffer His passion and death, which raised the ire of the disciples who protested at such forthcoming events. Christ rebuked them, and thus the Scriptural narrative proceeds to the events of the Transfiguration, whereby Christ takes Peter, James and John to ascend a high mountain with Him so as to enter into prayer, but what takes place, was that Christ transfigured before them:
…and His [Christ’s] face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as snow 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 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” (Mt 17:1-13, see also Mk 9:1-9; Lk 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:16-18).
Within the Orthodox Christian Church, this Feast is one of the Great Feasts of the liturgical calendar and is celebrated on August 6, some 40 days before the solemn Feast of the Holy Cross (14 September), which is considered a second Holy Friday. Hence linking the themes of Christ’s promise of eternal life for those willing to undertake the journey to the Cross, and thus reinforce within a period outside the Lenten-Pascal cycle of the importance of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, which are inextricably linked for the Christian faithful to experience. As a consequence the Transfiguration highlights Christ’s divinity, which the disciples came to comprehend that after the Ascension, Christ had voluntarily entered His passion and death so that He could demonstrate that He truly was the radiant splendour of the Father, while showing our own possibilities to attain theosis (deification and union with God – in effect to become godlike), if we join ourselves to a life of prayer and faith in God.
Nevertheless, the feast of the Transfiguration falls during the preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (15th August). Yet in recognition of the importance of the Transfiguration, the fast is relaxed somewhat, and the consumption of fish, wine and oil is allowed on this day. This is due to the Orthodox view of the feastday as not only a feast in honour of Jesus, but a feast of the Holy Trinity, for all three Persons of the Trinity were present at that moment: God the Father spoke from heaven; God the Son was the one being transfigured, and God the Holy Spirit was present in the form of a cloud. In this sense, the transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany” (the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Trinity appeared in a similar pattern).
The Transfiguration is the second of the “Three Feasts of the Saviour in August“, the other two being the Procession of the Cross on August 1 and the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands on August 16. The Transfiguration is preceded by a one-day Forefeast and is followed by an Afterfeast of eight days, ending the day before the Forefeast of the Dormition. An All-Night Vigil (Agripnia) is celebrated on the eve of the Feast.
The foundations of this feast is Scripturally based, but historians are still debating, as to when the feast of the Transfiguration emerged into the liturgical calendar, because there are indications that it is a very ancient feastday, but much of the surviving evidence come from passing references to it, within homilies of St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria and St. Andrew of Crete. As well as iconographic depictions within the apses of San Apollonaire in Ravenna and the main church of St. Catherine’s of Sinai which are both dated around the 6th century. It is possible that the feast dates earlier than this existing evidence, but there are some indicators which point to the fact that the feastday had its origins within the Church of Jerusalem, and is linked to the dedication of three basilicas at the summit of Mount Tabor.
Furthermore it seems that this feast originally took place during the Lenten period, since the event which it marks, took place before Christ’s journey towards Jerusalem to meet His prophesised crucifixion and resurrection. In effect the Transfiguration serving as a prefigurement and precursor to the glory of the resurrection. Within the western Christian tradition this has remained so within liturgical practice whereby the second Sunday of Lent was dedicated to this event. Within western tradition the separate observance of the Transfiguration upon the 6th August was recognised in 1457, despite the attempts of the monastery of Cluny in France to promote it as a feast in its own right back in the 12th century.
According to some historians, they would assert that the Sunday of Stavroproskynesios (Veneration of the Holy Cross) within the centre of Lent was originally the feast of the Transfiguration, while others contend that it was Sunday of St Gregory Palamas, who was the Church Father who wrote extensively and placed immense emphasis on the importance of the feastday within Christian liturgical and spiritual life.
To add to further confusion and dispute, there are some who claim that the Transfiguration took place around the Jewish feast of Booths/Tabernacles (Sukkoth) because of St. Peter’s reference within the gospel narratives to build booths dedicated to Moses, Elijah and Christ. Subsequently they would assert the significance of this feast as the original Ecclesial New Year, since as the Feast of Booths marked the manifestation of God within the presence of humankind and creation, while reminding us of the sojourn of the Israelites within the desert before entering Canaan and settling down, (an explanation of Sukkoth is dealt with in the article “Feastday of the Ecclesial New Year”). However, the reference within Scripture is only a passing reference and does not necessarily mean that it was the time of the Feast of Booths, it could possibly be that St Peter, although somewhat confused by the event as the gospel narratives seem to indicate, recognised that whatever he had witnessed was a manifestation of God, and thus in line with Jewish tradition and history, tabernacles should be built at that very site.
SYMBOLISMS & MEANING OF THE FEAST
Without doubt, this would have to be one of the most difficult feastdays within the liturgical calendar to provide a systematic and coherent explanation, and not just because of the wealth of information and writing that comments upon it. But because of the event itself is so awe-inspiring and reveals something of the infinite glory and power of God, as well as His Trinitarian character, to which humanity is called to unite itself to. Furthermore it reveals the contrast between our existing reality and our potential reality to transcend our own limitations as mortal beings provided we seek to join ourselves to a life with God.
The themes raised are very closely related and often overlap each other with the same teachings or meanings for us as humans, and thus it can become tiresome and repetitive initially, but it is because we are confronting an eternal vision and manifestation of God within our linear historical time-frame which cannot be apprehended by logic alone, nor with words, but is something that requires due attention to detail and the need to be living the spiritual struggle. Yet with much pain we have endeavoured to provide a detailed outline that is not exhaustive, but differs from the usual surmised versions that are easily available upon the internet which do not give the full import of the significance of the Transfiguration of Christ.
Scriptural Context and Numerical Significance
The event of the Transfiguration takes place some days after Christ foretells of His forthcoming Passion in Jerusalem, and sought to help clarify in the minds and hearts of the disciples who He was, and what was His role as the Messiah. For Scripture relates how the disciples were still attached to the notion, (which was popular at the time), that the Christ was some great worldly ruler chosen and anointed by God to expel all the Gentiles from the land of Palestine and subjugate those beyond its borders, thus ushering in a new age of glory for Israel. This great “national hero” would establish a great kingdom by fire and the sword, a hope that the subjugated Jews chaffing under the pressures of Roman rule, the corruption of their priestly hierarchy, and the machinations of their community leaders, found attractive.
Naturally this understanding was a far cry from what the Old Testament related using poetic licence; for the fire and sword were that of the Holy Spirit and the power of God. The expulsion of the Gentile or his subjugation was through conversion to Faith, so that no Gentile or Jew shall exist because all will be believers. Furthermore, the Messiah would not be a mere “king” who comes according to “human glory” that “reigns” for an allotted time and thus was transitory and vainglorious. But was the eternally begotten Son of God who comes in humble, almost understated, glory to bestow and unlock the reign of the Kingdom of Heaven which can be found within the hearts of all peoples, and was not transitory nor could it be destroyed.
The Disciples to some extent, had begun to realise that Jesus was not just a prophet or holy man, but was someone who was quite unique. After the various miracles they had beheld by this point, like the feeding of the 5,000 and the enigmatic teachings of Jesus’ wisdom, the Disciples had pedagogically been brought to some sort of insight as to what the Hebrew Scriptures and the Prophets spoke about in reference to the Messiah. That of course, was epitomised by their confession of faith, particularly through St. Peter who had at that point assumed the role of spokesman, who proclaimed Jesus as “the Son of the living God” (cf. Mt. 16:16).
Yet to further teach the Disciples and test the ground of their faith, Jesus begins speaking of His Passion and Crucifixion that were integral to fulfilling His salvific ministry. Unfortunately the foundation of the Disciples’ faith had yet to solidify adequately, and so they protested in the belief that they were going to lose Jesus permanently, via this inconceivable, and to their minds, blasphemous turn of events as foretold by Jesus. In response to these protests, particularly that of Peter, Jesus rebukes His Disciples for voicing that which was contrary to God’s providence, for His own suffering and voluntary sacrifice was an integral conclusion to His earthly ministry. This rebuke reinforced Christ’s previous warning to the disciples about avoiding the doctrines of the Pharisees and the Scribes (cf. Mt 16:5-12) which had perverted the meaning and application of the Law, making it of no consequence through their own oral and written traditions (cf. Mt 15:1-20).
Succeeding these teachings, prophesies and rebukes, the ascent to the mountain of theophany occurred some days afterwards. However the gospels of Matthew and Mark claim that this ascent took place some 6 days later, while Luke’s gospel seems to contradict this by asserting that 8 days had passed. At the most basic and simple level this seemingly unusual discrepancy could be explained by the means a person counts time. In that Matthew and Mark identify the time period between Christ’s prophecy and the event of the Transfiguration, whereas Luke counts the day of the prophesy and the day of the Transfiguration, hence the difference of 6 and 8.
However, as is characteristic of the four Evangelists, as inspired by God, their use of images, symbols, numbers and so forth were to highlight a specific message or meaning to the believer. The number 6 of course is representative of the 6 days of Creation, and consequently signifies God’s creative action and ministry within the world. This naturally correlates with what Christ had sought to make the disciples realise, with regards the person and role of the Messiah. In effect, a reflection of the six days in which Christ concludes His earthly ministry, forming and preparing the ground of faith of the Jews, so that they may be the foundation and well-spring from which the ministry of the Messiah may continue and bloom forth within the world like wheat that emerges from the ground by which new life can be sustained by, and thus bring the bread of enlightenment to the nations.
It is not coincidental that Christ says to the Samaritan woman that salvation is of the Jews because the Messiah and His Apostles shall come from the land of confession (Judea). Liturgically, these final days of ministry we refer to as “Holy Week”, but Biblically it can also be referred to as the days of “re-creation” or the “second” days of creation, whose day of rest, the new Sabbath, was the day of the Resurrection. This new Sabbath, the day of the Resurrection, did not occur on the Seventh Day of the week that the Jews marked as the Sabbath (Saturday), but on the first day of the week, which in the Genesis creation narrative is the first day of creation (what we call in English “Sunday”). The themes put forward here, is that of renewal, regeneration and consecration of a physical link between God and humanity, whereby the latter have been given the means to pass over the chasm that separates itself from God and thus offer the opportunity to dwell in the presence of God.
This contrast of Sabbath rest, or the “new” Sabbath which is the first day of the week corresponding to the first day of Genesis, is to indicate that the bridging of this “ontological” chasm brought eternal rest to humanity, but was at the same time the “creative labour” of God in “action”, (-If you will, the “new creation” or “re-creation”). In ancient and Byzantine Christian liturgical imagery, this was depicted as a well-spring from which a peacock drank or a grapevine grew, hence highlighting that God is the source (“well-spring”) and sustainer of life, and it is from Him that we find renewal and regeneration. Thus, the use of the image of water which allows the plant and animal life to exist.
Nevertheless, this reference to the 7th Day, the Day of the Sabbath on which God “rested” in the Genesis narrative, is understood by the Church to represent the age of humankind, that is the time in which humanity and creation presently exists in its current form. Both the Greek and Hebrew, (as reflected also in the various Semitic languages of Arabic, Syriac or Assyrian) through grammar and syntax, leave the clause (to some extent) as to God’s “rest” from “creating” in an open manner. The reason for this is to indicate that God is ever-present and always “functioning” and “working”, and therefore the designation/attributing of “rest” is merely a human expression to identify a perceptible “halt” (even if temporary) to the manifestation of creative action by God. The premise of this is founded upon the point that God may have “ceased” to “create” but He continues to sustain, while the possibility to “create” further is left open (as demonstrated by the event of the Resurrection). As such the Church asserts that humanity is presently living within the age of the 7th Day, the Day of Sabbath rest.
The epicentre of this age of the 7th day was naturally the Resurrection. The period of time prior to this event, signifies the dawn of the 7th day, while the time that succeeds from it known as the Messianic age, is the twilight of the 7th Day. The conclusion of this 7th Day will occur at the “Parousia”, that is the “True Manifestation and Revelation of God in all His glory” before humanity, often referred to as “Christ’s Second Coming”. This particular point marks the fulfilment, completion and perfection of God’s “creative” action through the finality of Christ’s Second Parousia that is known to Christians as the “8th Day”. Thus we are brought before the teaching that St. Luke the Evangelist wanted to highlight about the importance of that theophanic event on Mt. Tabor, which is dwelling in and beholding the presence of God in all His true glory and not that of worldly kingdoms.
For the Transfiguration, like the events on Sinai in the Book of Exodus with Moses and the Elders of Israel, is a foretaste of beholding the final “Vision” and “Parousia” (manifestation) of God which is a reality that humanity will witness and dwell in the presence of, for all eternity. Yet the numerical contrast between 6 and 8 within the three gospel traditions, also signify the presence of those who witnessed or participated within this event of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. The first group refers to those who belong to the earthly, “militant” Church, who had as yet attained the conclusion of their spiritual struggles within the world. That is, Peter, James and John, who are symbolic of our own “militant” spiritual struggles against our own weaknesses and passions, or the temptations of the devil and the world which seeks to take us away from our journey towards God and our own fulfilment.
This struggle of humanity, has confronting it, glimpses at the vision of God (Theoria), which like the three disciples, catechise and induct us into a deeper mystery of reality. That mystery is of course, penetrating into the limitless depths of God’s presence. This is then contrasted against the other group of 3 who were perceptible to human vision, that of Jesus Christ and the Prophets Moses and Elias (Elijah). Naturally they represent the communion of the holy, the righteous, the saintly and the pious who have concluded their “militant” struggle of the spirit and have entered into the presence of God (as shown by Christ), bathing within the light and glory of the Lord.
This communion of the “Saints” (Heb. 12:1) are not dead as we might presume, but are living because they are united to the living God. It is no coincidence that when God made His presence known before various figures of the Old Testament, that He proclaims that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, which is a direct reference to the communion of Saints who dwell alongside God. Just as Christ refers to the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), whereby the rich man’s death and entrance into eternal life brings him to behold the living communion of the Saints. And he beseeches Abraham to help him and his family, while requesting for Lazarus’ intercessions.
In having said that, the three figures who represent the communion of the Saints, also symbolise by their number, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. This of course is made quite apparent by the fact that Christ is one of the actual members of the Holy Trinity. The three disciples symbolise the calling and aspiration of humanity to manifest the relational communion of Trinitarian agape (love) within the world. Yet their number signifies the 3 key constituent elements of the human person, that of the unity of body, mind and soul, which we must strive to cultivate each in their own respective right, while still maintaining an equilibrium between them without over-emphasising either to the detriment of the other. Finally, the three disciples are also symbolic of the presence, and the need for that presence, of the Holy Trinity within Creation in order to sustain it. In effect all life exists and draws its source of existence from the Trinity, and it is to the Trinity that it seeks to imitate, commune with and return to.
Yet in speaking of the 6 perceptible figures, we should also mention the 2 figures who were spiritually present and thus constitute the number of supreme perfection, “8”. The first is God the Father who bore witness from Heaven concerning His Son, Jesus Christ (Mt. 17:5) as being one with Him and consubstantial. The other figure who was present, was of course the Holy Spirit as the presence of the cloud which engulfs Christ and Tabor. At the symbolic level, the number of two, represented by the Father and the Spirit, alludes to a mystery that is imperceptible to humanity, that of the union of divine and human natures within the personhood (hypostasis) of Christ, and consequently the “physical association” that Christ has with both the realms of Heaven and Creation.
The two realities are physically joined together in one person, one identity, one existence and one reality, the one prophesised Messiah and not in two different beings (as articulated and affirmed by the 4th Ecumenical Council). Yet the significance of two, also underlines to us the 2 different paths in which we can approach our concern of life on the first-hand, and God on the second hand, which ultimately are one and the same. That is, we can live a life contrary to God, or a life oriented towards God, or put another way; a life that seeks out and performs its vocation or one that refuses to accept or goes contrary to our vocation. However the presence of the two figures of the Father and the Spirit together with the “Transfigured” Christ help manifest the Supreme Eternal Three which we know as the Holy Trinity who penetrate through “horizontal”, “worldly”, “physical”, “created” time, in other words our reality and time. Thus we have the manifestation of the mystical meaning and importance of the number 3.
The other play on the meaning of numbers as indicated not by the festal pericope, but by the gospel narratives, is the fact that the Transfiguration occurs some 40 days prior to the Crucifixion. This number which is charged with “miraculous”, “Scriptural” and “spiritual” overtones has multiple meanings. In the first instance, Christ’s ministry began with His forty-day contest of faith and endurance within the harshness of the wilderness, and here we have the Transfiguration that marks the beginning of His journey towards the Cross. That of course reflects the 40 year sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness prior to the arrival and entry into the Promised Land.
The inference being that creation’s, and more specifically humanity’s, Promised Homeland, where it will find peace and comfort, is the joy of the Resurrection which is the gift and outcome of the Crucifixion. Hence, the number 40 tells us that it signifies the time of initial struggle and sacrifice to which our lives revolve around before we unearth the powerful image of God within us and enter into our intended Paradise. Make no mistake about it, for it is not coincidental that many of the Old Testament Prophets underwent their period of spiritual testing within the wilderness, whether 40 days, 40 weeks or 40 years. Yet it was also a reflection of Israel’s 400 year bondage and suffering within Egypt, for if one calculates that time into sets of ten, then we have ten sets of 40 year periods (40 years x 10 generations = 400 years in Egypt).
The Role of Mountains
The very beginning of the various gospel narratives which recount the theophanic event of the Transfiguration, all relate that Jesus led the three disciples up a high mountain (Mt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28). The significance of mountains within Scripture, and for that matter ancient cultures and societies, is that they were places of immense spiritual importance and thus worship. In the mindset of ancient peoples, these places of topography that rose above and overlooked the surrounding landscape, represented or manifested an alternate or differing reality to the one where they existed and lived off via farming and settlement. Such elevated places were not easy to get to or to ascend, while these aspects of elevation were subject to greater weather extremes and changes, thus requiring the traveller to exert greater effort in journeying to them.
Yet these places of elevation would appeal to the mystical, poetic and sensorial elements of humans as they rise from the land brooding over it, quite often engulfed by mists and clouds which obscured their peaks, causing people to perceive these as the spirits of the land or of human ancestors and divinities. From such peaks on a clear day, one could see all the land that radiates from its base, and yet if one stood at the base, the only thing that could be seen would be the hill/s or mountain/s rising from the landscape pointing vertically to the sky.
As a consequence, ancient peoples would see mountains as images of naturally occurring altars rising from the landscape offering worship to those supreme divinities that either dwelt upon them or in the skies which were seen as a celestial or heavenly realm of paradise and otherness, divorced from our human, physical and material reality. It was thus seen that hills and mountains were a meeting place between humanity and the physical created world, with that of the transcendental and eternal world of the divine. It was on the peaks of such elevated ground where the two worlds would meet each other half-way, with the human and material world struggling to ascend the heights of elevated ground, against the onslaught of the natural elements, while the divine and transcendental condescended itself to the level of the created order. It was thus a place where the two met on almost but symbolic equal terms, but the manner in which they conducted themselves differed.
In the case of humanity representing the created order, worship was offered, petitions or requests were made and directives that needed to be executed were received from the divine power. In the case of divinity, the matter was to either bestow a gift or grace of some sort, reveal something of importance, correct humanity’s mistakes, issue directives and hear concerns and petitions. Naturally, hills and mountains became major centres of worship and cultic practice for ancient peoples, for they served as places of spiritual dialogue and revelation, whereby innumerable shrines and altars were built upon or close to the summits of such places. Accordingly, the narrative of the Transfiguration mirrors much of this perception and understanding, but with its own unique twist. In that the summit of Mt. Tabor is the meeting and revelation of Faith, but in order to ascend it, the disciples must leave behind in the lowlands surrounding the mount, their own “spiritual and existential baggage”.
And like the Prophet Moses before them, rise out of the quagmire of their passions and sins, as well as human “understandings”, through the “purification” of their ascent, guided by God Himself in the person of Christ. Thus, like Moses who was guided up Horeb by God, the disciples were prepared and purified so that they could perceive spiritual wisdom, or to put it as St. Gregory Palamas does: “Let us put aside the blindness of mind of those who can conceive of nothing higher than what is known through the senses…True beauty, essentially, can only be contemplated only with a purified mind”. And what of this beauty of wisdom at the place where heaven and earth meet, where God and man commune with each other?
Simply, that the beauty of wisdom which is the joint work or synergy of humankind struggling alongside and towards God through the process of purification, ascends the levels of faith, which then brings us to hope and finally to love (agape) which then opens the believer to divine wisdom and witness. Naturally this journey of purification which cultivates faith, hope and love, reveal to us the source and origins of all wisdom, that of our Divine Creator, the mysterious reality of the Holy Trinity. The inference being that in our own efforts to approach God, we must first strive to purify ourselves before we can become capable of perceiving or receiving what God seeks to reveal to us.
In the case of the Transfiguration, it was to assure and reveal a foretaste of what was the purpose of the Incarnational ministry of the Messiah, and why the disciples (and by extension humanity in general) should not be fearful of Christ’s prophesy of the trials and tribulations that will await in Jerusalem at Passover. Yet this revelation on Mt. Tabor, where divinity and humanity meet is not one of “patronising” or “charitable” condescension by Christ and the other Persons of the Holy Trinity, as usually marks the narratives within the traditions of other religions. Instead we witness the meek and humble manner in which the Holy Trinity work together to reveal Their glory in Their Incarnate member of Christ. This humble condescension to created reality reveals to us that this “theophany” is the act of love for humanity and all creation.
An often repeated point within Orthodox Christian thought is that, “God awaited humanity to freely turn to Him in love so that they may be in communion with each other. But after waiting for quite some time, God forsook the appropriate convention and could not wait to be reunited with His creation, but rushed towards us, and became one of us, so as to show us the way towards Him”. St. Athanasius the Great and many others like him, characterised this as “God became man, so that man may become god(like)”. It was to this deep mystery, that the parable of the Merciful Father, or more commonly known as the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32), refers to; for if one observes that particular narrative, the father ignores all conventions and cultural etiquettes and runs towards his wayward son and embraces him.
This particular thought was reflected by St. Gregory the Theologian, who duly noted that Christ had often spoken of His ministry as that of seeking out the lost sheep that had gone astray. The reference to lost sheep naturally referred to humanity, which was bound by sin and the devil. But humanity like a stray sheep often does, it usually gets lost upon hilly and mountainous terrain where it cannot move or survive effectively, is at the mercy of the elements. It is only through the guidance of a shepherd that a stray sheep, for example can profitably dwell upon hilly and mountainous terrain without being pinned down and tormented by the extremes of weather and the animals which prey upon it, for the shepherd will guide it to pasture, find it shelter, seek out water and protect it.
Of course these are symbolic and poetic forms of expressing that Jesus is the shepherd of men, who has found humanity upon the terrain of sin and the works of the devil, and has helped guide us back to the various safe paths of that mountain, thus leaving behind the lowliness of the things that bound us.
In keeping these reflections and the significance of mountains in mind, one might ask as to why Mt. Tabor figures within the festal tradition of the Transfiguration? By looking at the three gospel narratives of the Transfiguration, there is only a passing reference to Christ leading the three disciples up a mountain. Matthew and Mark’s gospels make specific reference as a high mountain which could either be interpreted as referring to its physical feature as steep or a symbolic reference to the spiritual dimension of their journey. Yet what all three accounts fail to mention, is the name and location of this particular mountain.
To which some Christian scholars assert the possibilities of Mount Panium (Paneas/Banias) which is a small hill near the source of the Jordan river, as the place of the Transfiguration. Their attempts are based on drawing a link between St. John the Forerunner who baptised people in the Jordan and Christ bestowing the revelation of the Transfiguration in the presence of the first Elijah at the source of the Jordan; thus showing that the Forerunner’s ministry has its source in Jesus to whom John’s “predecessor” (Elijah) honours and worships. Another group of scholars holding onto a similar line of thought, advocate Mount Hermon (2,814 m.) which is one of the chief sources of the Jordan. The other place put forward by these various Christian scholars is Mount Nebo (823 m.), thus drawing a parallel with Moses standing on its summit looking at the land of Promise, while Christ led humanity into the eternal land of Promise.
However, the Church’s tradition asserts that the mount spoken of within the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, is that of Mount Tabor. This tradition of course is drawn from the local knowledge and folklore of Palestine, and specifically of the inhabitants of the Jezreel valley. But what gave weight to this, was that historically, even during the first three centuries of Christian persecution, Mount Tabor was a place of prayer and worship for both pilgrim and local Christians and Nazarenes (Jewish Christians). Of course to which others would also cite the annual miracle of the unique cloud which only appears on the actual feastday, for the duration of the liturgical services, and in the specific area where the present Orthodox Christian monastery stands. On these reasons, but more so upon local tradition and careful reading of the gospel passages to discern where Christ and His Disciples were travelling within the region, that the Church discerned that Tabor was the mount of the Transfiguration.
Subsequently, when the persecutions of the Christians ceased under Emperor Constantine, there was a concerted effort made by Christians to finally secure their holy sites and to build and dedicate churches at such locations. The emperor’s own mother, St. Helen, had been encharged with travelling to these holy sites of Christendom, to confirm their locations and to build places of Christian worship on these sites, such as the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But it was within this period, probably not by St. Helen, that the first churches were built and dedicated on Mount Tabor.
In topographical terms, Tabor seems to fit the gospel accounts of a high mountain according to its appearance, since it is a small isolated mountain that rises dramatically out of the surrounding flat landscape. Furthermore it is within the region where Christ traversed during His travelling ministry, and is close to the events referred to by the preceding and succeeding gospel chapters.
Nevertheless, the significance of Tabor within the Transfiguration narrative is not confined to the time of the New Testament or the subsequent spread of Christianity, but can be found within the Old Testament and the early history of Israel. It seems that the first reference to it within Scripture, is made in the Book of Joshua (19:22), whereby it marks as the border for the three Israelite tribes of Zebulun, Isaachar and Naphtali, whose territory subsequently became known as the region of Galilee.
It is worth noting that this one particular juncture where the three tribes meet, was the place that within the New Testament where the revelation of the One True God as Holy Trinity occurs. This meeting point was perceived by various Church fathers as a prefigurement of the Transfiguration in that the forefathers of the Galileans who belonged to three different tribes had Tabor as their one uniting focus and meeting place that was both neutral and common to all of them. It was thus understood allegorically by some fathers as a compass point from which all corners of the earth meet, and that the three tribes represented three distinct groups of people:
- Those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and thus became believers.
- The Jews who refused to recognise Jesus’ Messiahship, but sought to adhere to the man-made traditions that had become attached to the Mosaic Law, and were passed off as an integral part of the Law, even though they did not carry that sort of weight.
- Those who were unbelievers, either because they had not been afforded the opportunity to hear and receive the Gospel, or those who were unbelievers because they rejected or were indifferent to the Gospel. Some Church fathers included within this category the unbelievers who felt they were not ready or worthy to become a faithful Christian, but were supportive of the Gospel’s message.
In addition to these points, some fathers draw upon the meaning of the names of the three tribes and refer to the various comments and prophesies that God makes with regards to them. But the point of interest lies particularly in their historical context in that they form later on, within the Old Testament, the northern kingdom of Israel which was destroyed first. Consequently its people were predominately enslaved or exiled. Those who were able to remain, intermarried with their Gentile neighbours or the new Gentile settlers who replaced those who were forcibly removed. This admixture of believer and unbeliever continues even after Jews return from the Babylonian captivity and seek to re-establish their nation and the land’s Jewish identity and culture. Yet this interaction with paganism and Gentiles, produced two differing communities not quite within the scope of Jewish society. That of the Samaritans which adhered to much of the earlier beliefs of Judaism, and that of Galilee which was part of mainstream Judaism, but had assimilated many elements and expressions of Gentile culture within their own. Consequently the Judeans often spoke disparagingly of the Galileans as “country bumpkins” and as “Galilee of the Gentiles”.
Yet these descendants of Zebulun, Naphtali and Isaachar, who had intermarried or lived alongside non-Jews held within them the mystery of Faith, which was the call of the Messiah to all peoples towards salvation, and not confined to the Jews solely. That is, their own interaction with non-Jews was a prefigurement of the Gospel, and thus was a proto-evangelion of sorts that prepared the ground for the Messiah’s universal ministry of salvation, which needed a foundation where there was tolerance, respect and understanding between Jews and Gentiles.
In returning to the next point of reference within the Old Testament, Mt. Tabor makes its next appearance within the Book of Judges (4:6, 12 and 14). In this particular narrative of Judges 4:1-23, is set in the time when the Israelites were governed by judges, the people of Israel had done evil in the sight of God who had handed them over to King Jabin of Canaan who oppressed and tyrannised them for some twenty years. Jabin had at his disposal a strong military commander named Sisera who had charge over 900 iron chariots. Chaffing under this tyranny, the Israelites beseeched the Lord for deliverance and so they turned to the Prophetess Deborah, who was the wife of the Israelite Judge and leader, Lapidoth (Judges 4:4).
In deep prayer and prophesy, Deborah calls upon the Israelite commander Barak, who was the son of Abinoam of Kedesh of Naphtali. It is then that Deborah reveals to Barak that God will deliver the Canaanites into his hand and that he must encamp himself upon Tabor and do battle at the river at Kishon. Barak hesitates to follow through with this directive and insisted that Deborah accompany him and his men so as to guide them according to God’s will. After offering her prayers, God reveals to Deborah the certainty of victory and so she instructs Barak that the enemy will be delivered into his hand (v. 14). The narrative concludes in v. 23 when it notes that “God had routed Jabin”.
The meaning drawn from this account in which Mt Tabor played a significant role, is manifold. Firstly that Tabor is a place where God manifests Himself and bestows hope upon those who seek Him via revelation and deliverance from oppression and tyranny. On this point, St. Ambrose of Milan draws a parallel between the oppression and tyranny endured by the Israelites, and the burden of sin and the devil which bounded humanity prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. He noted that this particular military battle, was representative of the battle of Faith against sin and an enemy who neither rests or is of flesh (the devil and his minions), but the victory will be of the Church.
Consequently, the gathering of Barak and his men under the guidance of Deborah upon Tabor, could easily be perceived as the ecclesial communion, the “Qahal Yahweh” (Εκκλησία τού Θεού). That is, the gathering of the Faithful who are called and joined to God and shepherded by God’s appointed prophet/leader, which is symbolic of the priesthood. Yet unlike most of the Old Testament narratives, the prophetic leader figure is a woman shepherding the “Synaxis” (gathering) of the Faithful of Israel. The immediate answer lies in that it was against the misinterpretation of the Genesis creation narrative made by various teachers of the Mosaic Law who tried to use Eve’s temptation as a basis for the “suppression” of women, since they claimed Eve had mislead Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit. Of course, as we know Adam had the freedom to choose to consume the fruit or not, but he chose to eat it, so there is no justification since Adam and Eve both shared equally in the same sin. Therefore God’s choice of Deborah as His prophet, was to show the equality of the sexes as God had intended when He created Adam and Eve, and to show that it was He who would choose the human “vessel” who would perform the vocation that He sought, (provided they were willing to accept).
This brings us to the true reason and meaning why a female figure, like Deborah, was bestowed with the responsibility of prophethood. That is to draw a parallel and prefigure, that it was to be from a woman that the deliverance of humanity from the burden of sin, mortality and the devil would occur. The role of this woman, prefigured by Deborah, had been entitled the “Second Eve” or the “New Eve” since she would differ from the original Eve by remaining as a pure and faithful steward to God and freely and willingly play a crucial role in God’s divine economy (plan) towards creation, more specifically, humanity. This woman would assent to the immense burden and sacrificial responsibility as serving as the “Theo-tokos” (God-bearer) within God’s providential Incarnational ministry of the Messiahship, we are of course talking about the Virgin Mary. It is Mary to whom Deborah prefigures in holding this unique role upon Tabor, and together with two other women, Miriam (Ex 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), who served as Prophetesses, as opposed to the other numerous and strong female figures which are mentioned within Scripture. The fact that there are three of them in itself reveals a Trinitarian meaning to their unique ministry.
However we must return to the point of the ecclesial communion being represented upon Tabor by Deborah, Barak and his army; for this “synaxis” could be also seen as symbolising the Heavenly ecclesial communion of the Saints and the Angelic powers, to which the members of the “militant” (earthly) Church strive towards becoming a part of. Yet the common thread between the account of this Old Testament revelation and that of the Transfiguration can be explained in this sort of manner: The three disciples underwent their own process of purification, and the purging of their misconceptions, as Christ guided them to ascend Tabor and revealed to their senses the eternal vision of who the Messiah is. Thus continuing that process of purging purification, before they could return to the worldly reality to carry out their designated vocation. This of course was in the same mode of how Christ Himself conducted His own ministry, when He broke away from the multitudes who sought Him, and so He would ascend nearby hills to go and pray and seek to be purged of worldly concerns before He returned to carry on.
In like manner, Barak and his men were prepared and formed by Deborah’s guidance when they ascended and dwelt upon Tabor, before they received God’s blessing to carry out their designated commission to fight for their nation’s freedom by the river at Kishon. And on this point, our attention is brought to observe the purifying image of water, which builds upon this momentum of purification and spiritual formation in order to receive God’s grace. For we see that the very waters of this river washed away the oppression of tyranny that the Israelites endured under Jabin, just as humanity’s bondage to sin, mortality and the devil are washed away by the waters of baptism. But to get to those waters which bestow deliverance, we still need to struggle to ascend our own Mt. Tabor, carrying with us our own cross in this process; so that God may take away those things that hold us back from transcending our own limitations.
Another key point with regards this pericope from the Book of Judges, is that the name and origin of the Israelite commander Barak. The meaning of the name Barak roughly translates as “grace” and “blessing”, which as we can see seems quite appropriate given that it was God’s grace and blessing to which the Israelites sought in order to be free of a burden that tyrannised them. Yet, this tyranny was brought about by their own sin and evil that had expelled God’s grace and blessing from within their midst. This of course explains how St. Ambrose came to interpret this particular account as representing our own spiritual and ethical struggles in our own daily lives, and demonstrates what the consequences of sin and evil bring about when we expel the loving compassion of God.
We hence replace God with selfish addictions and compulsions that are either self-destructive or leave ourselves defenceless against those who seek to do us harm. For if we are blinded by sin or the pathoi (negative passions), we consequently fall into committing actions that may cause us to step upon others in the process of pursuing our evil intent, and it is only fallen human character that the injured party would at some point seek revenge. The devil of course plays his part in manipulating these cleavages within our temperaments, while others seek to take advantage of our weaknesses. Many more things can be said, which help to explain this point of bondage to sin and evil and their consequences, but suffice to say the point that this Old Testament event and the Transfiguration both reveal upon Tabor, is the salvific alternative.
As for Barak’s origins being from the land of Naphtali, we observe that it was in Naphtali that Christ conducted most of His travelling ministry, basing Himself within the lakeside town of Capernaum. And it was in Naphtali that He began His ministry by gathering the fisherman and making disciples of them. Thus Barak’s presence within the Old Testament story of revelation upon Tabor is as one can see not by coincidence; for we have the seeking of God’s grace and blessing to be made manifest within human reality, by victory over Jabin, by a man who was from the land where God’s grace and blessing was poured out upon all of humanity. Therefore it is not presumptuous to call Naphtali as the land of Barak, that is, of God’s grace and blessing. In any case an effective summary of Tabor’s significance between the Old Testament account of Deborah leading Barak to Tabor and Christ leading His Disciples could be structured as follows:
Old Testament – Judges 4:1-23
*Deborah was the shepherd guiding Barak and the Israelites according to the directives of God.
*Battle against oppressors and enemies of the Faith and a nation.
*God manifested Himself, revealing the path that the Israelites must take and bestowing victory.
New Testament – Transfiguration
*Christ is God and was the shepherd guiding the Disciples.
*Battle against the true oppressor and enemy of Faith and humanity: Sin and the devil.
*Christ manifested His glory and revealed a glimpse of the eternal possibilities open to humankind in union with God that grants true victory.
Theoria: The Deifying Vision
To reiterate, in very simple terms, the event of the Transfiguration was a preview and foretaste of the Resurrection and Ascension, via the manifestation of Christ’s own divinity and consubstantiality (equality) within the Holy Trinity. As such it demonstrates to humanity, through this revealing vision of God (Θεωρία – theoria), that it too can experience this eternal glory and joy. It is to the attainment of this state of existence which is the loving graceful offer that God seeks to bestow upon humanity, both at the individual and communal level, in every age and context. For it is our ultimate purpose or “reason of being”, to which our search for truth and authenticity yearns for, so that we may attain completeness, fulfilment and peace. To transcend our own limitations and overcome the obstacles to which life, our circumstances and mortality impose upon us. In effect to follow the way of Christ, and in like manner, to be transfigured like Christ.
Therefore, the Transfiguration is a vision into our own potentiality and possible eternal reality. This of course, is the journey of faith from image of God towards attaining likeness of God, or as some Church fathers would aptly call it, the yearning of nostalgia to return home to our divine origins in God who created us, that is, the blessed homeland. Naturally, this revelation of our intended goal, is what the ministry of Jesus is about, since the prophesised Messiah, is both the Son of God and the Son of man. For within His very personhood He unites the two realms of humanity and divinity, thus bridging the “ontological” chasm between Creator and created. In doing this, Jesus shows the disciples, God’s intended vision and path to the mystery of being and life for humanity.
Consequently, such an intended path goes contrary and often leaves wanting, the many different methodologies, philosophies and ideologies that humanity has often created for itself, to assist in living its existence. To which these paths, according to historical witness, are always deficient, fallible and incomplete within themselves and require to be replaced by a new idea or method to correct these inadequacies. Yet to the believer, this is only to be expected, since only the source of all life and Creation has that flexibility and capability of being complete, whole, thorough, adaptable and all-encompassing in approaching the question of being. Nor does that vision of the Transfiguration and for all that it represents, does not try to give us “set” propositions, fixed legalistic frameworks or ideological perimeters to govern and order our lives.
Instead, God provides us moral and spiritual principles by which we can use to discern things by, and turn to for guidance in our existential journey. If we consider the Mosaic Law of the ancient Israelites, it may provide some clear directives on a few matters, (mainly liturgical though), we see that it should be more rightfully called the “Mosaic Principle”, ethos or “khalakh”. Not coincidentally, the appearance of Moses praying and talking to Christ, highlights to us and bears witness to Christ’s unique divine-human identity and His Messianic ministry. But Moses’ presence and confession, also reinforces the point mentioned earlier, in that existential considerations and the ultimate goal of humanity, cannot be encompassed or fulfilled by ideologies and laws that people form.
As Scripture and other elements of Holy Tradition attest to, Moses was known as the “Deliverer” or “Saviour” of the ancient Israelites by leading them out of 400 years of bondage in Egypt, in accordance to God’s will. He subsequently receives the “Law” from God upon Mt. Sinai and bestows it upon the Israelites, and then through the trial of 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness, guides the Israelites towards the Promised Land. The significance of his prophetic ministry was that he gave the Israelites, and to us, guiding principles which can set us upon the path that delivers and saves us from sin.
However the “Mosaic Law” cannot save a person from death, or deliver them from sin, nor does it answer the difficult and pertinent questions of existence in its own right, only God can do this, (particularly through the ministry of the Messiah). Consequently, the Law cannot bestow life in of itself, and the presence of Moses reverently bowing towards Christ upon Tabor (as shown in iconography), represents the Law and all those who have died prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Therefore, the Mosaic Law is what is called in Hebrew as “khalakh”, that is, it serves as a moral and ethical guidepost or compass along our existential journey of life and intercommunion with humanity, creation and God. Its various ordinances aim to reign in the excesses of our human character to which it is prone to, seeks to refocus our attention upon our existential journey and work towards God.
The Mosaic Law is, if anything, a pedagogical tool that seeks to cultivate a person within virtue and self-control, while showing due respect and consideration of others and reverence of God. It is not an ideological programme or methodology as to how societies should be governed, but it provides sound principles on which a society needs to have in place in order to survive and promote the cause of justice. Hence, it could be summarised by the epithet that “he who wishes to govern or lead others, must learn first to govern himself”. And what was the standard that the Mosaic Law aspired to bring people towards in learning to “govern” themselves and attain an enlightened existence?
Moses, as we said, reveals by his reverence towards God’s Anointed One, Jesus, that the “Law” seeks to bring us into communion with one another in love, with God and dwelling in His presence eternally, that is the life of the Resurrection. Therefore, the goal is God and a sound relationship with one another, and if every person struggled and truly attained this, then humanity would not need to create legal or political systems, nor require to develop ideological frameworks for the evnomic functioning of societies/communities. However, such utopian ideals may not be achievable since no one was born perfect or complete, but we do have a guiding principle in the presence of the Mosaic Law, but it is God who ultimately is the beginning and end of all our efforts.
Therefore to apply the Mosaic Law beyond the realm of “khalakh” as many of the Pharisees and Scribes did, distorts and reduces it to a mere collection of lifeless rules and obligations that govern every aspect of life, which unfortunately ignores the “Law’s” true spirit and purpose. This is the doctrine of “Pharisaism” to which Christ reviled and Moses highlighted upon Tabor is not the real objective of the Law of God. Rather it is to strive to witness, experience and become like that vision of the Transfiguration. Naturally this brings us to the figure of Elijah who neither tasted or experienced death, and due to this great blessing attained the highest calling to which the Prophets all aspired to. That is, to not only behold and experience visions of God (theoria), but to enter into and dwell within God’s glorious eternal presence, both in body and soul, prior to the Resurrection and the Second Coming.
Subsequently, Elijah is representative of all the Prophets, just as Moses represents the “Law”. Furthermore, like his fellow prophetic counterpart, Moses, Elijah also converses and shows due reverence to Christ upon Tabor, thus bearing witness to the divine-human identity of Christ and the intended purpose of His Messiahship as attested to by the Transfiguration. Though Elijah, was granted the grace of never experiencing death, he neither “consumed” or “defeated” death on behalf of humanity, but was granted this gift by God. Whereas, the Messiah was the one who would and did, “experience”, “consume” and “defeat” death, thus bestowing the gift of life to all who are willing to respond to His calling and not just a specific gift bestowed upon a specific prophet like Elijah. Yet Elijah’s role within salvation history is a double-edged one, in that it was prophesised that he would return to dwell amongst us, so as to bear witness to the truth, to God and against the enemies of God and truth.
As part of this return to prophetic ministry within our midst, he would be unjustly accused, prosecuted and beheaded, thus experiencing physical death. With regards to Christ’s First Coming at His Incarnational ministry, this death was by St. John the Baptist who comes in the likeness and way of Elijah, as Jesus Himself informs the disciples’ who enquire about Elijah’s return as they descend from Tabor (Mt. 17:10-13). Yet Elijah himself is expected to come prior to the Second Parousia and experience death by beheading. Thus we have two deaths of Elijah, that of his spiritual protégé St. John the Baptist, and his own physical death that will signal the Second Coming. This signifies the two key elements of the human person, that of body and soul, and thus the two types of deaths we all could experience, that of physical death and that of spiritual death. The first will be tasted by all of us, but spiritual death is something we can avoid if we so choose, and if we do choose to avoid it, physical death will be nothing but a mere temporary transition into an eternal existence.
In any case, these facts remind us once again, that no human can save humanity or is to be worshipped, just as the Mosaic Law cannot be turned into an end in itself as the Pharisees had done by their traditions and doctrines. Therefore the presence of Moses and Elijah conversing and showing due reverence to Christ, shows us the source of life and all wisdom which deals with our existential concerns, is God. Hence these two figures represent the Law and the Prophets, the Living and the Dead, who all bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfilment of whole Old Testament. Nevertheless the presence of two prophetic figures of authority meet the Mosaic Law requirement of producing at least two witnesses to verify a claim or an assertion.
Yet the Transfiguration also provides us two more additional witnesses who at the same time, are one with Christ, the Father who proclaims from Heaven that “This is My beloved Son” (Mt. 17:5), and that the Holy Spirit who engulfs Tabor as the bright cloud (Mt. 17:5). The Father’s proclamation is not that Jesus “has become” His Son, as if to say that Jesus is only a mere human person who has been adopted by grace which is what the Arian heretics asserted. But is His Son and shares the same divinity with Him, therefore the glory that shines forth from Jesus, is Christ’s by nature. As the prologue of St. John the Evangelist proclaims (Jn. 1:1-18), there was never a time in which Jesus did not exist, for He was before time and its author, because He was and is (ήν) one with the Father, fully sharing in the same divinity and essence. Consequently the Transfiguration recalls to memory the same proclamation made at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan when the Father says, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).
Yet it also recounts as attested to the presence of Moses, the event of Sinai, which reveals that God is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…who was and who is to come, the Almighty…the First and the Last” (Rev. 1:8; 22:13). It is for this reason that God does not give a name to the enquiry of Moses upon Sinai, because a name defines and places parameters around a being. The only true names that could be ascribed are statements of fact like “Holy Trinity”, “I Am” or “The One Who Is” (Ο Ων). Any other names are either statements or titles which humans have applied because they reflect revelations or experiences that God has bestowed upon humanity. Thus it is how God has revealed Himself to us and not how we see Him or try to formulate theories about Him, because according to our own human capacities, especially logic. Hence, in serious terms, who can truly comprehend God or explain that God is Holy Trinity? How can we explain Jesus’ eternal Sonship, or for that matter how could God communicate all these aforementioned points to Moses in human language when asked for His identity? It is not a logical proposition or something that could be grasped by the mind, which if it could, would mean God is not God! Furthermore, there are theological and philosophical formulations which we could develop as humans which fit into our own perceptions and would make perfectly logical sense that we could be comfortable with. But then that would not be God but a formulation of our own making, if not a false idol.
Therefore, in approaching God and seeking to learn something of His identity, could only be done so by one who had striven to purify themselves and had experienced God’s grace and revelation. Thus the testimony from Heaven upon Tabor revealed the eternal reality and unity between Christ and the other persons of the Holy Trinity, who all share in the same divine essence as One God. Nonetheless, the Transfiguration theophany (manifestation of God) also proclaims Christ’s future glory when He will initiate the long-awaited Kingdom whose signposts are the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. With reference to the bright cloud, it represents the presence of the Holy Spirit which bears witness to Christ’s unity with It and the Father, but it also recalls to memory the presence of God within Temple worship and the cloud which guided the Israelites during their 40 year sojourn in the Wilderness, prior to their entry into the Land of Promise.
As repetitive as it may be, these two points reiterate once again the meaning of the Transfiguration. Firstly, in that the genuine “Temple” where true worship is offered to God, is our very being, for our bodies are the temples of God in which His Spirit dwells in (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Thus the answers to the myriad of questions and concerns that we are confronted with during the course of our own lives, whether our thirst for justice or search for peace and comfort, or our desire to find meaning (cf. Mt. 5:3-12), ultimately can be found within ourselves. This brings us to the so-called “catch” or “snag” which is required to be attained in order to unlock this very dwelling of God within our very being. That requisite is the search and journey to approach the true Promised Land which is not Canaan, but to dwell in the presence and be united to God, or as we cited earlier, to return to our divine origins. This Promised Land hold within it all that we seek and need, and it is not something that one has to die first in order to experience or even enter it; for there are those who strove for purity and opened themselves to become receptive to God’s grace both through the inner workings of their being, as well as the outer transformation and direct working of God within their life.
If this may seem difficult to comprehend, then it can only be ascertained by personal experience, or to stand in the presence of a person who has allowed the manifestation of God to occur within their own life, and thus serve as a witness to this truth of Paradise within this corporeal existence. Within recent Orthodox Christian memory there have been many such figures such as Paisios of Athos, Cleopa of Romania, Thaddaeus of Vitovnica or Iakovos of Evvoia to name a few, who have borne witness to such experiences of the Promised Land that can be manifested here and now. Of course such figures represent the monastic tradition and the ascetical path, but the experience of the Promised Land is not confined to them; for there are those who live according to differing mode of existence, and even within our general society, but usually go unnoticed due to the rush of modern-day life. It is this that the cloud of the Holy Spirit and the light emanating from Christ reveals to us within this great event, and it shows us the cooperative synergy between God and man to effect the potential and holistic transformation of each human being.
Again, this may sound difficult and repetitive to our thoughts, but that is because it is a living experience that goes beyond words, logic or the senses; just as the overwhelming radiance of Christ caused the disciples to fall to the ground in fear and thus cover their faces. In Luke’s gospel, this overwhelming luminous vision sent the disciples into a trance or daze of sleep from which they awoke from to behold the vision in its entirety. The point being that the Light of the Transfiguration is not a sensory light like the sun, but is the infinite mystery of God confronting and penetrating through our very being. The deeper we journey into this infinite mystery, the more we are overwhelmed, or “hyper-illumined” to the point of blindness as an old Greek expression sarcastically puts it, (παραφώτισις). St. Gregory of Nyssa characterises this experiential journey using quite paradoxical language, whereby he cites that it is a journey into “illumined darkness” whereby we are less sure or conscious of our surroundings, for even though we have attained knowledge, the darkness remains because that knowledge reveals that our previous understandings are not certain or complete or must be divested of.
It is like how a teenager believes that they have all the supposed answers to all of life’s concerns, but with age and maturity become less sure of such convictions as the reality of daily life challenges these presuppositions. By inference, we can see that Christ chooses as His disciples, not men of immense learning or theological training, but poor, self-employed and working class men of minimal education who were not “tainted” by fixed mindsets and doctrines like many amongst the Pharisees and Scribes. If anything, had Christ taken from amongst the number of Pharisees and Scribes, many of them would have had to “unlearn” what they knew in order to be receptive to the full reality of their Faith.
One can often see for example, the result that education has in forming and even standardising the thought processes of people, developing specific forms of intelligences according to the desired trend or fashion of pedagogical theory. Quite often one can see greater wisdom, intelligence and life skills expressed in the words and actions of illiterate people who have never received a formal education and have never had their thought processes formed, structured or constricted by it, and thus display greater flexibility in thought.
With the 3 disciples present upon Tabor, they were not constricted by a formalised doctrinal understanding of their Faith which was particular to a specific school of thought as the Scribes and Pharisees. They did not need to “unlearn” such noetic (spiritual) perceptions, but recognised through their unconstrained simplicity, cultivated by their journey of purification (catharsis) and prayer in ascending Tabor, that what they perceived at the summit were two types of light. The first being the physical sensory light of the sun, since it was daytime when the Transfiguration occurred. The second type of light came about as Christ prayed, revealing the radiant power that is within Him, and which transfigured and deified both Moses and Elijah. Of course, given Christ’s previous miracles and the power of His radiance, the disciples realised that it was not necessary for Christ to pray in order to manifest such feats. But that it was Christ’s way of teaching them as to how they could mimic and follow His example to unlock God’s power within themselves, and call upon God’s help to perform the miracles necessary for serving in God’s loving therapeutic ministry towards the world.
As for the disciples recognising Moses and Elijah who they never had met personally since both prophets lived centuries before their own births; they were able to discern their identities via the conversation they had with Christ, and as Luke’s gospel relates, made reference to Christ’s forthcoming ordeal in Jerusalem. Then, as Tabor was engulfed by the bright cloud and the voice of the Father proclaiming Christ’s Sonship, the disciples were moved with fear and reverence, flinging themselves in prostration upon the ground. Yet in all this “spiritual commotion”, Peter somehow plucks up the courage to thank Christ for having brought them to Tabor and begins to babble nervously, not knowing what to say, but inadvertently recognises the significance of the event unfolding before them by offering to build tabernacles.
On this point some Christian commentators assert that Peter’s offer indicated that it was the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). However this is a somewhat fanciful thought since this particular feast does not occur some 40 days before Passover (Pesach) as the event of the Transfiguration does. Instead it takes place in the Jewish month of Tishri which roughly corresponds with September or October, while Passover when Christ was crucified occurs in Nisan which falls about March or April in our present day calendar.
Rather, St. Peter’s offer to build tabernacles, or enclosed altars, recalls the meaning of Sukkoth as being the feast of the Coming Kingdom and God’s dwelling amongst humanity, as had been the case in the tabernacle built for the Ark of the Covenant, and later on, the Temple constructed in Jerusalem. Yet it mimicked the custom of the Jewish Patriarchs who would construct such altars whenever they “communed” and “interacted” with God in prayer and worship, just as Abraham had done when God had made the covenant with him. Furthermore, tabernacles served as symbols representing God’s dwelling amongst the just in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the unjust were at a great distance from Him. Nevertheless, St. Peter’s offer to build tabernacles is ignored since the real, supreme tabernacles are the temples of the Holy Spirit, being each and every one of us being both altar and offering to God. Yet St. Peter’s offer was not required also on the basis that the Holy Spirit had engulfed Mt. Tabor and in effect, “tabernacled” all who were present. The task of building enclosed altars would come many centuries later, after the persecutions of the Christians ceased and the Church of Jerusalem would build and dedicate three great churches upon the summit of Tabor.
Exodus 24:12-18; 33:11-23; 34:4-6, 8.
1 Kings 19:3-9, 11-13, 15-16.
Epistle: 2 Peter 1:10-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Due to time constraints, this section could not be written and researched by me personally but is drawn directly from the excellent work: “Festival Icons for the Christian Year”, by John Baggley, SVS Press: Crestwood NY, 2000, pp. 65-66.
Apolytikion (Tone 7)
You were Transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God,
Revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You!
Kontakion (Tone 7)
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
Troparion (Tone 4)
Come, you faithful, let us welcome the Transfiguration of Christ,
And let us joyfully cry as we celebrate the prefeast:
“The day of holy gladness has come;
The Lord has ascended Mount Tabor
To radiate the beauty of His divinity.”
Kontakion (Tone 4)
“Today You have shown forth…”
Today all mortal nature shines with the divine Transfiguration
And cries with exultation:
“Christ the Saviour is transfigured to save us all!”
- Many texts reiterate the details of the narrative in the Synoptic Gospels, often with theological comments added:
Thou wast transfigured upon the mountain, O Christ our God, showing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they were able to bear it. – Apolytikion at Great Vespers
Enlightening the disciples that were with Thee, O Christ our Benefactor, Thou hast shown them upon the holy mountain the hidden and blinding light of Thy nature and Thy divine beauty beneath the flesh; and they, understanding that Thy glory could not be borne, loudly cried out, ‘Holy art Thou’. For Thou art He whom no man may approach, yet wast Thou seen in the flesh by the world, O Thou who alone lovest mankind. –Sessional Hymn at Matins in Slavic tradition
Moses who saw God and Elijah who rode in the chariot of fire, passing across the heavens unconsumed, beheld Thee in the cloud at Thy transfiguration, O Christ, and they testified that Thou art the maker and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. With them, count us also worthy of Thy light, O master, that we may sing Thy praises unto all ages. –Lity at Great Vespers
- Great emphasis is laid on the fact that both the divinity and the perfect humanity of Christ are manifested at the Transfiguration.
He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, ‘I am He who is’, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples; and in His own person he showed them the nature of man, arrayed in the original beauty of the Image. Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this exceeding grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His decease through the Cross and His saving Resurrection. –Aposticha at Great Vespers
Being complete God, Thou hast become complete man, bringing together manhood and the complete Godhead in Thy Person which Moses and Elijah saw on Mount Tabor in the two natures. –From the Second Canon of Canticle Three at Matins
On Tabor the ministers of the Word looked upon strange and marvellous wonders, and hearing the voice of the Father, they cried out: ‘This is the imprint of the archetype, even our Saviour’. O unchanged image of the One Who Is, O Seal that cannot be removed or altered, Son and Word, Wisdom and Arm (1 Cor. 1:24; Isaiah 53:1), Right Hand (Exodus 15:6) and Strength of the Most High, Thee do we sing with the Father and the Spirit. –From the First Canon of Canticle Nine at Matins
- The links between Christ’s Transfiguration and His suffering and Crucifixion, and strengthening of the faith of the disciples.
Before Thy Crucifixion O Lord, the mountain became as heaven and a cloud spread itself out to form a tabernacle. When Thou wast transfigured and the Father testified unto Thee, Peter, James and John were there, who were to be present with Thee also at the time of Thy betrayal: that, having beheld Thy wonders, they should not be afraid before Thy suffering. Grant in Thy great mercy that we too may be counted worthy to venerate these Thy sufferings in peace. –First Sticheron at Great Vespers
At Matins of the Transfiguration, at the end of each Canticle a Katavasia from the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is sung, for at the Feast of the Transfiguration the Church begins its preparation to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14th September). Two examples of such a Katavasia now follow:
O thrice-blessed Tree, on which Christ the King and Lord was stretched!
Though thee the beguiler fell, who tempted mankind with the tree. He was caught in the trap set by God, who was crucified upon thee in flesh, granting peace unto our souls. – Katavasia of Canticle Five at Matins
O Theotokos, thou art a mystical Paradise, who untilled hast brought forth Christ.
He has planted upon earth the life-giving Tree of the Cross: therefore at its exaltation on this day, we worship Him and Thee do we magnify. –Katavasia of Canticle Nine at Matins
- Christ’s Transfiguration looks forward not only to the Cross, but through the Crucifixion to the Resurrection.
Prefiguring, O Christ our God, Thy Resurrection, Thou hast taken with Thee in Thy ascent upon Mount Tabor Thy three disciples, Peter, James and John. When Thou wast transfigured, O Saviour, Mount Tabor was covered with light. Thy disciples, O Word, cast themselves down upon the ground, unable to gaze upon the Form that none may see. The angels ministered in fear and trembling, the heavens shook and the earth quaked, as they beheld upon earth the Lord of glory. –Sticheron at Great Vespers
- Christ’s Transfiguration is a foretaste also of our resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming:
Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor, showing the exchange mortal men will make with Thy glory at Thy second and fearful coming, O Saviour. – From First Sessional Hymn at Matins
- The Transfiguration is seen as a theophany, a manifestation of the Holy Trinity: of the Son in the person of Jesus; the Spirit in the bright and overshadowing cloud; and the Father in the voice from the cloud. There is thus a link between the Feasts of Christ’s Baptism and His Transfiguration, for both involve the activity and manifestation of the Trinity.
Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, O Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole creation. –Exapostilarion at Matins
- The greatest emphasis is laid on the divine light manifested on Mount Tabor:
The shining cloud of the Transfiguration has taken the place of the darkness of the Law. Moses and Elijah were counted worthy of this glory brighter than light and, taken up within it, they said unto God: “Thou art our God, the King of the ages”. –Sticheron at Small Vespers
The sun which makes the earth bright sets once more; but Christ has shone as lightning with glory upon the mountain and has filled the world with light. –Aposticha at Small Vespers
As they gazed upon Thy glory, O Master, they were struck with wonder at Thy blinding brightness. Do Thou who hast then shone upon them with Thy light, give light now to our souls. –From the First Sessional Hymn at Matins
The following quotation accords well with the scene depicted in most icons of the Transfiguration:
On Mount Tabor, O Lord, Thou hast shown today the glory of Thy divine form unto Thy chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Thy garments that gleamed as the light and at Thy face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Thy brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: “This is My beloved Son, who has come into the world to save mankind”. – Aposticha at Great Vespers
The following texts show how the themes transfiguration, transformation, and enlightenment relate to the restoration of human life that has been accomplished in Christ:
O Christ our God, who wast transfigured in glory on Mount Tabor, showing to Thy disciples the splendour of Thy Godhead, do Thou enlighten us also with the light of Thy knowledge and guide us in the path of Thy commandments, for Thou alone art good and lovest man.
–From the Lity at Great Vespers
Thou, O Christ, with invisible hands hast fashioned man in Thine image; and Thou hast now displayed the original beauty in this same human body formed by Thee, revealing it, not as in an image, but as Thou art in thine own self according to Thine essence, being both God and man. – Second Canon of Canticle Five at Matins
Today Christ on Mount Tabor has changed the darkened nature of Adam, and filling it with brightness He has made it godlike. – Aposticha at Small Vespers
Of course after the exposition of heavy and almost repetitive theology, the easiest and most succinct way of appreciating the meaning of the Transfiguration is through iconography, or more precisely the festal icon.
In observing the festal icon, without doubt, the key focus is the figure of Christ who is at the centre top location of the icon, standing firmly upon the summit of Tabor, while everything about Him is in engaged in some form of movement. Already, to an observer of the icon, their attention is drawn to look upwards to Christ to behold what is our goal, that is our potentiality in Christ and to experience and live in the presence of God. This looking upwards reminds us of our own position in life and the higher aspiration to which we seek to attain, or to poetically put it, to ascend Tabor ourselves and become one with the radiant light.
As the visual and theological centre of the icon, Christ’s right hand is raised in blessing all who are present, while His left hand holds a scroll. The scroll of course represents the Covenant that God made with Abraham and built upon in each succeeding generation since. Thus it symbolises God’s fidelity to a promise and the fulfilment of that promise, to which the whole Old Testament is dedicated to. As such it is a sign of authority, which is also reinforced by Christ’s halo that has inscribed “Ο Ων” (“The One Who Is”). In some icons of the Transfiguration, the Greek initials IC (Jesus) and XC (Christ) are inscribed on either side of the halo to indicate that Jesus is the Christ (Anointed One of God). As for His garments, they have been transfigured into a bright white.
The light emanating from Christ forms a circular mandorla around Him with brilliant rays of white, gold and blue. In ancient and Byzantine artistic expression, blue was a colour used to represent divinity, while gold represents sunlight and royalty (or something of a higher order). Yet the use of gold and blue within the light of the mandorla is to indicate a radiance of light that is beyond white, in order to depict the non-sensory otherness of the Light of the Transfiguration. The fact that the mandorla is a circular shape is to show that like a circle, God has neither a beginning or end point, but embraces all within the grasp of the “eternal circle”.
This circular mandorla contrasts against the almond shaped mandorla of the icon of the Resurrection whose top edge points upward to Heaven, whereas the Transfiguration mandorla merely points out the eternity of divinity and divine radiance within an embracing circular reality. Furthermore, in the Resurrection icon, Christ is pulling Adam and Eve (the ancestors of humanity) into the divine light and into His presence, hence bestowing eternal life and indicating the raising of humanity heaven-bound.
In the icon of the Transfiguration, earth-bound humanity which has as yet attained their own “transformation” is represented by the three disciples seeking to shelter themselves from the power and radiance of God. Those who are embraced by the mandorla or are bathed by its radiance, that is Moses and Elijah, represents the communion of the saints, who are that part of humanity who have attained their transformation and the gift of eternal life, by struggling towards and alongside God.
In the icon, Moses is bowing in reverence towards Christ and holding the tablets of the Law which he represents, and offers them to Christ. As for Elijah, he offers his hands in reverential prayer and represents the prophets because he symbolically serves as the quintessential prophetic figure par excellence. In any case both prophets experienced visions of God, Moses upon Sinai and Elijah on Mt. Carmel, but Moses represents the dead because he experienced death and to show that it is not the Law that bestows life and salvation, but guides us (khalakh) along the path towards eternal life and salvation. Salvation and eternal life are gifts of God, not the Law, which is shown by Elijah’s experience when he was taken up alive into Heaven by a chariot of fire. Thus he did not experience death because God bestowed this gift, therefore Elijah represents the living.
In returning to the three disciples, we see them in great disarray in their effort to shield themselves from the radiant magnitude of God’s glory revealed in Christ. Their unreadiness and inability at this specific juncture within their spiritual life to behold this radiance is shown by James who has fallen over backwards with his hands of over his eyes. John who is in the centre, thus indicating his status as the beloved disciple, has fallen prostrate upon the ground. Then we have the senior white-haired Peter who struggles with immense pain to kneel upwards from the ground, raising his right hand towards Christ in order to gesture his desire to build three tabernacles. The garments of all three disciples are much like themselves, in complete disarray.
Whatever the case may be, the icon is a reminder that Jesus is God’s Anointed One in whom God’s glory is revealed. Furthermore it comes at a point in His ministry whereby He is preparing for His journey to Jerusalem, where humiliation, suffering and crucifixion await Him. The Transfiguration is a brief stop or interlude in this journey in which Christ reveals that in spite of the ordeals that await in Jerusalem, the glorious light of the Resurrection will shine through and triumph, thus bestowing strength to the disciples to not lose heart. Yet it also reveals a preview of the glorious Second Coming of Christ and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God when all of creation will be “transfigured” and “filled with light”.
CUSTOMS & TRADITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE FEAST
In many countries in the Northern Hemisphere where Orthodox Christians are present the offering of fruits during church services would occur. In Greece and Romania specifically, the harvest season traditionally began on the Transfiguration. Grapes, in particular, were not eaten before August 6. In some parishes, the first grapes would be brought to church for a blessing and distributed to parishioners.
Grapes are traditionally brought to church to be blessed after the Divine Liturgy on the day of the Transfiguration. If grapes are not available in the area, apples or some other fruit may be brought. This begins the “Blessing of First Fruits” for the year. The symbolism with the offering of fruits was to indicate that through the efforts of cultivating and “transfiguring” the simple earth on which we walk upon, it shall bestow fruit. The symbolism being that our lives in like fashion require the same effort of hard labour in order to be transformed and fruitful, both spiritually and emotionally, thus bestowing a focus for us to find meaning and purpose. The other main feast whereby the fruits of the earth were offered and blessed is upon the ecclesial new year (1st September)
Dedicated to the humble and pious Fr. Nektarios Zorbalas whose unceasing love, philanthropy and prayers has transfigured many people of many different walks of life and faiths. The poor have been fed, the naked have been clothed, the sick have been healed, the unsettled found peace, the sorrowful have found joy, the impatient attained patience, and many more rediscovered the image of God within themselves due to you reverend father.
– With the love of Christ, your spiritual son V. M.
 This of course, was made possible through Christ who joined His divine nature with His human nature in His one personhood.
 Consider the disciples request for sitting at Christ’s side when He comes in all glory (Mk. 10:35-45) as well as arguments over who is the greatest amongst themselves (Mt. 18:1-5).
 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one” – Gal.3:28.
 Cf. – Mt. 16:23 – Peter becomes an unwitting mouthpiece of Satan.
 As a side note, it is worth noting that the Talmud and side cults like Kabbalism have their origins upon this “tradition”, which had its origins within the Babylonian captivity and onwards.
 The bread of enlightenment being the Gospel that became Incarnate within the House of Bread, Bethlehem. Etymology: Bethlehem = Means “House of Bread”.
 This is actually what the name Judea or Judaea means, “land of confession”.
 Άγιοι – Literally meaning: “Those who are not of this earth”.
 Only the gospels of Mark 9:9 and Luke 9:37 relate the actual descent from Mt. Tabor.
 The word altar itself reveals its close link with mountains and hills, because the word altar comes from the same etymological root which gives us the word “altitude”.
 This tradition was that of the “Masoretes” (roughly translated as “scholars”) who had their origins from the Pharisees and Scribes, and it is from their particular interpretative and religious legacy (to the exclusion of the wider heritage of Judaism) that modern-day Judaism traces its roots to. Of course given the “philosophical”, “ideological” and theological conviction of this select Jewish faction and their successors, they steered Judaism away from much of its cultural-historical context, liturgical expressions and beliefs, towards it present-day manifestation. Of course this was partly due to an effort to distance themselves from the Nazarenes and their Gentile brethren (Christians), and thus to “weed” them out and discredit them. However, in hindsight, it is ironic that the people who were so ardent in “preserving” Judaism, were the ones who directed it unto a path quite far removed from that of their ancestors, by preserving those things that had been added or attached to the Mosaic Law, like the Talmud. Nevertheless this doctrine of the Pharisees (Pharisaism) which Christ warns the disciples against, He likens to the pervasiveness of leaven within dough, thus citing the dangers posed to Jews in general, with regards to their Faith and adherence to the Law (-consider His reference to how He came to save the lost sheep of Israel). The various rebukes that Christ makes towards the Jewish authorities who had been heavily influenced or even blinded by this doctrine of pharisaism and religious nationalism are quite sharp. Let us consider Christ’s assertion that their traditions had invalidated the ordinances of the Mosaic Law. In this light, we can see that it was Christ who sought to teach true and sincere fidelity to faith in God and the Law. His actions may come across as radical, but if one examines carefully, we see that Jesus was not a fanatic, but a fundamentalist calling the people of Israel back to the roots or “fundamentals” of their Faith and their Law. Whereas it was “pharisaism” and its offspring, the masoretic Judaic tradition, that Christ preached against and highlighted that it diverged from authentic Judaism. If we consider the four gospels using the irony of the Samaritans who were more receptive to Christ’s message than the Jews, then we can see the case in point.
 But according to John’s gospel, His first miracle took place in the region of Zebulun, at the town of Cana, however His ministry had already begun before this particular event by the gathering of the Disciples, and so it is to the land of the Naphtali that light of the Gospel was first proclaimed.
 Theoria consists of the compounds “Theos” (Θεός – God) and the verb “orao” (οράω – to see).
 Quite a considerable number of scholars have analysed etymological meaning of the name Moses. According to some who have looked within the Semitic languages, Moses has the meaning of “deliverer” and “saviour”. While other scholars contend that it is originally an Egyptian word that means “saved from the reeds” or “drawn out from the waters”. Some Biblical scholars contend that this latter linguistic understanding is the actual meaning of the name Moses, because it relates the fact that the Prophet Moses was drawn out of the waters of the Nile within his basket as is spoken of within the Book of Exodus. Yet this thought echoes the view held by various Church fathers who cite that the meaning of Moses’ name and the fact that he was given a future and a “new” life when he was drawn from the Nile. Their reference invariably is made towards prefiguring the salvific deliverance of baptism and that Christ earnestly began His ministry after His own initiation of baptism within the Jordan.
 From the word “evnomia” which literally means good governance, perfect order etc.
 Let us consider that if we were born perfect, we would not need to go to school to learn to read and write because we would these skills from the moment of birth! Rather we work towards cultivating and perfecting ourselves through dedication.
 As to why Luke mentions this point we could only speculate, but the cause of the daze or sleep of the disciples could indicate two things. The first point is the weakness of the flesh to remain as vigilant as the soul in the spiritual struggle and the works of prayer, which the disciples display once again at the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ sought to enter into prayer and requested His disciples to join Him in this task. As many may recall from that narrative pericope, the disciples fell into a deep sleep while Christ became burdened and pained within this time of serious prayer, but expressed His hope and His trust and unity with the Father. The second point relates closely to the first point in that it sees how the disciples journey up Tabor and the preparation of purification for this ascending of its slopes had tired them and became “spiritually slack” and so doze off. They were awoken by the dialogue of the prophets with Jesus and they became exceedingly fearful because of what they beheld but also due to the fact they had dozed off at such a significant event in their Master’s ministry.