At Christ’s transfiguration “some standing here” – Peter, James and John – witnessed the Lord in the glory of His kingdom, if only for a moment. He was not changed – they were. They were able to see what is always there but which they could not imagine before: that God dwelt in man.
St Gregory Palamas describes it this way: “Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun.”
As St Ephrem the Syrian expressed it, “They saw two suns; one in the sky, as usual, and one unusually; one visible in the firmament and lighting the world, and one, His face, visible to them alone” (Sermon on the Transfiguration, 8). In one sense we can say that Christ was not transfigured; it was the apostles’ ability to see Him which was transfigured.
“What He Really Was”For a moment Christ was revealed to the disciples as what He really was: God incarnate in our human flesh. “We believe that at the transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine” (St Gregory Palamas, Homily on the Transfiguration).
This Light was manifested to the disciples in the radiance of His face and garments: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). As Mark describes it, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). The immaterial divine nature of the Son of God in manifested in the physical sign of a shining face and garments because this was all that the disciples could absorb. As we sing in the troparion of this feast, Christ was “showing Your disciples as much of Your glory as they could behold.”
Over succeeding centuries the Church deepened its understanding of the incarnation, but not without disagreement. It took several hundred years and several Ecumenical Councils for the Church to articulate its faith in Christ as the incarnate Word of God. By the fourth century the Church was calling Christ “Light from Light, true God from true God… of one essence with the Father” but it took several more centuries and councils to grasp the implications of that statement.
As iconography developed it settled on one particular form to represent the divine nature of the light perceived by the disciples. The mandorla is a design made up of overlapping geometrical shapes which surrounds the image of Christ in icons of the transfiguration. The basic mandorla – an Italian word meaning almond – contains three round or oval concentric circles, in shades of blue or gold, representing the Trinity. The innermost circle is of the deepest shade representing the unseen Father. Other geometrical shapes represent the energy of the divine light shining upon the disciples. The mandorla is generally used in icons representing the glorified Christ at His transfiguration and resurrection and when receiving His Mother at her dormition.
What We Are Meant to BecomeIn the mystery of Christ’s transfiguration the Church has caught a glimpse of what those who are in Christ are meant to be: persons who in their humanity can have God dwelling in them, reflecting that presence as light. The Lord Himself tells us that at His second coming “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 1:43). The custom of depicting saints and angels with haloes derives from this prophetic statement of Christ.
Becoming “righteous” is our task in this life, in preparation for the glory to come. In both the Old and New Testaments we are frequently instructed how we may become righteous. In the New Testament, however, these instructions are phrased in terms of God dwelling in us. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) is the One whose presence within us guarantees our righteousness before God. This is the “mystery hidden from eternity” (Colossians 1:26), which the Greek Fathers called theosis, the process of our transformation by the presence of God within us.
This process of theosis begins with our baptism. As we sing so often in our services, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). God dwells within us but requires that we “put on Christ” by the way we live. “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Our cooperation with God dwelling in us to transform us is called synergy by the Fathers: the life-long task of consciously becoming God-like in our thoughts, words and actions in order to radiate the presence of God within us by baptism.
Despite all our best efforts, none of us – not even the saints – can so unwaveringly combat our passions that we realize our potential on our own. And so Christ has given us an outward sign of His love in the mystery of the Eucharist to which we can return again and again. By sharing in this holy mystery we can reinforce our awareness of His saving presence in us and derive the strength we need for our daily ascent to God.
Through the holy mysteries and our striving to live like Christ we can attain a likeness to God and union with Him so far as possible. We who are not holy by nature can become holy, and become partakers of glory.
Looking to the Last DayIn the Second Epistle of St Peter we read his eye-witness account of the transfiguration (2 Pt 1:16-18). This is what follows: “And so we have this sure prophetic word, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (v.19). The transfiguration is thus a prophetic anticipation of Christ’s glorious second coming when the “morning star” (Christ) will fill us with His light.
The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of every Christian pursuit. As St Gregory the Theologian expressed it in his Third Oration On the Son, the holy transfiguration of Christ initiates us “into the mystery of the future”.
O Giver of life, You bent down to the pit without falling into it and raised me up who had fallen. You bore my foul-smelling corruption untouched, and made me sweet-smelling with the myrrh of Your divine nature.
Canon of the Octoechos, Tone 5