Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
TOWARDS THE END of Jesus’ public ministry He began preparing His disciples for His approaching death and resurrection. In Mt 16 this scene concludes with the following prophecy: “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (v. 28). This is immediately followed by a fulfillment of this prophecy: the holy transfiguration of Christ. As St Gregory Palamas says in his homily on this feast, “It is the light of His own forthcoming transfiguration which He terms the Glory of His Father and of His Kingdom.”

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 Become

In 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 Day

In the Second Epistle of St Peter we read his eye-witness account of the transfiguration (2 Peter 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
 
IN TODAY'S READING St Paul articulates what he calls “the Gospel,” the heart of the Christian message “in which you stand, by which also you are saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2). That Gospel is the message of Christ’s resurrection: both that He rose (the historical event) and that He is risen (that He lives now in glory).

St Paul stresses here that he received this Gospel which he has passed on to the Corinthians. We are told that, after Paul was converted and baptized, he stayed for “some days with the disciples at Damascus. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:19, 20). After “many days were past” (v.23) he went to Jerusalem and was taken to the apostles. It has been generally assumed that St Paul “received” the Gospel at these early contacts.

St Paul himself, writing earlier to the Galatians, gives us another scenario. He affirmed that “… the Gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galations 1:12). Here St Paul is emphasizing the divine origin of the Gospel message – it is not just a story or philosophy developed by men; its origin is God. Some commentators have suggested that Paul received this Gospel from Christ at his conversion on the road to Damascus.

The chronology St Paul recounts in Galatians also differs from that in Acts. In Acts we are told that Paul spent some days in Damascus then returned to Jerusalem where he recounted his experience of Christ to the apostles (see Acts 9:23-26, ff.). He tells the Galatians, however, that he did not go back to Jerusalem at that time but to “Arabia” (the modern Kingdom of Jordan). “I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galations 1:16-18).

In any case the purpose of these passages was not to provide a diary of Paul’s experiences; it was to authenticate Paul’s conversion by the Lord (Acts) and His approach to the Gentiles (Galatians). This may be why the compilers of the New Testament included both Galatians and Acts in the canon despite these conflicting accounts. The doctrines they teach rather than the biographical details they present are the reason why these books are Scripture.

Appearances of the Risen Christ

Paul indicated that his message is “…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4), then lists a number of people who saw the risen Christ, some of whom are mentioned in the Gospels while others are not.

The first mentioned are “Cephas, then the twelve.” The Evangelists recount a number of these manifestations as well. They also say that Christ’s tomb was first found to be empty by the myrrh-bearing women who heard the angelic announcement of the resurrection but did not see Jesus. Only John tells of Christ manifesting Himself to Mary Magdalene, who “came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord” (John 20:18). Paul does not mention any of these women. In the Roman Empire the witness of women had no legal standing. They could not vote or hold office. They could not give testimony or even witness legal documents. To proclaim Christ’s resurrection on the strength of a woman’s testimony would have been unthinkable.

Appearance to 500 Brethren

The remaining appearances which St Paul cites here are not found in the Gospels. There are no first century document attesting to them. In his retelling of the Gospels Pope Benedict XVI simply says that these three accounts come from “further traditions.”

The most questioned is St Paul’s testimony that Christ was seen by “over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (v. 6). Such a manifestation would have attracted such attention that many would have recorded it.

Some have speculated that this appearance refers to the ascension. St John Chrysostom acknowledges the existence of this opinion but does not adopt it himself. His comment on this verse is based, of course, on the original Greek which is not translated literally in modern English Bibles. It reads: “After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:6). Chrysostom offered this opinion: “Some say that above means above, from heaven; that is, not walking upon earth, but above and overhead He appeared to them: adding, that it was Paul’s purpose to confirm, not only the resurrection, but also the ascension. Others say that the expression, above five hundred, means more than five hundred” (Hom. 38 on 1 Corinthians).

This account also seems to contradict the witness of St Peter. Speaking to the centurion Cornelius and his companions Peter witnessed that the risen Christ “…showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-44. Scholars, both ancient and modern, have been unable to satisfactorily identify the event St Paul is citing.

The Appearance to James

The Lord Jesus’ relatives appear frequently in the Gospels as doubters of His mission. They reacted strongly when Jesus called together the Twelve at the start of His work, “But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’” (Mark 3:21).

Jesus’ relatives are depicted as “outsiders” to the community of His followers. “Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You.’ But He answered them, saying, ‘Who is My mother, or My brothers?’ And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother’” (Mark 3:33-35).

It does not seem that Jesus’ relatives were among His disciples before His resurrection, with the possible exception of the Theotokos. This may be why the Lord entrusted her to His favorite disciple, John.

After the resurrection, however, we find James, the son of St Joseph by his first wife, described as a leading apostle. He and other family members may have been converted when Christ appeared to James, as St Paul mentioned. Since James, as the eldest son, was the head of the family it was natural that the believers in Jerusalem looked to him as the head of their local Church.

All the Apostles

We are used to thinking of the Twelve first chosen by Christ as “the apostles.” In the Scriptures, however, the term apostle is also used for the Seventy whom He sent “two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). The two disciples who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35) were of this company.
 
THE THREE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all record Christ’s meeting with a rich young man who sought His guidance. The young man (Luke calls him a “ruler”) seeks to know what to do to have eternal life. Christ responds by telling him to keep the commandments. When pressed to be more specific, the Lord begins by listing the Ten Commandments. Then He quotes the Great Commandment from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man says that He has kept all these commandments from his youth and presses the Lord to tell him what more he should do. The Lord Jesus then attempts to lead him from merely being obedient to God’s commandments to being in a relationship of love with God. Christ tells the young man what must happen “If you want to be perfect” (v. 21): he must give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus as He went from place to place proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The Lord offered this inquirer the chance to join the company of His disciples, to show that he preferred life with Christ to enjoying his possessions. The young man declined.

What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?

The Lord has held out this goal of “perfection” before, in the Sermon on the Mount. Being “perfect” seems an impossible task if we think it means absolute perfection without any fault or stain. In the Greek of the New Testament (and our Liturgy), however, to be “perfect” or to be “complete” might best be translated “to be all we were meant to be:” living in the light of the Lord, walking in His way. Jesus pushed His hearers to go beyond the commandments to arrive at a more godly way of life. The Lord then contrasted regard for God with attachment to one’s belongings. They will ever be competing for a person’s devotion. As Christ tells His listeners, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The path to perfection as Christ teaches begins with making a choice between following Him and devoting oneself to enjoying the things of the world. As He said so clearly, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

Do I Serve Mammon?

Most of us do not think that we are “serving mammon.” We may even look down on the obviously greedy or on people driven by addictions. Yes, there are people who “serve” money, drugs or sex. They may be slaves to alcohol or tobacco. We don’t believe that we are controlled like that. We may not be overly driven to making inordinate amounts of money, but we should consider that dependency on mammon takes many forms. We should become more conscious of how many of this world’s riches we feel that we “need,” that we “can’t do without,” from our morning coffee to the latest smart phone. We don’t physically need these things; it is our ego that requires them. Is this not another form of serving mammon? To reflect on just how ego is tied to the things of this world we are, consider how difficult it is to fast for any length of time: how much we feel the loss of a favorite food and to what lengths we go to find a pleasing substitute… and how happy we are when the fast is over. In addition “mammon” can also include the non-material wealth of this world: power, prestige or social position. How do we feel when another is promoted over us, receives a bigger bonus or a more lucrative assignment. Serving mammon takes many forms and they all interfere in some way with our relationship to God.

The Fathers on the Power of Mammon

When St John Chrysostom commented on this Gospel passage he noted that being devoted to the things of this world did not make you free. “The rich man is a slave, being subject to loss, and in the power of every one wishing to do him harm” (Homily 46 on Matthew). Serving mammon is a form of slavery In another place Chrysostom said, “If you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquire everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. Be accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind not by the substance of his possessions.” Serving mammon is a kind of poverty. A century before on another continent, St Cyprian of Carthage had said much the same thing. “The property of the wealthy holds them in chains . . . which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but its slaves.”

Asceticism and the Pursuit of Perfection

The choice between serving God and mammon is at the heart of Christian asceticism, where making that choice is lived and experienced on a daily basis. It is most intensely observed by monastics but also by Christians living in this world, married or single. A person living an ascetic life tries to distance himself or herself from being tied to the passing pleasures of the world so as to be more open to following Christ and living the life of God. People often equate life with God to the world to come. It is clear to most people, even in the wider society, that our earthly attachments have no place in heaven. A recent installment in Dan Piraro’s widely syndicated cartoon strip, Bizarro! makes this point. Two long- time residents of heaven are observing two younger ones. “Most of the new arrivals seem incapable of conversation,” the eldest notes. “They just stare at their hands in despair” trying to text, but there are no electronic devices in heaven! Yes, there are no cigarettes, no movies, no alcohol, in heaven. To be without them would surely frustrate someone who had made enjoying these things the focus of life. Thus some Christian thinkers have observed that to be in heaven without the object of one’s passions would actually be to dwell in hell.
 But the differences between this age and the age to come are not really the point. Life with God, transformation into the image of Christ, begins now with baptism. That life is meant to be experienced in ever deeper ways as we mature in the Christian life here as well as in the life of the age to come. The Christian ascetic seeks to avoid anything which can captivate our minds and, at best, distract us from that relationship to God, Following Christ is meant to be the real source of our joy here on earth as well as in the world to come. Serving Christ in worship and ministering to Him in the needy should be our joys, rather than obligations to be gotten through as quickly as possible. The Christian life, to paraphrase St Catherine of Siena, is meant to be “heaven all the way to heaven.”
 
TRADITION IS A DIRTY WORD in many modern circles. There it describes the old and therefore outmoded and undesirable today. In the historic Churches of East and West, however, it is an honored and revered term describing both the Christian patrimony and the continuity with which it has been transmitted in the Church. Eastern Christians in particular speak of “Holy Tradition,” describing it as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is with this sense of reverence that St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “What I received I passed on to you” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Tradition is first of all something received, usually from the community elders (but not in St Paul’s case, as we shall see). Tradition is meant to be passed on to others; otherwise it dies. Finally when we speak of the Tradition we are referring to the content which is passed down. In the case of St Paul here, it is the central faith of the Church: “the gospel which I preached unto you” (v.1). The apostle identifies that fundamental faith as belief in Christ risen from the dead: “…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). This, it has been said, was a kind of early creed identifying the first Christians as distinct from other Jews who did not see the Lord Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophets. It fact, however, St Paul insists that our faith in Christ is rooted in the Old Testament (“according to the Scriptures”) and the experience of the Jewish people. In his Homily 38 on 1 Corinthians St John Chrysostom described it like this: “…the sum of the gospels has its origin here: that God became man and was crucified and rose again. This is the gospel which Gabriel preached to the Virgin, which the prophets announced, and which all the apostles brought to the world.” The memory of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the heart of our faith and our worship. Our weekly observance of fasting and feasting is a memorial of that death and resurrection. Our Wednesday and Friday fasting commemorates the betrayal, passion and death of Christ. Our Sunday, with its Divine Liturgy and eight-week cycle of resurrection hymns, brings the weekly observance to its glorious conclusion.

The Apparitions of the Risen Christ

While we believe in Christ’s resurrection, we know that no one actually saw Christ rise from the dead. The first visitors to His tomb found it empty “but Jesus they did not see” (Luke 24:24). This is why imaginative portrayals of the Lord rising from the tomb are not accepted in Byzantine iconography. This mystery is beyond our ability to perceive it. Our icons of the resurrection depict the visit to the empty tomb or the effect of Christ’s death: the victory over Hades instead. The first Christians’ belief in Christ’s resurrection was based on the testimony of those who subsequently saw Him alive. In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul lists a number of those eye-witnesses whose testimony is the source of our faith: “…he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (vv. 5-7). Cephas (Peter) – The Gospels according to Luke and John speak of Peter running to the tomb “Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened”(Luke 24:12). He did so in response to the news of the empty tomb brought by the women: “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:10). Why do these women – whom our Church reveres as myrrhbearers and even “equal to the apostles” not figure in Paul’s list? St Paul sought to demonstrate the resurrection by appealing to competent and credible witnesses. In the Jewish practice of the time, however, the witness of women was not acceptable in Jewish courts. As the Jewish historian Josephus said, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15). If the word of the myrrhbearers would not have been convincing to St Paul’s audience, it suggests that they were primarily converts from Judaism. The Gospels, however, were written to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles and so the evangelists present the women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The Twelve and The Apostles – After mentioning Christ’s appearance to Cephas, St Paul lists His manifestation to “the Twelve,” that is, Andrew, James, John, Thomas and the rest. The Gospels speak of the Lord coming to them in the “upper room” on the evening of Pascha, an event which we commemorate at paschal vespers. There are several other appearances to the Twelve after the resurrection mentioned in the Gospels. The first question we encounter here is, Why does St Paul speak of “the Twelve” when Judas had killed himself and Matthias was not selected to join the others until after the ascension. Should he not have said “the Eleven”? That is what we find in Mark 16:14: “He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table…” It has been suggested that St Paul is not counting heads here but referring to these closest collaborators of the Lord in the way that the first Christians knew them The Twelve, then, is not a literal number but the designation of an office. We find something comparable in our Pentecost icon. The Spirit is depicted as descending on the Twelve – but one of them is St. Paul who was added later! The Twelve in the icon represent the historical Thirteen – the original eleven plus Matthias and Paul. The mention of the Twelve in v. 5 is followed by a reference to “all the apostles” in v. 7. Christ selected not only the Twelve but, as we read in the Gospel, “…the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). While the West generally speaks of them as “disciples” not apostles, the Eastern Churches follow Paul in speaking of the Apostle Barnabas, the Apostles Jason and Sosipater, and the rest. James – In the Gospels the Lord’s blood relatives seem leery about His prophetic ministry, even goading him to prove Himself. “‘If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.’ For even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7: 4.5). Yet after Pentecost we find James as the leader of the Jerusalem Church and others of the family active among the believers. Perhaps it was this appearance to James which converted the family to Christ. The Five Hundred Brethren – There is no other mention of such an appearance in the Scriptures. We do read of the Lord telling the women, “Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me” (Matthew 28:10). This may refer to the relatives of the Lord mentioned above or to His followers from Galilee, some of whom had followed Him into Judea. Paul Himself – St Paul lists his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-9) as a revelation of the resurrected Lord. As he earlier wrote to the Galatians, “The gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galations 1:11, 12). He did not see the empty tomb – he saw Christ Himself.
 
“I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD” (John 8:12). These familiar words of the Lord Jesus reflect one of the most popular images in the Scriptures, but what do they mean? How is Jesus the light of the world? The rest of this verse (pardon the expression) ‘sheds light’ on what is meant here. “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” Here and in a number of other places Jesus is portrayed as a beacon: one who guides along the right path, who illumines the way for us. He is the “Giver of light,” the One bringing light to our hearts. To say He is light in this way is to talk about what He does. But there is another way to see Christ as light. He is light, not only because of what He does for us but because of what He is. “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is not described here as light illumining our minds and hearts, but as He is in Himself: Light in His innermost being. Based on the Gospel message, the Church proclaims the Lord Jesus as “Light from Light” (Nicene Creed), the “Radiant Light of the Immortal Father, the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed: Jesus Christ” (3rd century vespers hymn). As God is Light in Himself, so too the incarnate Christ is the Light of the Father. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). As far back as the third century the Fathers used our experience of the sun to illustrate this mystery. Like others before him, St. Cyril, the teacher of the Slavs, reflected, “Do you see in the heavens the brilliant sphere of the sun and how from it light is begotten and warmth proceeds? God the Father is like the sphere of the sun, without beginning or end. From Him is eternally begotten God the Son, like light from the sun; just as there comes warmth together with light from the sun, the Holy Spirit proceeds. Each one is distinguished separately: the sphere of the sun and the light and the warmth — these are not three suns, but one sun in the heavens. So also, in the Holy Trinity: there are three Persons, but God is one and indivisible.”

The Light of Mt. Tabor

Christ was concretely manifested as light at His transfiguration: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2) – “white and glistening” (Luke 9:29), “such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). For a moment the disciples glimpsed what had been hidden since the Incarnation: the Word of God, radiant with divine glory, in the person of Jesus. In icons of the Transfiguration, this radiance is depicted by a geometric figure behind the representation of the Lord called a mandorla. While depictions of Christ during His earthly ministry show His head surrounded by a cross and a halo, icons representing Him in moments beyond time and space (the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Dormition) envelop His whole body in this light of glory. This same figure is found in icons of the conversion of St. Paul. Christ, the “Radiant Light” was manifested to Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) on the road to Damascus as “a light from the sky brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13) While this Light briefly blinded Saul by its brilliance, it enabled him to see ever more clearly “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed” (Colossians 1:26). In the Church the light experienced by Saul has been identified with the light that shone on Tabor, the Radiant Light of the Father, Jesus Christ. As we sing on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, “Christ who had been radiant in light on the mountain, blinded your bodily eyes; but He allowed your soul to see the Trinity” (from the Canon, Ode 1).

The “Uncreated Light” of God

In the Gospels we find two seemingly contradictory understandings of our ability to know God. On the one hand we are told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). On the other hand we hear, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa showed how both statements are true. He taught that the essence of God was unknowable. Like the sun in the imagery cited above, God in His deepest being is unapproachable. The energies of God – His “Light” and “Warmth” – have been made known to us and we can truly know God in His energies. In the fourteenth century, St Gregory Palamas applied this teaching to the Transfiguration. He explained that when the Apostles witnessed the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor, that they were seeing the actual uncreated light of God.

Reflecting the Divine Light

We too, Palamas insisted, can experience God’s divine energies even though we can never know His essence: “for those who love each other all nature is filled with the light which seems to radiate from the other.” Many saints who have loved deeply have reflected this light. Perhaps the first was the Protomartyr St. Stephen who witnessed to Christ before the council of Jewish elders in Jerusalem. “And looking steadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). St Simeon the New Theologian, writing in the eleventh century, described his own experience in similar words: “He gives Himself totally to me, unworthy as I am, and I am filled with His love and beauty. I am sated with pleasure and divine tenderness. I share in the Light. I participate also in the glory. My face shines like that of my beloved and all my members become bearers of Light.” The most compelling witness to such an experience comes from Nicholas Motovilov. In 1831 he wrote of seeing St Seraphim of Sarov transfigured with the divine light. They had been discussing how a person can acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit but Motovilov was puzzled: “I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God.” Finally, as he described it, “Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?’ “I replied: ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’ “Father Seraphim said: ‘Don't be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.’ “Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: ‘Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Your Spirit which You grant to Your servants when You are pleased to appear in the light of Your magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both?’” For a moment the apostles on Tabor saw the light of God which is Christ’s by nature. Likewise for a moment Nicholas Motovilov saw the light of God indwelling by grace in the person who is in Christ.
 
OKAY, OKAY – SO WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO to get an A in your super course, prof? … Is it too farfetched to see the young man in Matthew 19:16-26 as an exuberant adolescent bursting upon the scene who wants to sew up this heaven thing as soon as he can? The Lord Jesus puts on the brakes (“Why do you call me good?” ) and then gives him the first step – keep the Commandments. “I keep those commandments already – there’s got to be more to it than that. Spell it out for me - what else can I do to nail this down?” The young man wanted another rule to follow; the Lord told him to offer his whole life: “Come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Put everything else aside and join the company of My followers. He was not ready for this; he was too attached to his current way of life. The story must have been one of the most popular in the early Church. It appears in all three synoptic Gospels. And in each it follows immediately on Jesus’ encounter with the little children. He is the Lord of all – children, overanxious youth and, in the following passage, His close disciples.

No Other Law

Many Fathers saw in these passages an indication that the Christian life was not a matter of specific laws but of progressive growth from one stage of development to another. The young man wanted to know the (one size fits all) rules that he could incorporate into his life, but there are none. The Christian life is above all a relationship with the Person of God in Jesus Christ. It is not static, a matter of a few precepts we can master early on which will guarantee us eternal life. As a relationship it will grow as we grow and to the degree that we grow. The two-year old learning how to act when he gets “Jesus Bread” and the elder cherishing the experience of the Liturgy all week long are both living their life in Christ, each in a way appropriate to him or her. One cannot be forced from childhood to adulthood – it happens gradually or not at all. The same is true in the spiritual life. As St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, advised, “Do not then seek all at once, but gently, and by little and little, ascend this ladder, that leads you up to Heaven” (Homily 63 on Matthew, 16).

Rungs of the Ladder

There have been a number of descriptions of this ladder in the Christian East. Certainly the most famous is that of St. John of Sinai whose work, The Ladder (klimax in Greek), earned him the name “Climacos.” There are several other schemas, drawn from the experience of other ascetics, as well. One is worth considering here as it speaks of the rungs as successive stages in our attempts to serve God. The first stage is that of the “Slaves of God.” Slaves may have a sincere desire to follow God’s commandments, but they do so out of fear. They reason that, if they don’t keep these commandments, they will go to hell. On the positive side, this idea may keep them from wrongdoing and even draw them closer to God. On the negative side, they may not be willing to engage in any spiritual activity unless failing to do so would be a mortal sin. “Do I have to?” is an infantile way of relating to God. There is more. The second stage is those who serve as Employees of God. They serve the Lord, not to escape punishment but to earn a reward. They are not just trying to keep out of hell – they look to attain heaven, to gain eternal life. The rich young man was perhaps at this stage. He wanted to know what he could do to earn this goal. Many pious people have been told that if they perform this or that act of devotion they will earn points with God: “If you do this, God will do this.” This is some kind of a contract, but it is not faith in the biblical sense of the term. The Lord’s story of the vineyard owner who rewards the last even as the first (Matthew 20:1-16) illustrates that it is not our work (our good deeds) but God’s freely-given generosity (grace) that produces spiritual blessings. The works they do, the deeds they undertake to do may be good things in themselves, but “employees” do them to get a paycheck. The third stage is that of “Friends” or “Lovers” of God. This is the stage of people who have come to realize deeply that God is truly their Father, and that Christ is truly the Lover of Mankind, as we say so often in our divine services. Whatever pious or charitable things they may perform, they do – not to get a reward or avoid punishment – but out of love of the One who loves them. When we are children our understanding is so limited that fear of punishment may be the only thing that keeps us from getting into trouble. As children grow, their relationship with their parents changes – they do things to gain their approval, not just to avoid their displeasure. As they grow to adulthood their relationship must mature as well. It is the same with our relationship with God.

The “Oil on the Rung”

After the young man had left, Christ told His followers, “Assuredly I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). The rich man here is not the person who has material things, but the person who is attached to them: the person who, like the young man in the story, cannot move to a deeper communion with God if it means giving up a comfortable lifestyle. Their attachment to the comforts of this life prevents them from climbing to the next rung. Attachment to the life we have made for ourselves can be such hurdle to overcome in progressing toward God that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (v.24). Some modern commentators have tried to make this image more “reasonable” by explaining it away. For years people said that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. There never was such a gate, but fundamentalists were uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus exaggerating to such a degree. He must, they reasoned, have been referring to a real place. Hyperbole – the use of exaggeration as a figure of speech – was as common in Jewish speech as is in ours. In the Babylonian Talmud there is a similar expression about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle as a figure of speech implying the unlikely or impossible. It is equally improbable, the Lord is saying, that someone in love with the things of this world would easily give his or her heart to God.

When the rich man came and said: “what do I still lack?” expecting our Lord to speak to him of some details of the Law in which, like Paul, he was perfect, our Lord told him not what he was hoping to hear, but what he did not want to hear… Seeing right away that the man’s heart was totally submersed in this earth’s goods, the Lord took him by surprise and lifted him up from the dust of this earth to make him run toward heaven.

St Ephrem the Syrian

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