Sermon: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (Mt 17:4)
The Mystery and the Gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
A Sermon by Father Peter A. Chamberas
The holy Transfiguration of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ is commemorated in the Orthodox Church with great solemnity on August 6th as one of the major fixed Feast days of the year. On the day before, the faithful are introduced to the Transfiguration: "Come, let us all welcome the Transfiguration of Christ, and joyously celebrate the bright prefestival..." After the Feast day itself on the 6th, the celebration continues for a week, before coming to a close on the 13th with the apodosis. During this period the mystery and the gospel of the Transfiguration is celebrated and proclaimed to the faithful in public worship and in personal devotions.
The Transfiguration, as an event in the earthly life of Christ and His three disciples, who were with Him on Mount Tabor when He was transfigured, is described in the three Gospels of Matthew (17: 1-9), Mark (9:2-10) and Luke 9:28-36). It is also mentioned in 2Peter (1: 10-19), and alluded to indirectly in many other passages of the New Testament (e.g. Rom.12:1-2; Philip.3:2-31; 2Cor.3:7-18; Jn.l:14; 12:27-30; Acts 9:3f. etc.).
The extraordinary event of the Transfiguration of Christ and its solemn and joyful celebration in the Orthodox Church is particularly expressive of Orthodox Christianity in general and Orthodox piety in particular. From the 5th century, when it was first introduced in Jerusalem as a Feast day, the Transfiguration was enriched greatly through the centuries by the development of the liturgical arts of hymnography, of iconography and, especially, of the festal homilies of the Fathers. These expressions of the Orthodox spiritual tradition provide wonderful interpretations of the biblical texts describing this evangelical event in the life of Christ and in the life of the three disciples. They also emphasize how important the Transfiguration is for all the faithful.
When the biblical readings selected for this Feast are heard together with the beautiful hymns which retell and interpret the story of the Transfiguration; when the atmosphere of our Orthodox churches is also reflected in the piety of the faithful who gather here for worship; when these elements are harmoniously joined together, then, indeed, a spirit of transcendence is created, a sense of spiritual elevation is evoked, and an inner yearning rises up in our hearts to experience personally in our lives the light of God and to see Jesus, our Savior, transfigured in glory.
But the great mystery of the Transfiguration of the Savior, which we are celebrating, is not a subject that we can readily approach. A sense of sacred awe and fear overwhelms us when we begin to reflect on the divine mystery of the Transfiguration and ponder its profound yet joyous gospel message for us today.
Before we go on, let us listen again to the narrative of the Transfiguration as described in Matthew (17,1-9):
"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be 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 pleased; listen to him.' When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Rise, and have no fear.' And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, 'Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.'"
The events which surround the Transfiguration are extraordinary and awesome indeed because they have to do with the manifestation of God and the experience of His divine presence by human beings. Indeed, the events unfold dynamically from earth toward heaven, but also from heaven toward earth. There is no break, no separation between the divine and the human, the natural and the supernatural, the historical and the eschatological, the earthly and the heavenly realities. And the connecting link which brings together and holds together these realities is precisely the person of Jesus Christ. This is especially true when we, like the three disciples on the mountain, are blessed to experience Jesus as the Christ, transfigured in the brilliant radiance of his divine and uncreated glory.
As an event in the earthly life of Jesus Christ and in the life of His disciples throughout the ages, the Transfiguration conveys and brings to us a joyous message, a great affirmation: God is accessible to personal experience; He shares His life with humanity; man can go up to the mountain of God and meet Him there as He descends from the infinite heights of heaven. And it is our loving Lord and Savior who leads us by the hand up to the mountain of God. This then is the significance of the facts in the three narratives which declare that the disciples first went up to a high mountain and spent the entire night in prayer with Christ. It was during this spiritual experience in prayer that the disciples saw Jesus transfigured in such glory and splendor that it was too much for them to bear. This is dramatically depicted in the beautiful icons of the Transfiguration which help us to interpret and to visualize the event. It was also in this experience that the disciples were empowered to see and hear the prophets of old - Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about His crucifixion - and even to hear the heavenly voice of God the Father affirming His beloved Son Jesus.
Our Orthodox spiritual tradition attributes a very fundamental and indispensable function to the divine and uncreated light, to the heavenly glory which surrounded not only Jesus, but also the two prophets and the three disciples as well. This means that the three disciples were not passive recipients of a vision, but active participants of it. They were overshadowed by the bright cloud of God's presence, by His Holy Spirit. They were also engulfed by the divine light which emanated from the transfigured Christ and were, therefore, able to see the light of God from within the light of God that had entered into their souls and bodies. The holy Fathers of the Church remind us that the Transfiguration of Christ implies and presupposes the spiritual rebirth and transfiguration of the human person as well by the grace of God. The eyes of the body and of the soul must be opened and enlightened by the grace of God before they can see Jesus transfigured in glory as the divine Son of God. Without this divine light all the apparent lights of this world are but a deep darkness.
The Transfiguration of Christ then reveals not only the divine nature and glory of Jesus, which is always there in His unified person, - though not always observable by all and at all times; it also reveals the spiritual transfiguration of our own human nature as well. Jesus, shining in pristine beauty and unfading glory, reveals in His human nature the natural, the original condition of the human person - created in the image and likeness of God. This is the condition of Paradise which man has lost and which he seeks to regain in Christ. In Christ, in the transfigured Christ, we see exactly this pristine state of human nature restored to its original natural beauty and glory. But this also indicates the natural and spiritual potentiality of every human being who chooses freely to be united through faith and love with Jesus Christ - the light and the life and the savior of the world.
At the time of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor only three chosen disciples went up to the mountain with Jesus to pray throughout the night as St. Luke reminds us in his account of the event (Lk.9:28-36). These three disciples, having ascended to the mountain, having prayed through the night, and having received the grace of God, were enabled to receive within them this light of God and to see their beloved Lord transfigured in glory. To see Christ transfigured means that the seer must also be transfigured, overshadowed by the very light of God, which is not a mere symbol, or a created object, but, as the Fathers of the Church assure us, an eternal, uncreated light that can be seen by the faithful who are indeed tried and true. This then is not only the mystery and the joyful good news of the Transfiguration of Christ Himself, but also the great challenge and the great attraction that it is for the great Fathers and Saints of the Church, and certainly also for the innumerable pious believers who yearn for, who pray for, who shed tears of repentance and of joy for the light of God which they know in their heart is there - available to be seen and shared by those whose hearts have been purified and dedicated totally to God.
In the liturgical life of our Orthodox Church, the beautiful event of the Transfiguration of Christ is intimately connected with the August Lent and the wondrously transfigured person of the Theotokos, whose blessed Dormition we will also be celebrating soon. In fact, as the one Feast ends the other one begins. As we proceed into this period of spiritual edification and renewal, we are all the more powerfully reminded of the personal challenge that is placed before each one of us: to respond fully and wholeheartedly to God, as the all- holy Theotokos did, as all the Saints did, and as all the truly faithful people seek to do. We cannot expect to see Christ transfigured unless we are enlightened by His light - "In your light we shall see light," as we are reassured when we sing the Doxology. We need to be constantly renewed and regenerated; we need to climb up high; we must struggle and apply ourselves fully and completely and thoroughly to this task of a new physical, moral and spiritual way of life; we must leave behind all that is useless, all earthly things that do not edify and raise us up to God, so that unburdened and free from all these things, we may rise toward the mountain of God, toward heaven, toward Christ transfigured in glory. It is precisely this gradual ascent toward God that prepares us, through cleansing and enlightenment, for the mystery and the gospel of the Transfiguration to be revealed also in our own heart and mind, and to reflect the spirit and the light of God. We are all called to partake of Christ's glory - having first of all shared in His effort, His struggle, His life of humility and suffering, which is also the effort and the life of all the Saints and all the truly faithful people of God.
This present world, this present life, with all of its evil and suffering and grief, can be transformed and transfigured by the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by the glory of the transfigured Christ, shining in our hearts and minds. St. Paul reminds us that as faithful Orthodox Christians, we can live "as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; ...as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2Cor.6:9-10). This paradoxical view of Christian life that is so full of real and sober optimism and joy derives, ultimately, from the Cross of Christ, which can and does change the “loss" into victory; the "dishonor" into honor and glory; the death into life eternal as it is perfected in Christ. The life of the Christian can be changed, it can be transformed and transfigured little by little, from glory to glory, and in the soul of the transfigured Christian the whole world is also gradually transfigured until everyone and everything is seen and experienced in and through the light of God and embraced by the infinite and unconditional love of God.
The wonderful experience on Mt. Tabor made St. Peter want to prolong it and to stay there. "Lord, it is good for us to be here!" But Jesus insists that we go down again into the valley where people are struggling and suffering. We do not experience the grace and the delight of the Transfiguration so that we may isolate ourselves and avoid our responsibilities. True and faithful Christians "descend" to the world; they are not indifferent to the rest of the society, but transmit to all the health and the vision of their own heart. Daily life is transformed precisely when each one of us assumes the pain, the loneliness and the sorrow of other people in our environment.
At the end of every Divine Liturgy the celebrant invites the faithful to "go forth in peace.…" This is never a mere dismissal from public worship, but precisely our evangelical commission as Christians to "come down” from the Mt. Tabor of our Church, to go out into the world and to transform it. Christians who "have seen the true light, who have received the heavenly Spirit," can now return to the pain of the world; they can now carry the Cross of Christ with the certainty of victory, with the certainty of the Resurrection and the Transfiguration. This is the real transforming and evangelical work of the Church in every place and every time, so that the world, society and every human being may become a friend of God and be transfigured by the divine light of the holy Transfiguration of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Neither the personal life of each believer, nor the collective life of our Church communities can be true and effective unless and until we have experienced first the transforming power of God's light in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. This is what happened to the three disciples on Mt. Tabor when they were given the grace to see Jesus Christ transfigured in glory. This is the same experience, which all the believers are now called, and able, to experience by ascending to the "Mountain of the Transfiguration." By entering the Kingdom of God, that is, by participating actively in the Divine Liturgy, which serves now and perpetually as the Transfiguration of Christ, the faithful have the place where, and the time when, the transfiguration of the human person in Christ can become a reality.
As we celebrate and commemorate the Transfiguration of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, let us be mindful of its profound significance and centrality in the life of the Church and in our own personal lives as faithful members of the Church. As we approach and prepare to celebrate again this year the Feast of the Transfiguration, let us indeed take the hand of Jesus as He leads us up to the mountain, where not only He is transfigured for us in glory, but where we too may bask, for a little while, in the glory of His divine light, and then joyfully may go forth to share this light for the life of the world.
Fr. Peter A. Chamberas
Fr. Peter Chamberas is a graduate of Holy Cross, class of 1961. He has also earned an STM degree from Boston University, a Licentiate and a Doctorate from the University of Athens. Prior to and during the early years of his ordination, Fr. Chamberas taught at St. Basil's Academy, Hellenic College and Holy Cross School of Theology.
Fr. Chamberas is presently serving Holy Trinity Church in Concord, NH. Previously he has served St. George Cathedral in Manchester , NH for ten years, and, for seventeen years he served St. Nectarios Church in Boston, MA, a parish founded under his leadership in 1974.
In addition to his dissertation on The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, he has also written Baptism and Chrismation: Beginning Our Christian Life in the Orthodox Church , The Divine Liturgy Explained , and This Is a Great Mystery: A Commentary on the Sacrament of Marriage . His published translations include: The Essence of Orthodox Iconography by Constantine Kalokyris, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, The Mystery of Death by Nikolaos Vassiliades, and several books written by Bishop Gerasimos of Abydos. Presently, Fr Chamberas is translating and editing some additional writings of our saintly spiritual Father, Bishop Gerasimos of blessed memory, which were left in his care for this purpose.