5. THE TRANSFIGURATION
One of the Lord's miracles that revealed the Holy Trinity and disclosed the hidden divinity of Christ and humanity's celestial bliss was the Transfiguration. Mention is made of this, by the first three Evangelists - Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as one of the Lord's eyewitnesses, Peter. What they tell us, is heard in the divine service of the feast day (6 th August) and it transports us to Mount Tabor , where - according to tradition - the Transfiguration took place.
" In those days, Jesus took Peter, James and his brother John, and they were personally taken up to a high mountain; there, He was transfigured in their presence, and His face lit up like the sun, while His garments became as white as the light. And behold, there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, and they were conversing with Him... Behold, a luminous cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came forth from the cloud, saying: 'this is my beloved son, in whom I have shown favor. Heed Him.' On hearing this, the disciples fell prostate on the ground, and great fear was upon them " (from the Evangelical reading of the feast-day, Matthew 17, 1-6).
With a simple and unpretentious way, without any redundant phrases, the divine Evangelist refers to an incident in Christ's life, which three apostles - Peter, James and John - witnessed with their own eyes. They were the ones who were distinguishable from the others and surpassed them in faith, devotion and love towards the Lord. As a feast-day hymn mentions: " You, the timelessly existing God-Logos, the One who was surrounded by light as a garment around Him, became transfigured in your disciples' presence, and shone brighter than the sun".
The Face of the Lord shone, from the splendor of His unapproachable divine glory, and His garments became white as the light. Two prominent personalities of the Old Testament, the great Moses and the zealot Elijah, appeared at that moment of divine splendor. They conversed with the Lord about the things that would be happening to Him, such as the redeeming death that was to be realized in Jerusalem . Moses and other prophets had foretold Christ's salvatory arrival, with signs, images and prophecies.
Saint John the Chrysostom, from whose speech the Transfiguration service borrowed many elements, explains why the Lord chose these two personalities from the Old Testament to flank Him at the time of the Transfiguration. Firstly, they represent the law and the prophets. Secondly, they had both enjoyed a secret view of God, one at Mount Sinai , and the other at Mount Carmel . Thirdly, Moses represented the deceased, while Elijah - who had ascended to the heavens in a fiery chariot - represented the living. " So that they might learn that He has authority over death and life, and that He governs above and below ". (EPE 11, 248-250). This is what the feast-day hymns also say: " In conversing with Christ, Moses and Elijah proved that He reigns over the living and the dead " (Vespers hymn).
Moses' and Elijah's presence during the Transfiguration also underlined the unity between the Old and the New Testament. Christ, who was foretold with signs, symbols and prophecies in the Old Testament, is portrayed in the New Testament as preaching and performing miracles. As the divine Chrysostom again says, " the two testaments, two young girls and two sisters are satellites to the one, same Master. The Lord is defined in the prophets; Christ is preached in the New Testament " (PG 50, 796).
During the Transfiguration, we also have the manifestation of the Holy Trinity; the Father who names the Lord His beloved Son; the Divine-Human Lord who is transformed and the Holy Spirit that shines together with the Lord, like a luminous cloud. This is usually depicted with a square or other geometrical shape, which is inscribed in Christ's "glory". This triadic manifestation is indicated by the hymn: " This day, in Mount Tabor , He (Christ) mystically reveals the character of the Trinity ".
And now, the crucial question: how did the three disciples see this marvelous event of the Transfiguration? The answer is given, in the hymn of the feast-day: " You became transformed on the mountain, and, as much as they could, Your disciples looked upon Your glory, Christ the Lord; so that when they would see You being crucified, they would recognize Your voluntary passion, and to the world, they will proclaim that You truly are the glow of God ".
This hymn of our Church summarizes in a brief and concise way the events of the Saviour's Transfiguration as narrated by the Evangelists. It firstly tells us how the disciples saw the Lord's divine glory "as much as they could" - to use the expression of the feast-day hymn. Given that the disciples were mere humans, they could not possibly look at the Lord's proper divine radiance. If they had looked upon it, they would have perished: " ... by sparing this, in case they lost not only their sight, but their life also" (from the hymn).
Secondly, we learn from this hymn and others the purpose of the Transfiguration; that is, the Lord became transformed, so that when they would see the Cross, the disciples would perceive that His passion was voluntary, of His own free will. Thus filled with faith and certainty, they would shout out to the world of his divinity. As the feast-day hymn says: " They had to see the wonders of the Lord, so that they would not waver at the sight of His trials " (verse from Vespers hymn) and " so that by seeing Your wonders, they will not cower before Your passions " (Vespers text).
It would not be aimless to repeat here, that our Church's hymns summarize the truths of the faith, as witnessed by the Holy Bible and expanded on by the Fathers of the Church. In this way, they supplement the Holy Bible, because in their very poetic verses, our holy tradition is preserved.
All the foregoing details were necessary, in order to comprehend the Byzantine icon of the Transfiguration, which is a faithful interpretation of what the holy Evan-gelists said.
Description of the icon (pic.8) " The mountaintop of Tabor has three summits. At its highest peak, in the middle of the icon, stands the Lord facing forward, framed by a luminous glory where He is portrayed with a bright circle, in which is a rose-coloured square. (In our icon there are two squares, symbolic of the other two persons of the Holy Trinity). His garment is white, with delicate shades. He blesses with His right hand, and carries a scroll in his left hand.... Even though His Divine authority is evident in the Transfiguration, He is nevertheless portrayed here, as always, in a humble form. To His right stands the prophet Elijah and to His left the prophet Moses, or, otherwise, they are each depicted standing on adjacent peaks bowing respectfully; Elijah in conversation with Christ and Moses holding in his arms the tablets of the Law. Below them, among the rocks, the three disciples - Peter, James and John - are sprawled on the ground in violent poses: Peter is covering his face from the dazzling light and crying out to the Lord; John is prostate on the ground and James has been overthrown, as if thrust aside by a supernatural power. Their faces betray fear and ecstasy. These are the details as narrated by the holy Testament: "On hearing this, the disciples fell to the ground face down, and were in great fear." (Matthew, 17, 6), also, in the hymns sung during the feast day of the Transfiguration, we hear: " .....(the disciples) who could not bear the rays of your countenance, nor the brilliance of Your robes, fell heavily to the ground on their faces", and also the following: "Your disciples, o Logos, threw themselves on the face of the earth, not bearing to look at the invisible figure. In many icons of the Transfiguration, when there is a large expanse of wall to be covered by a mural, they are depicted behind the mountain; from one side, Christ appears ascending the mountain along with His three disciples, and on the other side, the same figures are seen descending the other side of the mountain, while Christ is blessing them, telling them not to tell anyone of the things that they witnessed, exactly as narrated in the Bible...." (Fotis Kontoglou).
The significance of the icon for the faithful . Just as every other Byzantine icon, so the Transfiguration icon becomes the cause of reverend reflections for the faithful who set eyes on it and venerated it. The hymns of that feast-day also assist in this. They underline - apart from the manifestation of the Holy Trinity and the glory of Christ - the glory of the faithful in the kingdom of heaven. Firstly, they tell us how man was in Paradise before he sinned. This "original beauty" was displayed by Christ during His Transfiguration, having served as both God and human. Secondly, the hymns tell us - apart from the original state - about the final condition, the glorious state of man. " When You became transformed on Mount Tabor, You showed us the mortals' alternation endowed with Your glory, o Saviour, as You will be appearing during Your second and terrible coming " (from a Matins hymn). In order to enjoy heavenly bliss however, we must adorn ourselves with virtues, because " those who reach the prominence of virtues, will acquire divine glory " (from the Vespers hymn).
The abridged hymn of the Transfiguration is read every day by the Church, during the "Hours". This is " because the feast of the Transfiguration is a feast of the future age, for, just as the Apostles had looked upon the glory of Christ, in the same way, the blessed ones of the future age will be looking upon this same glory of Christ ".
(Nicodemus of the Holy Mount Athos, Book of Saints, volume B/, p.302).
Make us worthy inheritors, o Lord, of Your never-ending kingdom!!