On August 6th we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is when Jesus revealed his glory to three of the disciples (Peter, James, and John) on top of Mount Tabor. This occasion is particularly special as it is one Jesus works upon himself. Accounts of this event are recorded in scripture (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:1-7, Luke 9:28-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-18). Although not directly recorded in John’s gospel, the Transfiguration permeates it’s writing such that his gospel is called the Gospel of the Transfiguration. John 1:14 is an example of this Transfiguration-infused text.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
In scripture, the actual event of the Transfiguration took place forty days before the passion. However, we celebrate this major feast day during the summer. And it seems appropriate to celebrate this mystical occurrence in a time that is “full of light.” Historically speaking, we celebrate Theophany during the summer because it is the time of the “first fruits” of the harvest. This reminds us of God’s goodness and generosity. There is a second reason for our departure from chronology. 40 days before the Passion would place this feast day within the period of Great Lent. It did not seem appropriate to celebrate such a luminous festivity during the Great Fast. However, in order to link the Transfiguration to the sacrifice of Good Friday, this feast was placed 40 days before the Exaltation of the Cross.
The Mysteries of Light
I have mentioned before that in the Byzantine tradition, we have 25 mysteries of the rosary. In the west, there are 20 mysteries. Originally, there were 15 mysteries in the west. The newest 5 mysteries of the rosary were added to the Roman tradition in 2002, by Pope John Paul II. These were the Luminous Mysteries, or, more appropriately named by the East, the Mysteries of Light.
These mysteries capture the beauty of Byzantine spirituality. Vladimir Lossky captures this in his description of the significance of the Transfiguration to the East in his work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church:
“No saint of the Eastern Church has ever borne the stigmata, those outward marks which have made certain great Western saints and mystics as it were living patterns of the sufferings of Christ. But by contrast, Eastern saints have very frequently been transfigured by the inward light of uncreated grace, and have appeared resplendent, like Christ on the mount of Transfiguration.”
In the East, we see the Feast of the Transfiguration as the second Epiphany/Theophany. The Trinity is made manifest with the voice bombing from the clouds (the Father), Jesus (the Son), and the surrounding clouds (the Holy Spirit). This event is also the appearance of the Kingdom of God on Earth, which, in Eastern thought, is defined by participation in the Uncreated Light.
Icons of the Transfiguration portray the two natures of Christ united perfectly within His one person. Here we see him clearly as human, and clearly as divine. The oval surrounding Him (called the mandorla) with the rays of light protruding are meant to convey this as a clear but unconfused distinction. Three rays of light protrude from Christ’s body to point to the disciples below.
The upper half of the icon expresses the divine revelation within the event of the Transfiguration. The lower levels convey the human response to this event.
Moses, who holds the 10 commandments, and Elijiah, are at Jesus’ left and right sides. Their presence signifies Christ’s role as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Moses also signifies the dead, while Elijiah signifies the living (as he was taken up to heaven by a Chariot before he could die). It is also significant that this icon depicts Moses seeing God face to face, which he had given up the chance to be able to do in the Old Testament. In the icons, James and John portray the human response of astonishment, whereas Peter shows the eagerness which encouraged him to speak to Christ. Even so, icons often still have Peter shielding his eyes.
It is through the Mystery of the Transfiguration that we are able to get a brief view of what it will be like to see God at the end of time, and as to how we will be transformed when we are reunited with our bodies.
The Meaning of Light
Of the three apostles present at the Transfiguration, only one remained with Jesus at the foot of the cross: John. As the kontakion (which you can find below) for this feast tells us, the purpose of the Transfiguration was to display the glory of God, as much as they could bear to see it, before the Christ’s Passion. This revelation made it clear to the apostles that Jesus willingly chose to make Himself a sacrifice on the cross.
Furthermore, it was not Christ who was changed in the events of the Transfiguration. But rather, the apostle’s eyes were opened to the truth. Or illuminated to see Christ more truly. Just as we are meant to be transformed by Christ and receive His Light when we partake in another of the Mysteries of Light – the Mystical Supper. The Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of the meaning of being partakers of the Divine Light. This is our call as expressed by St. Peter (to receive the divine nature – 2 Peter 1:4), and a part of our prayers after receiving the Eucharist (We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, we worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us).
Ways to Celebrate the Transfiguration
Bring fruits to church to be blessed. The blessing of fruits during the Feast of the Transfiguration is a tradition which we can find record of as early as the third century. Traditional fruits to be blessed include almonds, figs, grapes, mulberries, peaches, pears, and pomegranates. However, whatever is fresh or available in your area is acceptable.
Read the scripture verses pertaining to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:1-7, Luke 9:28-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-18). and the prayers and tropars.
Pray or read reflections on the Mysteries of Light/Luminous mysteries of the Rosary.
Use a white tablecloth and other white items to decorate your home. The white reminds us that the face and clothes of our Lord was lit up whiter than snow.
Transfiguration Prayers and Tropars
Son of God, transfigured on Mount Tabor, save us who sing to you, Alleluia.
Third Antiphon: (tone 7)
You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ our God, showing Your glory to Your disciples as much as they could bear. Make Your eternal light shine also on us who are sinners, through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Giver of Light, glory be to You
(verses to 3rd antiphon)
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved
The mountains surround it, and the Lord surrounds His people now and ever and forever
Lord, who will stay in Your dwelling place, or abide in Your holy mountain?
Who will ascend the Lord’s mountain, or stand in His holy place?
Kontakion: (tone 7)
You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ our God, showing Your glory to Your disciples as much as they could; that when they saw You crucified they might know that You suffered willingly, and proclaim to the world that You are truly the brightness of the Father
Irmos: (tone 4, replacing the “it is truly right”)
O my soul, magnify the Lord transfigured on the mountain. Your giving birth was revealed as incorrupt; for it was God who came forth from your womb; He appeared on earth in the flesh, and made His dwelling among us. Therefore, O Mother of God, we all magnify you.
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