"Wake up, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Eph. 5:14).
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and there are few days in the whole year which so vividly show us God’s colors and urge us to fall down in awe and worship. The Transfiguration is a splash of water in our faces, right in the middle of summer, when sometimes we get a little sleepy in our faith. It brings us a glimpse of the weight of God’s majesty and of our calling as Christians.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain…And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him…Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (Matt. 17:1-8).
This description of God is no exception.
When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai, it was said that a thick cloud hovered over the mountain, and the men below “perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking” (Ex. 20:18). Ezekiel was brought up to heaven and describes his vision of “an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.” In that cloud he saw “a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man…[from] his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire…brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him…When I saw it I fell facedown” (Ez. 1:1-28). Daniel saw God and shares, “His clothing was white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze…I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:9-13). And in his vision of the apocalypse, St. John describes “someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet with a golden sash around his head. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:13-17).
Today, on this Feast of the Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of God: His strength, His holiness, and His beauty.
But today is not just about God. It is also about us.
In his homilies on this gospel, St. Gregory Palamas describes another kind of transfiguration that happened up on Mount Tabor, the transfiguration of the apostles.
The Gospels says that the face of Jesus “shone like the sun” and his clothes “became dazzling white.” But clearly, as we’ve just seen, that’s the normal appearance of Jesus Christ. From beginning to end of the scriptures, He is described in that same dazzling glory. And so, on Mount Tabor, it isn’t so much that Jesus Christ changed. Something happened to the apostles. For the first time, Peter, James and John, were able to SEE Jesus as He really is.
The veil was taken off their eyes.
The Feast of the Transfiguration is about the Nature of God as well as our relationship to God.
St. Gregory explains, “The apostles were transformed, therefore, and [witnessed] that transformation which our human clay had undergone, not at that time, but from the moment in which it had been assumed, when it was deified through union with the Word of God.” That sounds a little confusing…but it’s very simple. When we draw close to God, we start to change. God clothed Himself with our humanity, and so gave our humanity the chance to be transformed from dust to glory. The deeper we enter into a relationship with God the more fully we begin to see, to breathe, and to live.
In Jesus’ own words, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Christianity isn’t about a blind faith or being a nice person. Christianity is about sanctification: a process of giving more and more of yourself to God and letting Him open your eyes.
St. Paul writes about this in all his epistles.
“We all, with open face beholding…the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory” (II Cor. 3:18). “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14). “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
As St. Gregory Palamas continues his homily on the Transfiguration, he writes:
“Let us look with our inner eyes at this great spectacle, our nature, which dwells for all eternity with the immaterial fire of the divinity. And let us take off the coats of skins (cf. Gen. 3:21), the earthy and carnal ways of thinking, in which we were clothed because of our transgression, and [let us] stand on holy ground (cf. Exod. 3:5), each one of us hallowing our own ground by means of virtue and reaching up to God. In this way we shall have boldness when God comes in light, and as we run to Him we shall be enlightened, and, once illumined, shall live for ever to the glory of the one brightness in three Suns, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages.”
We call ourselves Christians. But what does that mean?
If there’s one message in our gospel today, it’s that you can’t be a static Christian. That’s an oxymoron. To be a Christian is to be on a journey. To be a Christian is to be in a constant stretch: a putting off of the old world and a putting on of the mind of Jesus Christ.
To be a Christian is to be counter-cultural.
Flannery O’Conner, the famous southern novelist once said it this way: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
Orthodox Christianity can look so strange to people in the world. Sometimes it’s hard looking different. It’s hard bearing the cross. Fasting, abstinence, confessing one’s sins, obedience to the bishops: all of these fly in the face of so many American values. We grow up believing in independence, freedom of choice, the right to make your own truth, and the constant urge to satisfy your pleasures. But to be a Christian is to push back against all that.
Nowadays, so many mainstream churches have changed and swayed with secular society, over such a long time, that you can hardly distinguish the lifestyle of a Christian with the lifestyle of a man of the world. But True Christianity is apart from all that. The Church is its own culture, its own way of living, its own worldview taught by the apostles and handed down from bishop to bishop from the first century to the twenty-first century. You see, the Church is not about traditions and rituals. Her traditions and rituals are a means to an end. They exist to change us from ego-centered men to God-centered men. The help us to open our eyes.
The Church teaches us to worship in stillness and reverence, so that we can learn to slow down and drink in God’s beauty. The Church has its own calendar, so that the more we schedule our lives around its holy days the more our priorities change. Christ becomes the center of our decisions and affairs. The Church tells us what to eat and when to eat it, so that we can learn self-control and awaken an ability to give up our wills to the Will of God. The Church tells us to confess our sins, temptations, and struggles so that we might slowly shake off our self-reliance and discover in our hearts how desperately we need God’s Grace.
This isn’t about mere duty. This is about romance. It’s about intimacy. The purer our hearts become, the more we drink in the love of God.
We’re here to push back against this world so that we can push forward towards the Kingdom.
That day, on Mount Tabor, because of the purity of their hearts, the apostles were able to see God. We too, as we give our selves over to God and allow Him to purify our hearts, may have our eyes opened that we might spend eternity drinking in God’s beauty.
C. S. Lewis calls this the Region of Awe. “Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude, there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with…the naked Other, imageless…unknown, undefined, desired.”
To be Christian is to have the courage to step out onto this road, which leads eternally to the life-changing grace of our God.
"Wake up, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Amen.