Today we celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. Jesus has been travelling around Galilee with his disciples, but on this occasion he and the inner group of three, Peter, James, and John, go up a high mountain, probably Mt. Tabor. There he was transfigured before them. This has been described as the most mysterious event to be witnessed during his time with them. In this event, they are given some idea of his true appearance and identity – to the extent that they are able to witness this mystery at that time.
An accompanying and, for them, unique event was the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son ….”. I say “for them unique” because there was a similar Theophany at his baptism, when the only human witness would have been John the Baptist.
The Transfiguration is an important feast and, like the Gospel that we heard a few weeks ago, when Jesus walked on the waters, proclaims to us something of the Divine nature present in him beside the human. The Transfiguration is an infinitely more powerful proclamation of his divinity.
There are, of course, those who have attempted to see such events as later additions to the original Gospel records. In other words, it is claimed that some of the more mysterious were later embellishments to an earlier and simpler account. This idea goes back to the late 18th century when, some scholars claimed that the oldest copies of the Gospels then known were written at least two generations after the deaths of the first witnesses.
So-called Biblical criticism of this kind keeps learned scholars happy, but at the same time they are chipping away at the very foundations of our faith. Students who have previously been protected from such activities often find themselves utterly confused when they set out on a course of Biblical Studies. Their faith will be at least challenged, or maybe even lost.
Fortunately, Orthodox courses in Biblical Studies play down or possibly even ignore this kind of negativity. True faith, after all, has no problem with the miraculous – that which cannot be explained in terms of every day experience because it is a part of the experience of some of our contemporaries or near contemporaries
Many Orthodox who have lived particularly holy lives have come to accept the miraculous as a natural part of their normal experience. There are many also who are perhaps not especially saintly who, nevertheless, have had some experience of the miraculous, some brush with the Holy. I think of those who have, maybe on a pilgrimage to some holy place, experienced healing of some kind; or of those who have been witnesses to weeping icons, often of the Theotokos, and discovered an other-worldly peace. These experiences will fade in time, but never be forgotten. Such experiences are not often spoken about. They are too precious to be opened to the criticism of the profane.
At the Transfiguration Jesus, with Peter, James, and John, the inner core of the Apostolic community climbed to the Top of Mt. Tabor, a site which is visible for many miles around in the Galilee region.
Let us remind ourselves what happened. At the top of the mountain “Jesus was transfigured before them”. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light”. Then there was a voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”.
This was an extraordinary event, and restricted to the inner group of three disciples. It was clearly not a normal part of human experience. In other events such as walking upon the water, the action pointed to the divinity of Jesus. In the Transfiguration the apostles witness something of the Divine light – to the extent that they are able. And the Father proclaims “Sonship” of Jesus.
In the 14th century there was a debate in the Church over whether it was possible to have a direct experience of God.
A Western monk, Barlaam challenged the Hesychastic teaching that through the practice of prayer such an experience was possible. He maintained that monks would do far better doing practical good, rather than spending so much time in solitary prayer. The great champion of Hesychasm was St Gregory Palamas. Gregory taught that, whilst it might not be possible to know or experience the nature of God, what we could experience through prayer was something of his “energies”, that which emanated from him – his actions. The Transfiguration is an example the experience of God through his “energies”.
So we see this unique event, as a revelation of the Father, who proclaims his Son, in whom he is well pleased. It is significant that, in St Luke’s account, which is in many ways more detailed than our Gospel this morning from Matthew, Jesus is seen to be conversing with Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory, and spoke to him of his coming death. After this event and when they were alone again with Jesus, the three disciples offered to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
It was then that the voice from the cloud proclaimed “This is my beloved So, Hear Him….” After the cloud had disappeared, Jesus told the three not to tell anyone of this vision until the Son of Man, that is he, has risen from the dead.