The Transfiguration of Christ and the Deification of Mankind

Read:

  • Mt. 16:13-20 (Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”)
  • Mt. 16:21-23 (First prediction of the passion: The Son of Man will suffer and be put to death and will be raised up on the third day.)
  • Mt. 17:1-9 (The Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”)
  • Mt. 17:22-23 (Second prediction of the passion: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the power of men…”)

The opening chapter of Genesis affirms that human persons were originally created in the image and after the likeness of the Trinitarian God (Gen. 1:1-3 & 26-27). We were given a vocation — to grow from one degree of glory to the next into the inner life of God (2 Cor. 3:18) in a mystical union with the Holy Trinity.

The story of Genesis 3 indicates that humans have fallen short of their original vocation. Salvation history is full of attempts on the part of God to bring His people back into a right relation with Him. In the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy, we proclaim week in and week out that God did not cease to do all things until He had brought us up to heaven and endowed us with His Kingdom which is to come. In the Anaphora of St. Basil, we go a step further and affirm that God sent the prophets, performed mighty works by His saints, gave us the law as a help, appointed angels as guardians, and in the fullness of time God spoke to us through His only Son by Whom and through Whom he created the world.

Just this morning at Matins we sang the following hymn to the Theotokos: “It is not possible for man to see God, upon whom the ranks of angels dare not gaze, but through you, O all-Pure One, the incarnate Word revealed Himself…”

This is the God-man, Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily (Col. 2:9) and whose divinity St. Peter affirms when (about 35 years after the Transfiguration) he writes “we were eye-witnesses of His majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16) Another witness of the Transfiguration, St. John, wrote perhaps 70 years after the Transfiguration that Jesus was the “light of mankind” and that “we have beheld His glory, the glory of the Only-Begotten, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:4 & 14)

(The word “glory” is the English for the Hebrew Biblical code word “shekinah.” The term “shekinah” is an important word that reveals a paradox. It means the un-created (i.e., divine) yet visible and brilliant presence of God — that aspect of Himself by which He reveals Himself to his creation — the immanent aspect of the absolutely transcendent God that we are able to apprehend, experience, encounter and commune with.)

St. Paul writes to us that human persons are called to grow into the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:3). An ancient patristic statement (first coined by St. Athanasius of Alexandria) words it this way: “God became a human person by nature so that human persons could become divine by grace.” This is what the Church calls theosis / divinization / deification: i.e., mystical union; the partaking of and sharing in divine nature as St. Peter once wrote (2 Pet. 1:4) by invitation, by adoption, by gift. Human persons are called to be transformed and transfigured (meta-morphed) from a fallen nature to their original nature to pursue our original God-given vocation.

In St. Matthew’s account, Jesus’ metamorphosis shows us that his divinity was brilliantly revealed through his humanity. The Transfiguration was an epiphany of the essential deity of Christ — i.e,, a manifestation or a revelation or a showing of the shekinah — but even more. It is a revelation of what the Church has called divine energies — his divine nature as far as we can bear it. This is a Theophany. The uncreated light of God that showed forth to Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-15) and atop Mt. Sinai (Ex. 33;21-23) is seen again in the person of Jesus on Mt. Tabor — the very same Jesus who declared that He was the light of the world (Jn. 8:12). Although it is not possible for humans to see God and live (Ex. 33;20), Jesus reveals his divinity to his disciples, “as far as they could bear it” and they were overshadowed by the mysterious luminous cloud and in the presence of Moses (of Mt. Sinai fame) and Elija (of Mt. Carmel fame).

At the fourth century Council of Chalcedon, the Church affirmed the mystery of the incarnation: Jesus Christ was fully, perfectly and truly human with nothing lacking in his humanity at the same time that he was fully, perfectly and truly God with nothing lacking in His divinity. In other words, in him were two distinct natures — divine and human — two natures in one Person. His humanity was a deified humanity. His divinity was an incarnate, human divinity. Jesus’ deified humanity is (though in this case by nature and essence) what human persons are called to be (by adoption, by participation, by communion, by grace and gift).

But if we keep up this sort of discussion we could wander into the pantheism of the New Agers. We should recall another patristic statement (attributed to St. Gregory of Nyssa) which runs thus: Peter is Peter, Paul is Paul and God is God — in divinization we always retain our creature-hood and never lose our own personhood and individuality, but we do become “oned” with God by grace. In other words, we never lose our own personality

St. John Chrysostom, in preaching a homily about the Transfiguration, says that if (with God’s grace) we transform ourselves and put on the armor of light, the glory of God will enfold us. The Transfiguration of Christ is a model for the transfiguration (i.e., metamorphosis) of Christians. If Christ’s Transfiguration is a manifestation of His natural divinity, our transfiguration is one that — by grace and cooperation with God: by becoming fellow-workers with God — can manifest our gift of theosis.

At Vespers on the eve of Transfiguration, we sing this hymn: “ Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues:  Let us be transformed this day into a better condition and direct our minds to heavenly things, having been shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ; for in His mercy, the Savior of our souls has transfigured disfigured humanity and let it shine with Light on Mount Tabor.”

The Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ has a simple message for us today. Simple message, but difficult to put into practice. We are called to cooperate with the grace of God in order to restore or original likeness. We are called to change from our darkened world of dead ends and self-centeredness in order to live a life that reflects the brilliant and radiant presence of God in Whose image we have been created. We are invited to enter into the bright cloud — that mystical luminous darkness — that overshadowed Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John and Jesus himself. This transfiguration of our fallen nature — even the transfiguration of the world — makes up our Christian journey to the Kingdom: our life in Christ.

Frederica Mathewes-Green concludes an article for the Feast of the Transfiguration with these words:

“On the far side of everything–the Last Supper, the campfire denial, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring–Peter tries in a letter to make sense of what happened on Mt. Tabor that day. Peter saw God’s glory, and he knows it is for us. He says that God’s divine power calls us “to his own glory.” Through his promises we may “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

“Partakers of the divine nature.” The life that is in Christ will be in us. We will have a true oneness with Christ and thus we will have a personal transfiguration. We partake of, consume, the light and the life of Christ. We receive, not mere intellectual knowledge of God, but illumination. This participation in “the divine nature” is not a treat squirreled away for the select few, for mystics or hobbyists of “spiritual formation,” but God’s plan for every single human life. “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Participation in this light is not a lofty or esoteric path, but one of simplicity and childlike humility. It’s not won by sudden, swooping supernatural experiences, but by daily, diligent self-control. Through prayer, fasting, and honoring others above self, we gradually clear away everything in us that will not catch fire.

We are made to catch fire. We are like lumps of coal, dusty and inert, and possess little to be proud of. But we have one talent: we can burn. You could say that it is our destiny to burn. He made us that way, because he intended for his blazing light to fill us. When this happens, “your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).

Where have we been? We’ve been up Mt. Tabor. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).”

Bishop Kallistos Ware often tells stories in his articles, lectures and books. Here is one story of his stories taken from the Desert Fathers: When St Arsenios the Great was praying in his cell, a disciple looked through the window and saw the old man “entirely as fire.” A similar story is told of Abba Joseph of Panepho: “The old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten torches, and he said, ‘If you wish, you can become entirely as fire.” Just as Moses was aglow with the radiance of the Father’s uncreated light when he descended form Sinai, so too, us all. And finally, we recall the story about St. Seraphim of Sarov and the storyteller, Motovilov himself, who on a snowy day in deep the Russian forest both became transfigured with the shekinah of God. Not just for monks and saints, but for all mankind.

Before the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts His Passion and adds that the condition for being a follower of Jesus, one must renounce himself and take up his cross. This renunciation is exactly the method (on our part) of transfiguration. Change. Metamorphosis. The daily, diligent self-control. The prayer, fasting, and honoring others above self, by which we gradually clear away everything in us that will not catch fire — about which Frederica writes is the necessary detachment from the self; the needful ascetical preparation of our garden that makes us able to become pure fire and light.