The Transfiguration is the time when Jesus led three disciples to the top of a mountain and He was revealed in His heavenly glory. This marked the event when His disciples truly knew Him for Who He Is. Let’s learn some more about what the Gospels say about the Transfiguration, and how this event informed our understanding of God.
The event is described in Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36.
The Transfiguration: Written in the Gospels
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Before His Transfiguration, Jesus warned His disciples of His approaching passion and death.
This was met with indignation from Simon Peter, and Jesus rebuked him with the words “Get behind me Satan.”
After this Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain (thought to be Mt. Tabor) and was transfigured before them.
We read in the Matthew account:
And His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as snow and behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is well that we are here: if you wish I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He was still speaking when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.’
Here is a passage in 2 Peter 1:16-18 which also refers to the transfiguration:
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eye witnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honour and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
The Transfiguration Reveals God
All Orthodox Christians celebrate the Transfiguration as a major feast day on August 6th. The event is considered to be a Theophany, a manifestation of God, a display of His uncreated light. The term uncreated light refers to the mystical light of God’s visible presence. Some believe that this may, even now, be encountered by the soul following ascetic devotion.
The divinity of Christ is evident at the transfiguration. We know that God is light (1 John 1:5), so the bright cloud, the shining of Jesus’ face like the sun, and the whiteness of His garments all demonstrate that Jesus is God. In some icons this indescribable light is represented by a blue-white colour. God the Father’s words indicate that Jesus is the beloved Son, not that He became so. He has, from the beginning, shared in the essence of the Father. He is, as the Nicene Creed states: “Light from Light, true God from true God.”
The bright cloud is the sign of God’s presence. We are reminded of the cloud that covered the mountain when Moses was receiving instructions from God regarding the ark of the covenant. We read in Exodus 24:15-16 “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” Also, Exodus 13:21 tells us that a cloud led the Israelites in the wilderness, we read: “the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud.”
The appearance of Moses and Elijah assures us of the reality of the communion of the saints (an important part of Orthodox belief). Moses represents the law, and Elijah the prophets. Their presence bears witness to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Thus, He is the fulfilment of the whole of the Old Testament.
The Holy Trinity is also revealed in the Transfiguration. The Spirit is present in the form of dazzling light surrounding Christ’s person, while the Father speaks from heaven and testifies to the Sonship of Christ.
The Transfiguration is thought to have taken place at the time of the Jewish Festival of Booths, which was a feast celebrating the dwelling of God with men. This glorious event in the Christian Church thus became the New Testament fulfilment of the Old Testament feast. The building of booths was done as part of the Jewish Festival, symbolising God’s dwelling among the just in the Kingdom, and this may explain why Peter asks to build booths for Moses, Elijah and the Lord.
Understanding God’s Glory
The reason for our celebration is that the disciples saw the glory of the Kingdom of God, in majesty and in the person of Christ. As Colossians 1:19 puts it: “in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
An understanding of “who Christ was” would help the disciples to know who it was that suffered for them when they saw the crucifixion and who it was that rose from the dead. We sing the following words in the Transfiguration Kontakion:
On the mountain You were transfigured, O Christ God, and Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it: so that when they would behold You crucified, they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that You are truly the Radiance of the Father.
God’s Energies: Uncreated Light
The great teacher on the Transfiguration was St. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359), a Greek Theologian who became familiar with the hesychast tradition (the practice of mystical prayer) during his time on Mt. Athos (around 1318). He distinguished between the essence and the energies of God: God’s essence remains unknowable, but His energies permeate all things and can be directly experienced by man in the form of deifying grace (the divine energy which enables humans to partake of divine nature).
St. Gregory laid great stress, in his spiritual teaching, upon the vision of divine light, supporting the claim that it was possible to experience God in the form of this light, as experienced by the disciples at the Transfiguration. The divine (uncreated) light is neither material nor spiritual, for it transcends the order of the created, hence the term “uncreated light.” St. Gregory described it as a light with no beginning and no end... imperceptible to the senses although the eyes of the disciples were able to contemplate it. By a transformation of their senses, the Lord’s disciples passed from the flesh to the spirit. St. Gregory notes that participating in the divine energies, as the disciples did, enabled an ability to perceive things that would otherwise remain hidden. The Light transmitted light. This is illustrated in the icon by lines radiating from the illumined Christ to each disciple. Our receiving of the sacraments is also a transmitting of divine energy. Following communion, the Orthodox sing:
We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit.
The Icon of the Transfiguration
There is more to learn from the icon: Christ is depicted in brilliant white robes on the mountain. Different iconographers have used different methods to represent, symbolically, the uncreated light of divinity or, as St. John of Damascus expressed it, “the splendor of the divine nature.” The usual iconographic device is a mandorla (halo) surrounding Christ’s body with three concentric circles sometimes pierced by knife-sharp rays of gold or white. What was actually seen could never be painted. We see Moses on the right carrying the tablets of the law and Elijah on the left, bearing witness that Jesus is the Expected One. Below are the fear stricken disciples, Peter, James and John. Peter with his beard and curly hair and John with a red robe. Often Peter is kneeling, John thrown backward and James shielding himself.
We learn from this event something about our own destiny and resurrection. As we grow in the likeness of Christ we too will be transfigured. In the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51-53:
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet... And the dead shall be raised incorruptible... and this mortal must put on immortality.
The Troparion (hymn) of the Transfiguration summarises the meaning of the feast for us:
You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God, revealing Your glory to Your disciples as they could bear it. Let Your everlasting light shine upon us sinners. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You.