The Transfiguration – Aug 6

On the sixth of August we celebrate the solemn feast of the Holy Transfiguration in commemoration of the glorious change in appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ on a “high mountain” (Mt. 17:1), which, since the fourth century, Christian tradition identifies with Mt. Tabor. The Fathers refer to Christ’s transfiguration as to His “second epiphany” or the second manifestation of His divinity. For this reason the Fathers during the Christo- logical disputes adduced the transfiguration of Christ as a certain proof of His divinity. The establishment of the feast then followed.

The glorious transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is described in detail by the three Evangelists (Mt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:1-7; Lk. 9:28-36). St. Peter also vividly recalled the event in his Epistle, saying: “We have seen His majesty for ourselves. He was honored and glorified by God the Father, when He spoke to Him and said: ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.’ We heard this ourselves spoken from heaven, when we were with Him on the Holy Mountain.” (II Pet. 1:16-18)

The Holy Mountain in biblical sense is the mountain of the manifestation of God’s glory. We are told that in the Old Testament God “called Moses to the top of the mountain” (Ex. 19:20), and there manifested Himself to him. It was the holy mountain of Sinai. Then again, before appearing to the Prophet Elijah, God summoned him to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” (I Kgs. 19:8) And in the New Testament Jesus took three of His disciples to a “high mountain” (Mt. 17:1), and there He was transfigured before them, manifestation to them of His divine glory. In the Bible, a mountain is a favored place of God. For which reason, the mountain becomes a holy mountain. At the same time, a mountain symbolizes the exalted dwelling place of God “on high”.

Since the Gospels describe Christ’s transfiguration in detail, it was not hard for hymnographers to compose liturgical hymns and sticheras. It required only some application of the scriptural text to Christian life in poetic form. Making such “spiritual application” of the text, at the same time the hymnographers explained the deep spiritual and liturgical meaning of the feast in order to help the faithful in their spiritual growth. Thus the liturgical compositions of the Byzantine Rite have also an educational value.

Some sticheras for the feast describe the entire event of Christ’s glorious transfiguration as it was recorded by the Evangelists. Thus, for example, at Matins we sing: “Christ, taking with Him aside Peter, James and John to a high mountain, was transfigured in their presence-His face shining like a sun, and His clothes becoming as white as the light. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and talked to Him. Suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow and from the cloud there came a voice, saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!'”

This stichera, besides repeating almost word- for-word the Matthean description of the event, also presents to us the theological meaning of the transfiguration, namely: the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Christ’s glorified body, the testimony of Moses and Elijah, and the Father’s voice from heaven are incontestable wit- nesses to the truth of the previous confession of St. Peter about Jesus, saying: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Mt. 16:16)

The second theme recurring in the festive sticheras is the encouragement of the Apostles to trust Jesus as they were about to face the humiliating passion of their Master. This point is emphasized by St. Luke, who reports that Moses and Elijah “were speaking of His passing (death), which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9:31) So at Vespers we sing: “As You were transfigured before Your crucifixion, 0 Lord, … Peter, James and John were present, the very same Apostles who were to be with You at the time of Your betrayal; so that having seen You in glory, they would not be dismayed at the time of Your sufferings.” This stichera is also a reminder to the faithful-to recognize in the sufferings and death of Christ the infinite mercy of God.

The third meaning of the festivity is the assurance of our own participation in Christ’s glory. Thus at Vespers we are professing: “Through Your transfiguration, 0 Lord, You renewed Adam’s fallen nature to its original beauty, restoring it to the glory and splendor of Your divinity.” And again at Matins: “As You were transfigured on Mt. Tabor, 0 Savior, You manifested the transformation of mankind by Your glory, which will take place at Your awesome second coming.” Thus, the entire liturgy of the Holy Transfiguration is filled with a joyful assurance, encouragement and hope of our own glorification with Jesus as we “grow brighter and brighter into His image.” (II Cor. 3:18)

The feast of the Holy Transfiguration is celebrated late in summer, at the time of the first fruits, which remind us of God’s great goodness and His infinite bounty. To express our recognition and gratitude to God for His generosity we bring some of these first fruits to the church for blessing. The custom to bless the first fruits passed to us from the Old Testament, since the Jews at the very beginning of their exodus were ordered by Almighty God: “You must bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of the Lord, your God.” (Ex. 23:19) St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 389) calls the practice to bless the fruits in church a “just and holy” custom.

The Christian practice to bless the fruits in church can be traced back to Apostolic times. The oldest prayer for the blessing of fruits is registered by the Apostolic Constitutions in the fourth century. But there is also an older Prayer of Thanksgiving for the new fruits in the work of St. Hyppolytus, the Apostolic Tradition, composed about 220 A.D. St. Hippolytus mentions the following fruits usually blessed: grapes, figs, pomegranates, pears, mulberries, peaches, and almonds. The sixth Ecumenical Council, celebrated in Constantinople (680-681), prescribed that the new “wheat and grapes” were to be blessed in church on the feast of the Holy Transfiguration (canon 28). For this reason some older books of blessings, called Eucholoqie, forbid the faithful to eat new fruits of the season before they have been blessed in church. In the land of our ancestors, in Subcarpathia, the fruits of the season were apples, plums, and pears. These usually were brought to the church and blessed. In the United States grapes are also added.