As a writer, some of the most interesting columns to do are the ones that respond to questions from readers. This is one of them.
Marie approached me regarding confusion about the Transfiguration. Was Christ’s divinity truly revealed? The question is a timely one. Now, as we prepare for the Nativity, the celebration of Christ entering the world in human form, it is worthwhile to re-examine that moment when he first revealed his divine nature.
Celebrated on Aug. 6, The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is documented in all three synoptic gospels. Accompanied by Peter, John and James, Jesus went up a mountain to pray. Then, as we read in Luke 9, “. . . the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus.” Luke records that the apostles were very sleepy, but awoke and “saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ ” A cloud then appeared and enveloped them. At that moment a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
The Transfiguration was clearly intended to reveal the divinity of Christ to Peter, James, and John so they would understand who it was that would be crucified for them and that his Passion was voluntary. Transfiguration comes 40 days before the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The two feasts are thus connected to remind us of Christ’s voluntary suffering. Eastern theology also tells us that the Transfiguration shows the possibility of our own theosis, or transformative process whose goal is likeness to or union with God. We accomplish this through the effects of katharsis, the purification of mind and body. Moreover, we are taught that theosis is the purpose of human life.
Interestingly, the Transfiguration was witnessed by three disciples and three heavenly witnesses, Moses, Elijah, and the voice of God from heaven. This was in keeping with the Old Testament law of three witnesses required to attest to any fact. “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Dt 19:15). Thus, Jesus’ divinity was authenticated both in earth and in heaven.
The Greek word for transfigured is metamorpho. It is a verb that means to change into another form, also to change the outside to match the inward reality. Until the Transfiguration, Jesus’ divine nature had been “veiled” (Hebrews 10:20) in human. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were shown a unique display of Jesus’ divine character and a glimpse of the glory, which Jesus had before all time.
How was this possible? How could human eyes gaze upon God? What form did Jesus take to reveal his divinity? One explanation came from Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk who lived at Mount Athos in Greece, later becoming Archbishop of Thessaloniki. While some theologians believed the light shining from Jesus was created light, Gregory had a different explanation which explained how the apostles were able to actually see God. Gregory maintained Peter, James, and John were given the grace to perceive the uncreated light of God. This theology is in keeping with a further argument of Gregory’s that although we cannot know God in his essence, we can know God in his energies, as he reveals hmself. Moreover, Gregory held that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. Moses and the burning bush is a case in point.
In the divine liturgy, shortly before the consecration, the priest prays, “. . . for you are God — ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same.” Yet for the three apostles and, according to Palamas, the unknowable was made known. In keeping with Eastern theology he maintained it remains impossible to know God in his essence — God in himself. However it is possible to know God in his energies (to know what God does, and who God is in relation to the creation and to humanity), as God reveals himself to humanity.
At the Transfiguration, the three apostles experienced the uncreated light of God as Jesus revealed his true divine nature. It was an experience so powerful Peter wanted to set up camp and never leave the spot. The theology of theosis calls us all to transform ourselves and seek to be god-like. Ultimately, according Palamas, it is possible to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer, and according to God’s will.
During this season of preparation for the Nativity, it is worthwhile to reflect on the Transfiguration and our own transformation, our own theosis.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 37 years and have eight grandchildren.