Falling on our Faces: the Feast of the Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-13; 2 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Exodus 24 and 34; Daniel 10:5-10; 1 Kings 19; Malachi 4.

St. Matthew tells us that when the disciples heard the voice of the Father, directing them to Jesus His Son, they “fell on their faces and were filled with awe.” All three synoptic gospels relate this event of Jesus’ transfiguration, with some difference in details and focus. But it is St. Matthew whom we read during this season, and specifically for this feast. His presentation of the event as an illumining vision that made this profound impact upon Peter, James, and John, surely is the one that lies behind our icons of this event. In all the icons of the Transfiguration, we see the disciples awe-struck, and in various bodily postures around their resplendent Master.

Frequently people think of a vision as something that only affects the spirit and the mind: but this story, so central to the gospels and so significant in showing the identity of Jesus, reminds us that when we see and hear divine mysteries, every bit of us is affected. Why should this not be so? Our God is the God who created heaven and earth, and our bodies, as well as our minds, hearts and souls. Our God is the One who did not simply declare to us His will, but took on human flesh, becoming everything that we are, except for sin. More than that, He took His human body with Him, glorifying it and opening for us the door to become what He is—true sons and daughters of God, participating in His nature. The vision of God, then, makes its impact upon all that we are. Indeed, St. Gregory of Palamas, in defending the hesychasts who saw God’s energies, tells us that our very bodily eyes, and not simply our inner sight, may perceive the Holy One. What our bodies encounter changes them! The divine glory “transforms the body, and communicates its own splendor to it when, miraculously, the light which deifies the body becomes accessible to the bodily eyes” (Palamas, Triads II.iii.9)

Let’s listen to the passage appointed for the feast of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. It comes at a key moment in his gospel, just after St. Peter has recognized Jesus as Messiah, but before the disciples grasp that this Messiah must suffer and die in order to be “a ransom for many” and to show His true glory:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. 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, and were filled 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.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He replied, “Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matt 17:1-13 RSV)

Everyone recognizes, of course, that this passage is connected with Moses and with Elijah. But there are actually three or four OT prophets hanging around this story, not only two. The third is the prophet Daniel, who saw visions of both the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days. In chapter 10 of his prophecy, we see how he also had a physical reaction to the divine glory and the divine word:

I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold of Uphaz. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude. And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves. So I was left alone and saw this great vision, and no strength was left in me; my radiant appearance was fearfully changed, and I retained no strength. Then I heard the sound of his words; and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in a deep sleep with my face to the ground. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. (Dan 10:5-10 RSV)

You can see that Daniel’s experience was very much like that of the apostles: He saw a shining figure, and was deeply affected by it, so that the Divine Visitor had to lift him up again from his reaction of fear. In the case of Daniel, however, the divine visitation saps his strength and diminishes his radiance, and he is left alone to enter a deep supernatural sleep. With the three apostles, there is the same awe-struck reaction, but they remain together, and appear to be invigorated—it is JESUS who is left alone, with Moses and Elijah fading away behind his greater glory. Why do I say that the apostles appear to be strengthened? It is because Luke’s gospel tells us that they “enter the glory” rather than simply beholding it, and because the letter of Peter describes the contact that the apostles had with Jesus as making them more certain of the prophets, and as a shining lamp for the rest of the community (2 Peter 1:19-21).

The principle, though, that God’s presence affects and changes the whole of us, remains. All that made up the apostles Peter, James and John, would be affected by what they had seen and heard. Through experiences like this they were made into the kind of men who could “strengthen their brothers” (Luke 11:32), and witness to the wonder of our Lord. Indeed, their bodies would, in echo of their Lord, undergo the same ordeal, each of them “drinking the cup” of martyrdom that the Lord promised to two of them in a gospel passage that we read earlier this week (Matthew 20:22). First James (martyred soon after Stephen), then Peter, and then finally John, would show with their bodies the claim of the Lord on their lives! Those who beheld his glory, and entered into it, would also share in his death. With the prophet Daniel, the glory of the Lord made an immediate impact upon him; with these three, the impact would be ongoing, and eventually issue in their glorification as saints and beloved eyewitnesses.

The other two OT figures in the Transfiguration are also shown in the pages of the Old Testament to be among the few who had intimate visions of the Lord. Moses ate and drank with the Lord midway up Mount Sinai, then ascended alone to receive the 10 commandments, where he spoke “mouth-to-mouth” with God, as Exodus puts it. Whatever he beheld and heard on the pinnacle of Sinai, far away from the people as a whole, irradiated his face: indeed, it shone so brightly that he struck fear into the hearts of the Hebrews, and he covered it while going around his daily activities. Both how he appeared to others, and what he spoke to the people made their godly impact upon those around them, and eventually the Hebrew people were prepared enough to follow Moses’ successor, Joshua, into their promised land.

Moses, though of an intimidating appearance, is said to have had true humility of heart (Numbers 12:3). Though he did not himself see the Promised Land, except at a distance, he had the great honor of beholding the Lord Jesus: and who knows whether the experience he had on the top of Sinai was not linked to the Transfiguration event itself? We are told that he asked to see God’s glory, and that God responded in this way: “I will place you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23). This sight, though not of the face of God, changed him, both inside and out, enabling him to persevere with the people, to endure hardship in the desert, and to prepare a successor who would fulfil God’s will in history.

Elijah also, of course, saw the divine glory. It was Elijah who was persecuted mercilessly by King Ahab’s blood-thirsty wife, Jezebel, and who spent many years in hiding. It was Elijah who spoke the word of God even when it was dangerous to do so. It was Elijah who showed the bankruptcy of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and then had to flee for his life. And it was Elijah who, strengthened by the angel, went to Horeb (Sinai), the very place where Moses had seen God’s glory, and had himself an ineffable meeting:

And the LORD said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1Kings 19:11-14)

Elijah may have been remarkable for courage, but he was not in fact, alone. The LORD reassures him that there are other faithful, and gives him a task. The LORD, in passing by, makes an impact upon the created order—but he is not IN these things. But He will be with Elijah for the remainder of his ministry, as Elijah trains his successor Elisha, and especially as he goes up in glory, in a fiery chariot, to the place that God had prepared for him. The power that Elijah has, as a result of his close encounters with God, and his obedience, is practically palpable. It accrues even to the mantle that he leaves with Elisha, who inherits a “double portion” as the Scriptures say, of his spirit—that is, the son’s share of the inheritance. Both Elijah and Elisha are associated with physical miracles done among the people, and not simply with steadfastness of heart and mind. The whole of the prophet is transformed by the God of creation.

The three disciples, then, have before their eyes the great witnesses Moses and Elijah, both of whom persevered and suffered as they represented the living God, and both of whom saw and heard the LORD in remarkable ways. Perhaps they also had before their mind’s eye the precedent of the prophet Daniel, who saw the great glory, and looked forward to the resurrection of the body (Daniel 13). As they descended the mountain, their mind is drawn back to the Old Testament. And here is where the fourth prophet that I mentioned comes into play. They remember the prophecy of Malachi 4 that the prophet Elijah would come before the day of the LORD. It would seem that they are confused, because they have seen a day of the LORD—the transfigured Christ—but it was not, in their understanding, prepared for by Elijah, who was supposed to turn “the hearts of the fathers to the children and the man to his neighbor” (Mal. 4:4-6) so that they would remember again the Law of Moses. Jesus explains to them that the vision that they have seen is important, but that they must wait until the right time to divulge what they have seen of His glory. Then He tells them that “Elijah” HAS come, and that he has died as a witness, showing forth God’s glory just as a faithful servant must do. As our Kontakion for the feast puts it,

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!”

It is in John’s death that they may see the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, and it is in John that they could find a pointer to what Jesus, the suffering Son of Man, will accomplish. It is only by means of His death that the fuller picture of Zechariah can be accomplished: “For you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2).

The shining Sun, and divine-human Son of righteousness is, of course, our LORD Christ. He has indeed risen—not just as a concept or idea, but as One bodily risen from the dead. In the same way, the healing that He brings is a full salvation, affecting spirit, mind, heart, soul and body. Jesus was made incarnate, died, rose, and ascended to deal not only with sin and diseases of the mind, but with death as well. And it is with our whole being that we are that we are called to witness to Him, joining the company of Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Zechariah, Peter, James and John. We cannot know what will be demanded of us in terms of fortitude, or granted to us in terms of glory. I have been blessed by Christians who have remained firm and glorified God until their old age; and I have been blessed by those who have met an untimely death, both in martyrdom and in the more ordinary sufferings of this life. I have been helped by those whose minds and hearts are irradiated with the glory of God; and I have even, occasionally, been astounded by those whose very face shows forth God’s mercy and compassion. Each of us, and all of us together, have come to see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:6)—this light transforms, in ways that we can scarcely imagine.

During this fast in preparation for the Dormition, let us put ourselves in God’s hands so that, by His Spirit, we can become more and more what we are meant to be, just as the Theotokos was! Let us keep in our hearts the things that our eyes and ears have seen, both directly and through our mothers and fathers in Christ. For we can scarcely imagine what He has prepared for us to become! Falling on our faces leads, in God’s good time, to having illumined and open faces before God and before each other. As St. Irenaeus puts it, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God” (AH IV, 20, 7).

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