The Scandal of the Transfiguration

Icon-of-the-Transfiguration-of-Christ

My bishop recently shared the story of a young man whom he taught some years ago. He was Orthodox from Estonia. He grew up in the Soviet era and had come to hate all things Russian, including the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he saw an Orthodox procession in the streets of his city one year, a procession that included the Russian bishop (whom he also hated and believed to be a KGB agent). However, he saw the bishop surrounded by light. It was an experience that led him into the Orthodox faith. You might hate the man, and the Church as well. But the undeniable glory of God revealed what his hatred could not see.

My bishop’s point in sharing the story was not to exonerate the Russian Church from any wrong-doing, or cooperation with wrong-doing. Nor was it to exonerate the bishop involved and declare him holy. It was a story about the glory of God and its place and work despite our faults and failures. The 12 apostles cast out demons, healed the sick and cleansed lepers. We are nowhere told that Judas did none of those things. Doubtless, he did (which makes his betrayal all the greater).

There was a heresy in the early Church that denied the efficacy of the sacraments if they were performed by sinners. The debate was largely about those who, under the pressure of persecution, had in any way denied their faith or yielded to the requirements of the pagan state. It is an easy line of thought to maintain. If we are commanded to be holy, surely there are consequences for failure to observe the commandment. There are indeed consequences within the canons of the Church, but those consequences do not include an inefficacy of the sacraments.

The scandal of the Incarnation, God-becoming-man, is the seeming contradiction of the utterly transcendent God and the particularity and limits of human existence. It is a scandal whose errors  run in two directions.

First, there is an assumption that God is so displeased with sin that He can have nothing to do with it, or that sin somehow nullifies the work of God. Second, there is an equally odious belief that human beings, in their observance of the commandments, are ever righteous enough to actually be compatible with true holiness. The first is an error about God, the second an error about human beings.

I’m always troubled to hear “there is no grace outside the Church.” I can’t fathom what such a statement means. Since the entire universe is sustained by the grace of God, I can only assume a sort of heresy of secularism by such a statement – the notion that anything can exist apart from God’s grace. For His own mysterious reasons, God even sustains the fallen angels by His grace. If it were not so, they would cease to exist. Only God has existence in and of Himself.

I can say “there is no grace outside the Church” only if I also say that everything in all of creation is inside the Church. In fact, I believe this to be true. The Church came into existence when God said, “Let there be light.” The sacraments do not make us to be what we are not, but reveal us to be what we truly are. Baptism and Chrismation are indeed required of those coming to Holy Communion, for they are fundamental realities in the medicine of immortality and the path of life God has given us. But the person who is Baptized does not somehow become other than what they are. They become more fully human, more truly what they were created to be. “The Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking,” it is said in our prayers.

There are boundaries which we describe as “the Church,” but this meaning is being used to specify that which is identified with the fullness of life in Christ. “Church”, in this usage, is “that which is reconciled.” St. Paul says that the end of all things is that they be “gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.” This is the Church, in the end.

Too frequently we speak of the Church in denominational terms, in which we speak of people who are reconciled in the fullness of Orthodoxy as though their “membership” constituted the whole of the Church. But St. Paul extends the Church to “all things.” Thus, the grass and the trees (and certainly the flour and the wine) are being gathered together into Christ. The Eucharist is not a gathering meant to exclude everything else. It is a gathering that represents everything else. “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee.” What is there within all of creation that is not God’s own? Indeed, the members of the Church who gather, are themselves but the “first fruits” of the whole Adam.

And so we have the reality of glowing bishops who might be hated in Estonia (just as many other bishops might be hated elsewhere). The transfiguration (for such was the scene in that procession) of God’s creation is simply shocking to us. It is a manifestation of the love of God that ignores all scandal, except that which does not love. It is a transfiguration that gives light and that burns.

Many take a cold comfort in the fact that the transfiguring light of God burns some. However, it most often burns the eyes of those who judge the fitness of those transfigured. They become blind in this very manner.

The Transfiguration of Christ would generally be deemed to be free of scandal. He appeared on the Holy Mount with Moses and Elijah – how could the disciples not rejoice. But the text describes a scandal.

As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:29-31)

Christ, in turn, spoke to the disciples about His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, and Peter rebuked Him! The great scandal is always the scandal of the Cross. There is no path to true union with God that does not go through the Cross. This is true finally of all those who are transfigured as well as for all who hope to ever see a transfiguration.

It is of note that the Greek beneath this translation does not say that Christ was speaking with Moses and Elijah about His “decease.” The text calls it His “exodus.” It is not a casual word choice. His journey into death is the Great Exodus, the path through the Red Sea that drowns the mystical Pharaoh. It is the Lord’s Passover.

That Passover is the path to transfiguration. Moses himself, after the Passover, leads the people to a different holy mountain. There he received the Law written by the very finger of God. When he came down from the mountain his face was transfigured and the people were afraid to look at him – and asked him to please wear a veil.

In Christ the veil is removed, except for those who wear a veil covering their heart (2Cor. 3). But God is so merciful, He sometimes removes the veil so that angry young men on the streets of Estonia (which is everywhere) may see His glory and live.

44 comments:

  1. This sounds like some philosophical end the Catholics would make. The church is not of the world nor is it worldly. How in the world, literally, can hell be in the church?

    How can nasty, unholy, ungodly things be in the church? If so, that means the very worse sinners are in the church, and to me that is absurd.

    With all due respect.

  2. Thank you so much for your writings Father Stephen. You explain so many things about God and also challenge me to think. I love the Transfiguration story, I couldn’t wait to see what your thoughts were about it.

  3. Terry,
    With all due respect, how much of a sinner do you have to be to be nasty, unholy, ungodly? And, how is it that we say, “I am the worst of sinners,” and yet approach the Cup? It is not absurd, but requires, I think, serious meditation to comprehend was is a paradox and seeming contradiction. You need to go deeper into this.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    Could you please clarify/expand upon the difference between your idea of the all-inclusive Church, and what many protestants think of as the invisible, universal church (separate from any particular, concrete reality)?

  5. Fr. Jonathan,
    Psalm 139:8 “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” Apparently, God is there. Christ descended into hell and filled it with Himself. The static thinking that divides things up into “this is God’s, this is not God’s,” is both false and naive.

  6. Then all humanity is in the church, and everybody is saved. That is universal salvation, and Jesus did not need to die on the cross.

  7. Father,
    Could you perhaps expand on what you mean by grace. I think of grace as God’s delight: He delights in his creatures delighting in Him. From our perspective grace is a two way process (from Him to us and from us to Him), from His perspective it is a unity. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’, the created universe is more aware of its Creator than we ever give it credit. However, God (although Creator of all) is not in everything, if He were then surely we are pantheists. He is not in each atom (though He is immanent with His creation) AND God is not in sin. Sin is the break with God, God can not delight in sin, there can be no grace in sin. Even each venial sin comitted ruptures the fabric of the universe and it is only through His mercy that the universe holds together so that we are given more time to come to know Him, love Him and serve Him. Indeed this is what ‘time’ is, God has no need of time, but we do!

    Therefore, as I see it, God does not sustain the fallen angels by His grace, because those creatures are forever banished from His delight. He sustains the fallen angels, because ultimately they cannot help but do His work. He sustains all those souls who are in mortal sin by His mercy and His pity, ever yearning that they come to His grace. He sustains us all in love so as to bring about His glory.

    Therefore Father, how can we say ‘all is grace’ without spiralling into pantheism?

  8. Thank you Father for yet another thought provoking post. I am reminded of the phrase: “Thou art everywhere present and fillest all things…….” found in the opening of every hour of prayer. If the Church is the Body of Christ, and He fillest all things and is uncircumscribed then the Church is everywhere. We would contradict ourselves if we said otherwise.

  9. Terry,
    Maybe I am wrong but being in the Church is not the same as salvation.

    Being sustained by God’s grace is not the same as being grace filled.

    All natural life is because of God.

    Holiness is much more than that.
    Natural life is under the law and subject to sin and corruption and death.

    We all have sinned and fallen short of the Kingdom. How is any one saved?

    If hell is eternal who but God sustains it? Does evil have its own existence? Not according to the Fathers.

    Romans 5 also applies.

    There is a deep paradox here that is only resolved in the fullness of time. I do not know the solution but I have faith that it will be resolved. Indeed has already been resolved.

    I also know that the solution will neither be linear nor anything that we can conceive. It will be revealed.

    There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth but our Lord was slain before the foundation of the world and His will is that all should see salvation. Yet we don’t really know what that means, do we?

    Shakespeare said that “In the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”

    Where can we be but in Christ if we have existence?

  10. Michael,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Would you, please, further explain how one can be in the church and not be saved.

  11. Terry,
    Certainly from God’s side, Christ died for everyone. There is no salvation apart from Him. And Scripture is quite clear that God is not willing that any should perish. And St. Paul says that all things are being gathered together into one in Christ Jesus. How it is that some may not be saved, and exactly what that means is itself a mystery. But nothing puts them outside of God’s love, nor does anything mean that Christ did not die for them.

    There is obviously a sense in which we use the word “Church” in which it would be incorrect to say that everything is being gathered into the Church. But there is also a sense in which it is correct. That paradox and mystery is what I am drawing your attention to.

  12. Rita,
    According to the Fathers, grace is nothing other than the Divine Energies, the very life of God. It is not His “pleasure” or delight. It is His active working in the world. Nothing exists unless God sustains it. He sustains things – all things – by His own good will. He does not sustain them because they delight Him, but because He loves them. He loves everything He created – including the terrible fallen angels.

    That God sustains something doesn’t mean that God “is” that something. I did not say “all is grace” but that grace sustains everything in existence. Nothing exists in and of itself other than God. That is the teaching of the faith.

    If the fallen angels are not sustained by God (i.e. His grace) how could they continue to exist? This is not pantheism. This is simply the teaching of the Christian faith without the error of the secular notion of existence being self-contained.

  13. I don’t think I see any mystery or paradox here, IMHO. One is either saved or not saved. Jesus died for all mankind, but not all will be saved. God loves all mankind, but not all will be saved. The bees and the trees and the buffaloes are not in the church. Satan is not in the church. If what you say is true, Satan and his demons are in the church.

    Thanks, and please define the word ‘church’ for me.

  14. Everywhere God is is not the church.

    Just because a man is on top of the highest mountain in the world and God is there, does not make that man automatically a member of the church. Just because a man is in the deepest depths of the ocean and God is there, does not make that man a member of the church.

    Thanks for your response.

  15. Terry,
    I completely agree. I have not said that the Church is everything. I said that the statement that there is no grace outside the Church makes no sense, unless the Church were everything. But the Church is not everything, and there is indeed grace outside the Church.

    The Church is the Body of Christ, the fullness of communion with God, through Christ in the Holy Spirit, in mind, body and life. I believe that the Church is the Orthodox Church.

    However, there is a “gathering” going on in the work of God, in which He is gathering all things into Himself, and the end of that will be the Church. That Church is coterminous and identical to the Kingdom of God. St Maximus writes of the reconciliation, in the end, of heaven and earth, created and uncreated, etc. It is not wrong to speak of that final end as “Church.”

    St. Paul also speaks of the creation groaning like a woman in childbirth, waiting for the fullness of the Church to be made manifest. And, yes, creation (viz St. Maximus) will indeed be united with God and it will appropriately be called “Church.”

    The Orthodox Church already gathers many things into the Church, other than people. If, as Pat. Bartholomew famously says, “The whole world is a sacrament,” then I suppose it is correct in some sense to speak that way of the trees and grass, etc.

    The Church is not confined to an ecclesiastical institution. It is cosmic in its scope – and this is made clear in Scripture (Eph. 1 and Romans 8).

    But nobody and nothing is outside of the grace of God. Scripture says that “In Him we live and move and have our being.” This is the grace of God that sustains all things. I have said nothing more than this. Sorry if I’ve been confusing.

  16. Hi Terry; Father will doubtless help.
    For my small part I think you’ll benefit from clearly seeing there is a *paradox* here. It is the nature of a paradox that one thing is true (this is the side you keep emphasizing; that there is a sense in which the Church has boundaries (baptism, communion) and some are not within those boundaries), while still another thing appearing to be inconsistent is also true: The One who fills all things is the Spirit of Jesus Christ- if Christ is One with His Spirit (everywhere present) and also One with his Body (the Church), then all things do indeed exist in the Church in this sense.

    Holding both truths in tension allows for a “crack” in our hearts and through this crack love and wonder shine in. All truth, if it is Christ’s, must bring about such love and wonder in us.

    Peace;
    -Mark Basil

  17. Father,

    Thanks for your patience and your responses.

    Is the church now the kingdom of God, or will it become the kingdom of God?

    After Jesus’ second return, will the kingdom of God be on earth or in heaven

  18. Mark,
    The Kingdom of God in this world is made manifest in the Church. The Kingdom belongs to the end of all things, but the end is already made present in certain ways. So there is a “now but not yet” aspect of the Kingdom.

    The Second Coming marks the union of earth and heaven, such that the distinction will no longer matter.

  19. Father,

    The icon for this article is beautiful, and the article is enlightening. One thing I cannot get pass is “hell is in the church, and that is what makes it so hellish.”

    What is that supposed to mean?

    Please, help me understand. You are a priest and I want to understand and agree.

  20. Father I think I’m missing the distinction here. If Terry is correct and I’ve said something off the mark help me to see it.
    I understand that Christ is not yet “all and in all”, but is this true of the Spirit also? I thought not. I recall St Silouan saying that everyone has the Spirit to an extent (not just us Chrismated). This with our prayer about the Spirit everywhere fulfilling all and the fact that everything that is is sustained by the Grace of the only Existing One, I took to mean that which the Spirit is One with- i.e. the Church- is also in some sense everywhere.
    Please clarify for me if this is off the mark.

    Thank you;
    -MB

  21. An excellent article, Fr. Stephen.

    I love some of the images C. S. Lewis creates in his fiction to help us understand the paradox and mystery that I think you are describing. I’ve recently been reading and re-reading, underlining some of the finest parts.

    In “The Magician’s Nephew” (from Chronicles of Narnia), Aslan was singing a new world into being but Uncle Andrew convinced himself that lions couldn’t sing so he only heard roaring, not a song. Aslan later explained, “he has made himself unable to hear my voice.”

    If we think of the Church as the Body of Christ (not ecclesiastical institution) and the Kingdom is among us, the “song” is sung everywhere (even in hell) but we may have made ourselves unable to hear His voice (or see His light or know His love).

    Or like the bad dwarfs in “The Final Battle” – not excluded from Paradise, but sitting in the middle of it, unable to see or hear or smell it (seeing, hearing and smelling only the filth of the barn that they believed they were in).

    Many wonderful examples of a different sort are offered in the The Great Divorce, where the holy try to encourage the foundering to go up into the mountains to meet Him where everything will be understood. But the lost people refuse, insisting on and clinging to their rights, their hurts, their own ideas.

    If God is everywhere and the Lord Jesus died for all, then that will always be so, will it not? But whether we take off our blinders, give up the foolish pride that makes us cling to darkness rather than light, that is another question.

    The young man from Estonia was blessed with a glimpse of the light – and he took off his blinders. May we all learn from his example and follow suit.

    God is everywhere, the light of Christ is everywhere – and so the Church, His body, is everywhere, embracing all…but sometimes we do not want it.

    May God have mercy on us and help us want Him more.

  22. I wonder if the church fathers would use the works of C S Lewis to describe the things and ideas of God. Is he really that close to Orthodox theology?

    The Catholics think he is great, and the Protestants quote him almost like Scripture.

  23. Mark,
    The Holy Spirit, “everywhere present and filling all things,” is, of course, correct. Just as I noted from Scripture as well, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” What is probably helpful here is to think of the “mode” of our existence (the fathers have so many good words!). “Mode of existence” answer the question, “How does it exist?” We could say that something is “in” God, yet not “in communion” with God.

    There are several ways of expressing it. But that is the heart of it. You haven’t misspoken – but these things get easily misunderstood.

  24. Terry,
    I think what the comment intended by the “hell in the church and that makes it more hellish” notion, is generally following St. Isaac of Syria’s teaching that hell is the love of God experienced as torment because it is being refused.

    When speaking about such things (hell, etc.) we reach for words and images to describe the indescribable. If we demand too much literalism then we’ll get an answer, but the answer will only be a caricature.

  25. Terry,
    On CS Lewis. I think any number of the Church Fathers would have enjoyed Lewis’ work and approved of it. I recall Met. Kallistos Ware at a gathering of around 1000 Orthodox priests referring to Lewis as “that anonymous Orthodox writer.” He was interrupted by a standing ovation.

    Lewis, like most writers, has his own flaws (there are weaknesses in the Church fathers as well). But, generally, he himself was quite familiar with many patristic works, understood them and they infuenced his work quite profoundly. He only ever sought to write as a faithful Christian, not as a maverick or inventor. Tolkien was a very faithful Catholic (Lewis an Anglican). We would be hard put to find any writer in the 20th century Orthodox world who could be seen as more faithful and true to the traditional faith than Lewis. He no where, for instance, seeks to defend Anglicanism or to put forth any of its novel theories (branch theory, etc). He stuck to the basics which would have been common to Orthodoxy as well.

    The comment you were responding to, by the way, was by a Catholic reader of the blog. It’s not just the Orthodox who read and comment here.

    If the Protestants would read Lewis like Scripture, or use him for a lens through which to read Scripture, they would more easily and readily become Orthodox. I know more than a few who found their way to the Church precisely through that route.

  26. Thanks, Father.

    I am new to your blog and new to Orthodoxy. Although, I spent two years studying and reading before I converted.

    I considered myself a good Protestant Bible and theology student.

    I really appreciate the Orthodox Church.

    Again, thanks for your patience and your knowledge.

    Off to Orthros and Divine Liturgy. Have a great Sunday.

    Blessings

  27. Thank you, Fr Stephen, for the post. The story about the Estonian young man reminded me about the young German man named Michael Arndt. About 55 years ago, he decided to study the Russian language because it was the language of the “enemy”. Later, he met some Russian Orthodox emegrees and attended their church services. And now this German man is called Archbishop Mark of Berlin and All Germany (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).

  28. Thank you for the post!
    When I have heard “there is no grace outside the church” in an appropriate context, I have taken it to mean that “there is no fullness of Life (thus Life in Christ) outside the church, you can’t get to that end by other means outside the church”. I have also taken it as a guardian comment on the boundaries of the Orthodox Church, addressed to us people of modernity who get confronted with the sneaky “all paths are the same” attitude. I think it’s not wrong to use it that way?
    But thank you for using this phrase in this article as an example of what it shouldn’t mean, and for pointing to the mystery and the paradox which I am often inclined to neglect in favour of clear-cut answers and distinctions. I daresay your blog is a very good anti-modernity trainer. 🙂

    I don’t want to divert the discussion in the comments, but whenever possible, could you elaborate on C.S.Lewis’ flaws, or other things we have to be aware of when reading his works, from an orthodox perspective? I would ever appreciate your own C.S.Lewis guide for young readers.

    Glory to God for bestowing such gifts on men, such as Lewis. I can’t thank him enough for all that Beauty and Wonder that come through his pages as if through an open window. Memory eternal!

  29. Catherine,
    If I collected caveats regarding Lewis, it would be a very short article indeed. He himself returned to the sources and simply asked, “What does the Church teach?” He sought to have no private opinions, per se. The most common edition of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word has an introduction by Lewis. The article itself gives a great deal of insight into his relationship to the Tradition.

    Anglicanism, at its best, nurtured such a respect for the Tradition. There’s a very good reason why so many Anglicans, particularly clergy, found their way to Orthodoxy. I think Lewis was among those who pointed in that direction. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Michael Ramsey, once wrote that it was the vocation of Anglicanism to be united with Orthodoxy. There are clearly errors in Anglicanism – but most (all) of the clergy companions whom I know who made the journey to Orthodoxy were already aware of those errors. The present Episcopal Church is deeply and radically removed from the Anglican world of Lewis and Ramsey.

    You are right in your interpretation of “no grace outside the Church.”

  30. All this discussion reminds me of a wonderful quote from a more modern saint. “The goal of human freedom is not freedom itself, nor is it in man, but in God. By giving man freedom, God has yielded to man a piece of His Divine authority, but with the intention that man himself would voluntarily bring it as a sacrifice to God, a most perfect offering.” (St. Theophan the Recluse) St. Paul says something very similar in Romans 12: 1,2. Our misuse of this loaned “talent” of authority is for us, as it was for Adam and Eve, the foundation of sin. It’s cure involves erradicating our notion that we can truly exist without the Grace of God. Trees, birds, mountains and the rest of God’s creation do not share in this delusion. As we exercise our God given freedom and seek to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to our Creator we can then through baptism and chrismation enter into the boundries of the Church. It is an ongoing struggle to keep a right mind in the seemingly overwheming artificial constructs of this post modern culture. The foolishness of trying to live a secular life becomes blatantly apparent when I consider that all of creation, except for man, freely receives the Grace of God.

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