The Mount of Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber of Christ

There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing the various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position for modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease. The fullness of the faith is not revealed in the analysis of various constituent elements, but in the slow (and sometimes sudden) apprehension of the whole.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing that is “everything” it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth. This grammar does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to the faith. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts. The “one thing” is seen at every service, even if one facet shines brighter than others.

August 6 marks the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ (this Saturday on the New Calendar). The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast looks at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise the first time I encountered it. – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things. Having revealed to His disciples the “Bridal Chamber” (as far as they could bear to see it), He then begins to speak to them of His coming resurrection and His sufferings in Jerusalem

The Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber (and is described in many other ways as well). It is a glimpse, (out of sequence in a place where sequence has no place), of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits. The Transfiguration is an invitation to the Bridal Chamber – the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in the depths of Pascha. Shame on us if we compartmentalize the event in a meditation on the Divine Light. The Light shines in the darkness for a reason, and for a reason the darkness does not comprehend it.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and bring us up from the life below to the life of heaven in the wonder of His Pascha!

28 comments:

  1. Oh how we need to be lifted up to the life of Heaven! So many wonderful reflections here, Father. Thank you, and blessed Forefeast today and blessed Feast tomorrow!

  2. “I found myself speechless. The idea was too full.”
    I’ve sometimes had this experience at church. The combining of seemingly unrelated truths into a new package of poetic power, giving a wider vista on that unbearable Wholeness. Truly, Pascha will raze us to the ground if we’re ready (or not). It’s just so beautiful.
    Tomorrow is our parish’s titular feast. Thank you for this post!

  3. “The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.”

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for both this post and its antecedent, “The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge” (which you link to above and which I am quoting). Your thoughts capture what I have found both inviting and a challenge about Orthodoxy.

    Christianity has always seemed like a garment to me. To look at its individual threads is to perceive contradictions and, as you write, scandals. To pull at those seemingly loose threads, however, threatens to unravel the integrity of the entire cloth. Scripture describes the robe of Christ as seamless: we see it properly only by this recognition and trying to look at the whole garment at once

    Our brain sometimes develops a mistaken notion about itself that it thinks linearly and receives information linearly, when in fact focusing the mind is an almost impossible task (as distractions remind me whenever I attempt engaging with the personhood of God in prayer).

    Dee commented recently how the icons of chemistry were “bread crumbs” that helped lure her to an understanding of iconography. A similar personal reference for me is how computer programs used to be entirely procedure-based, executing one instruction at a time. The advent of graphical interfaces, however, necessitated doing many, many things at once. Fittingly enough, a term that describes this new complexity is “multithreaded.”

    Although “we are inescapably particular” and we compartmentalize to make existence bearable, beauty is understanding the infinite references of every particular–to hold, as Blake wrote, Eternity in an hour.

  4. Mark, I find prayer much easier and more fruitful if I simply allow everything that might be a distraction to be part of the prayer. Each interpenetrating the other while allowing the prayer to be the key element.

  5. I have been a student of Orthodoxy from the outside for many years, and have recently had the immense Joy of being chrismated into the Holy Orthodox faith this past Pascha. There is a real tendency among converts to come in and assume that because of all the study we have done, and our catechesis, we are now fully Orthodox. The second problem is the bringing in of all of our Western theological baggage, which includes a very individualized view of salvation and our relationship to Christ and his Church.

    Your blog piece reminds me to be aware of both of these tendencies in myself, to humbly submit to the Church and her wisdom, and that I am on an Orthodox learning curve which will take the rest of my life

  6. Mark, I find prayer much easier and more fruitful if I simply allow everything that might be a distraction to be part of the prayer. Each interpenetrating the other while allowing the prayer to be the key element. Thus the prayer becomes part of me an I become part of the prayer.

  7. Fr Stephen

    I find it hard to relate to the word “metamorphosis” and more so “transfiguration” of Christ. I wonder why the Church adopted this expression.

    We know from the Fathers that the Lord did not change or adopt a different form but He just revealed the glory of his divinity by a small measure. This event is a revelation of the glory of Christ.

    However, the eyes of the three disciples had to be “transfigured” so that they can withstand this glory and be able to see and remain in the uncreated light.

    Should we think of transfiguration more in the context of the disciples and consider this event a revelation (apocalypse) of God ?

  8. Yes Dee and the beautiful prayer of the 1st hour expresses it well too:

    O Christ the true light, who enlightens and sanctifies every person who comes into the world: Let the light of Your countenance shine on us, that in it we may behold the unapproachable light. Guide our footsteps aright in keeping Your commandments, through the intercessions of Your most-pure mother and of all the saints.

  9. Nikolaos,
    Interestingly, the New Testament itself uses the word “metamorphosis.” It says that his form was changed (meaning, I think, “his appearance”). He does not shed His body, and assume a different one. But His body became bright, like the sun. This same thing happened with St. Seraphim of Sarov and is reported by his disciple Motovilov.

  10. Seeing old things in a new light is normal human experience.
    Asking questions we cannot answer is another universal human experience. It leads to faith, which fills the fact void.
    One unanswerable question is, did God know Adam and Eve would be iniquitous before creating them? Faith requires us to accept that God knew what He was doing.

  11. Michael,
    We have nothing that I know of that directly links what is seen in the Transfiguration with what St. Paul describes. But I think it makes sense. What we see in Christ in the Transfiguration is indeed His glory (in the form of light). It’s interesting that in St. John’s gospel, Christ generally refers to His coming Crucifixion as His “glory.”

  12. Father

    Transfiguration feast is linked to the elevation of the holy Cross on Sep 14th isn’t it ? Sep 14th is like Good Friday and we sing the katavasies of the Cross during matins on the 6th, instead of those of Transfiguration. Would you please tell us a bit more on the link of Transfiguration to Crucifixion ?

  13. Thank you, Father Stephen,
    Please bless~
    Two of your often times reminders come to mind as I read this: Glory to God for all things and forgive everyone for everything. Amen.

  14. I share the interest of Nikolaos, above, about the connection between Transfiguration and Crucifixion. St. Paul talks about our “old man” being “crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom 6:6). It seems there’s a false body and a true body, a body of flesh and a spiritual body, an old man and a new. Does the first of the pair change into the second? Or does the death/crucifixion of the first simply reveal that which was hidden but present – the new Man – like the Transfiguration did? The phrase “crucified with Him” seems to imply there’s (at least) a significant overlap of our experience with that of Christ…”glorified”…on the Cross. If the new Reality is just waiting to be unearthed through metanoia and death to self, then perhaps such a death could just be called glorification. Like a single movement, it reveals the unseen Image.

  15. Owen,
    All that Christ does “for us” (externally), He also does “in us” (internally), because our salvation is, above all, a matter of communion. St. Paul also has this:

    “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.So then death is working in us, but life in you.
    And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak,knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you.For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.
    Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
    (2 Corinthians 4:7–18 NKJV)

    It’s a very rich passage. The flesh of Christ that was placed in the tomb is also the glorified flesh that came out of the tomb (the tomb was empty). Thus we practice a careful reverence for our mortal bodies – they are temples of the Holy Spirit.

    Much to ponder in all of this.

  16. Father,
    Thank you for this discussion on metamorphosis. The associated dictionary definition describes a process of change from immature to mature form. However, in the culture of modernity, such descriptions would emphasize the word process as ‘progress.’ Such associations of progress would not work to describe Jesus.

    However, Jesus is the Incarnation of the Son of God. And He did grow from an infant to an adult man. Therefore His physical appearance changed as we would see in any human being. The change of His appearance at the event on Mount Tabor needs words of explanation, however, particularly for us ‘moderns’ (meaning me) because we have so many of our modern layers (ie, that of ‘progression’) in our perception that we need to peel off to ‘hear’ the words of the Gospel clearly.

    For these reasons, I particularly appreciate your bringing up the Transfiguration passage, Father, which is timely because of the recent feast of the Transfiguration. But it is also timely because I’ve been reading Archbishop Alexander Golitzin’s article, “Liturgy and Mysticism: The Experience of God in Eastern Orthodox Christianity”. He describes the events of this passage as a Theophany and the story itself, the central event in all three synoptic Gospels. The glory of the Lord seen in the event is the same radiance of the divine Presence (kabod in Hebrew) seen on Sinai and Mount Horeb (the prophets Moses’ and Ezekial’s appearance attests). Similar to the events on mount Sinai, the Presence is enveloped in a cloud.

    The icons f the Orthodox Church, (following what Fr Stephen has written in this article) typically show the event of the Transfiguration with a cave (open, empty tomb) pointing to the glory of Jesus in His Resurrection and “the image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha.” Indeed, Christ seems to be pointing to the event in John 1:51 (“And you shall see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man”). In alluding to the Transfiguration and ascribing it to the story of Jacob’s dream, Christ indicates that He is the ladder that unites heaven and earth.

    His Crucification is the inaugural catalyst compelling the unfolding, the Metamorphosis of Himself, and the breaking into the world of the Kingdom of God, the metamorphosis of creation in the eschaton. Even the very atoms of this creation sing this hymn! (Please forgive me; I might seem to have lost my sobriety–reading Archbishop Alexander Golitzin’s article is fantastic. My heart bursts in joy)

    I fear I might have gone too far. If so, Father, please correct.

  17. My father (memory eternal) would have said to me, “now hold your horses!”.

  18. Dee, ecstasy of Joy in a Christian in encountering the Living God is, IMO, not necessarily a lack of sobriety. In a conversation with my parish priest last week, I raised the question.

    I suggested the role of continuing repentance as necessary aspect of sobriety in such cases. He replied “Or deeper repentance…”

    I took that to heart. I think he is correct.

    Tall buildings always require deep, stable foundations.

  19. Indeed, Michael. As Fr Stephen says, further down, deeper in.

    Also, the choice of verbs is important and sometimes tricky. Rather than the word unfolding (suggesting sequential order), I might have used the word unveiling. Because we also know that the Lord was crucified and died for us from the beginning of the world.

    Father, I fear I’m too wordy, which might lead to error. Please correct as needed.

  20. Frankly, Dee, I enjoy your words. They always show me something unique that I jeed to contemplate more deeply. Thank you.

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