Your Kingdom Come: Transfiguration

There is one more thing that I’d like to say about “Your Kingdom come” before we move on.  It seems rather obvious, though in all my years of bible reading, I never saw it until a couple of years ago.  I was reading a collection of ancient Greek homilies on the Transfiguration of Christ (in translation, of course—my Greek isn’t that good).  What several of these homilies pointed out almost shocked me because what seemed so obvious to them had gone completely unnoticed by me.  And not by me only, in the previous three decades of my Protestant and my becoming-Orthodox religious life, I had never seen this connection made in a commentary or heard it in a sermon—and I used to listen to hours of preaching every week.  What this connection is we will get to in a few minutes, but first we need to lay some ground work.

In my last blog post I mentioned that the Kingdom of God is not something that is observable, it’s not something that one can point at and say there it is or this is it.  There reason why this is so, Jesus says, is because the Kingdom of God is within us or/and among us.  The Kingdom of God is relational.  It is about our relationship with God and with others (both living and departed).  The Kingdom of God is also about our relationship with ourselves in the sense of how we understand and regulate ourselves, our inner world.  How I think about myself and God and others; what my heart longs for; and the secret (hidden) martyrdom, the self denial, the death to my passions and wishes and dreams all for the sake of love, for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of the Kingdom of God: all of these only God sees, only God knows.  All of this is hidden and cannot be seen.  And thus, the Kingdom of God is not directly observable.

There is, though, one exception.  Jesus told His disciples, according to the gospels of Luke and Mark, that there were some of His disciples who would not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God coming in power.  Matthew put it this way: some would not taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.  These verses always used to bother me.  I had no idea what Jesus was referring to.  Until recently, my best guess would have been that he was referring to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.  But all of the disciples (except Judas) were present at Pentecost, not just some.  St. Cyril of Alexandria asks the question, “Does this mean that the limit of life will be extended so far for [some of] them, that they will reach those days after which, at the end of the ages, He will come from heaven to restore to the saints the Kingdom that was prepared for them?”

St. Cyril answers his question negatively and comments: “But by Kingdom here He is referring to the sight of that glory, in which He will also be seen at the moment he sheds his light on those living on earth.  For ‘He will come in the glory of God the Father,’ and no longer in that somewhat shabby appearance that belongs to us.”  In other words, St. Cyril is saying that the merely human, shabby, appearance of Jesus that could easily be seen is not what Jesus will look like when He comes again at the end of the ages.  Then, Jesus will appear in the glory of His Father.  And so what Jesus is referring to when He says that some of his disciples will see the Kingdom of God coming in power is His Transfiguration before Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor.  This is embarrassingly evident in all three of the synoptic gospels: after Jesus says that some of his disciples would see the Kingdom of God in power, what is the very next thing that happens?  What immediately follows this statement in all three gospel accounts is the transfiguration.

This is the one exception, the one time when a few of Jesus’ disciples saw the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God that they saw was the transfiguration of Christ.  This event manifested the Kingdom of God, it shows us what the Kingdom of God looks like.  However, the hymns of the Church teach us that the extent of glorious Light that each of the disciples saw depended on his ability to see.  The transfiguration of Christ reveals His glory, but what each disciple actually sees depends on his ability.  A fundamental reality of human experience is that we each see different things, sometimes very different things, looking at the same object or phenomenon.  One person looks at a tree and sees an icon of obedience and worship, another looks at the same tree and sees only so many board-feet of standing lumber.  What we bring with us both colours and can fundamentally alter the reality we perceive around us.

This is particularly true in the case of the perception of spiritual realities.  What each person brings, what he or she preconceives or expects or assumes determines to a large extent what he or she actually perceives.  This does not mean that God cannot break through and speak to us despite our blindness.  God is able to speak to us in ways we will understand—even if He has to use a donkey to do so.  But in the case of Peter, James and John, God spoke to them by being transfigured before them, by letting them see with their physical eyes the reality of purity, light and eternal heavenly fellowship with all of the living and the departed, a reality that Jesus lives in all of the time.  This is the reality of the Kingdom of God that we are all called to live in, a reality that most of us barely perceive, but that was revealed on Mt. Tabor to three of Jesus’ disciples.  It is a Kingdom of light and purity, a Kingdom of eternal fellowship both with the living (Elijah, who never died) and with those who have died (Moses, who died on Mt. Nebo without entering the earthly Promised Land).

But what is the way?  How do we enter this Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of our Father in heaven?  We pray that it come, but is there anything else Jesus told us to do specifically related to the Kingdom of God?  Yes.  Jesus told us to repent, repent specifically because the Kingdom of God is near. That’s the reason both Jesus and John the Baptist give: Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.   I find it interesting that both the Greek word for ‘transfigure’ and the Greek word for ‘repent’ begin with the same preposition.  Transfiguration is metamorpho (meta meanswith,” “after,” or “change” and morpho means  “body”), and repent is metanoeo (again meta means “with,” “after,” or “change” and noeo means “mind”).  I had always understood repentance to be more than a change in behaviour.  Repentance is a change of mind: a change of mind that manifests as a change of behaviour.  However, Jesus connects repentance with the nearness of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus also connects His own transfiguration with seeing the Kingdom of God.  It seemed to me that repentance may refer to more than just changing one’s mind.

Perhaps repentance refers not merely to a changing of one’s mind, but of an enlightening.  Perhaps repentance leads to the enlightening of one’s nous.  St. Paul seems to make this same connection in Romans 12: 2 where he beseeches the Roman readers by God’s mercies to present their bodies as living sacrifices, no longer being conformed to this world, but being transformed (literally “transfigured”) by the renewing of their minds (nous).  A changed or renewed mind leads to a transfigured being.

This seems also to be in accord with the patristic formula presented most clearly by St. Maximus the Confessor: purification, illumination and deification.  That is, in repentance one begins with the purification of one’s mind, heart and senses, and through this cleansing one becomes able to see, able to be illumined.  And this illumination changes us, as St. John says in his first epistle (3:2), to see Him is to become like Him.  Repentance is a process by which we allow our minds to be changed and illumined which results in a change in our whole being: our transfiguration.

When we pray for God’s Kingdom to come, we are, on the one hand, praying for the end of the age.  But the end of the age is not merely a reference to time, it is a reference to a goal, or in Greek a telos.  When we pray for God’s Kingdom to come, we are praying that the end or the goal or the purpose of all things will be accomplished, both in us and in everything.  And our part in this, the one thing we can do in addition to asking, or literally commanding, that it take place, is repent.  Repentance is our part.  We repent, God illumines and transfigures.  We confess our sins and turn as much as we are able away from our sins, and then God purifies and illumines our minds leading to the transfiguration of the whole person, of our whole being.  And this transfiguration, the whole process by which we are changed to participate in the very Life of God, this is the Kingdom of God.  This is the Kingdom of God that we pray comes.

One comment:

  1. Father,
    The transfiguration of the mind is not coming to a new way of thinking, but of worshipful stillness of mind. The struggle against selfish ego seems to be necessary, but can never bring the stillness. The stillness comes as an awakening, on its own,easily when it comes. It is wholly other. It’s like being turned inside out.


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