Questions about the Transfiguration

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Tell the story of the transfiguration, paying attention to the point in Jesus' ministry that it occurred. Which gospels report the Transfiguration?







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The gospels very laconically report the Transfiguration. Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain, which was Mount Tabor. It was late, and the disciples were overcome with sleep. They awoke to see Him transfigured before them.

He did not change in form, remaining a man in all respects, but his face and garments shone with a light brighter than the sun. This is the "uncreated light", which a man can only see when God reveals Himself to him, and this is only given to the pure of heart, save for some special circumstances, such as the one we are concerned with here. With Christ were Moses and Elias, who spoke with him "things concerning His decease". Peter, in confusion offered to build three tabernacles for the two Saints and the Lord. After this, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice was heard from heaven, which said "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased, Hear ye Him". After this, the cloud disappeared, and Christ appeared as He usually was. He strictly charged them to tell of the vision to nobody else, until He was risen from the dead, and they descended the mountain.

The Transfiguration is reported in Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-9 and Luke 9:28-36



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What other event in our Lord's life has obvious similarities to the Transfiguration? Explain







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The church understands the Transfiguration to be a "theophany", that is a revelation of the Holy Trinity, just as occurred also at the baptism of the Lord. The services are quite explicit about this.

"Dwelling bodily on earth, /
Christ, the Light from before the sun, /
Who before His crucifixion fulfilled all things of His awesome dispensation in godly manner, /
today hath mystically shown forth on Mount Tabor the image of the Trinity; /
for, taking His three excellent disciples, Peter, James and John, /
He led them up to it together. /
And having hidden His guise of flesh for a little while,/
He was transfigured before them, /
revealing the majesty of His original beauty, though not completely. /
And while making it known to them, /
He also took pity upon them, lest they in anywise cease to live because of what they saw: /
yet were they able to grasp with their bodily eyes, holding fast. /
And Thou didst summon Moses and Elijah, the foremost of the prophets, /
who bore witness reliably concerning Thy divinity, /
and that it is the true effulgence of the essence of the Father, /
O Thou Who hast dominion over the living and the dead. /
Wherefore, the cloud enfolded them like a tabernacle,/
and the voice of the Father testified, /
speaking forth from the cloud like thunder, saying: /
"This is My beloved Son, /
Whom I begat incorruptibly from within Me before the morning star, /
and Whom I have sent to save /
those who are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, /
and who confess with faith that the one dominion of the Godhead is indivisible! /
Hear ye Him!" /
And do Thou Thyself, O Christ God Who lovest mankind, /
illumine us with the light of Thine unapproachable glory, /
and show us forth as worthy heirs of Thy kingdom which is without end, //
in that Thou art all good.

(Litya for the Feast, Tone 2)

"The pillar of fire plainly showed to Moses Christ transfigured, and the cloud pointed clearly to the grace of the Spirit that overshadowed Mount Tabor" (matins, second canon, Ode 6, 3rd troparion)



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How did Jesus' transfiguration prepare the apostles for his subsequent crucifixion?







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Much of the meaning of a particular event is revealed in the holy services, especially Vespers and Matins. This is why it is absolutely necessary for a Christian to zealously attend the Vigil service. The services, and the commentaries of the holy fathers, which have entered into the mind of the church, explain that the apostles were prepared for the crucifixion by witnessing the Transfiguration, and the "splendor of the resurrection" that it prefigured. They would soon be subjected to terrible temptations and fears, and our Savior wanted to put the knowledge of His divinity indelibly in their minds, to help them in the terrible days of his trial and death.

Kontakion of the Feast, Tone 7

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, /
and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could bear it, O Christ God; /
that when they would see Thee crucified, /
they would comprehend that Thy suffering was voluntary, /
and proclaim to the world that Thou art of a truth //
the Effulgence of the Father.

Before Thy crucifixion, O Lord, /
the mountain emulated the heavens, /
and the cloud spread itself out like a tabernacle /
when Thou wast transfigured and borne witness to by the Father. /
There were Peter, James and John, /
for they were to be with Thee also at the time of Thy betrayal, /
that, beholding Thy wonders, /
they might not be afraid of Thy sufferings, /
which do Thou vouchsafe that we may venerate in peace, //
for the sake of Thy great mercy.

( First sticheron of the Feast for Lord I have cried, Tone 4)

Taking the disciples up upon the lofty mountain /
before Thy crucifixion, O Lord, /
Thou wast transfigured before them, /
illumining them with effulgence of power, /
desiring both in Thy love for mankind and in Thine authority /
to show them the splendor of the resurrection, /
which do thou vouchsafe unto us in peace, //
in that Thou art merciful and lovest man-kind.

(Third sticheron of the Feast for Lord I have cried, Tone 4)



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Our Lord's transfiguration contains a tacit but extremely important promise, upon which the whole of Orthodox ascetic theology is built. Comment on this. This emphasis is peculiar to Orthodoxy and is missing from the religions of the West. Speculate why.







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The light that shone from Christ is the "uncreated light". It is, as the fathers teach, the "uncreated energies" of God, which all worthy ones will partake of in the last day. God is absolutely transcendent, and unknowable, except as He chooses to reveal Himself. Through the God-man, Jesus Christ, He has made himself knowable, built in his energies only, and not his essence. "God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord". St. Basil the Great expresses the mind of the church on this matter: "We know God through His energies, and we cannot presume to approach His essence. Because His energies reach us, but His essence remains inaccessible". The one who was an "eye witness of His majesty" (2 Peter 1: 16) knew well the implications of the transfiguration of the HUMAN flesh of the God-man:

"According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: {4} Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. " (2 Pet 1:3-4)

The knowledge of this "partaking" of divine nature is ever present in the theology of the Orthodox church. God became man precisely to make our flesh capable of apprehending the divinity. No one can become God, but we have been promised that we will be "partakers of His divine nature". All of our life is appointed towards this end.

St. Gregory Palamas teaches about this important reality quite often:
"So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinising communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitations of perfecting illuminations - then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in His splendor; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it. For `the glory which the Father gave Him,' He Himself has given to those obedient to Him, as the Gospel says, and `He willed that they should be with Him and contemplate His glory..'" (St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads)

"David, the ancestor of God, foreseeing in the Spirit /
the coming of Thine only-begotten Son in the flesh unto men, /
summoneth creation from afar to gladness, /
and crieth out prophetically: /
"Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Thy name!" /
For, having ascended that mountain with Thy disciples, O Savior, /
Thou wast transfigured, /
and didst cause the darkened nature of Adam to shine again, /
imparting to it the glory and splendor of Thy divinity. /
Wherefore, we cry unto Thee: //
O Lord, Creator of all things, glory be to Thee!"

(Great Vespers for the feast, Aposticha, Tone 1)

In the West, the idea of the transfiguration of human nature was not emphasized. Relatively early, it fell captive to a legalistic view of salvation. What a man believes, and who he submits to in the organization of the church (ie, the Pope of Rome) became more important than anything else, and the ascetical practices of Christianity, such as fasting was lost to a great degree. Their understanding of salvation was almost like a contract, whereas in the East it was always understood that the incarnation of the Son of God, and His revelation of the uncreated light, while in the flesh, to men in the flesh, implies that man can become holy and share in the energies of God We are not just "saved", In the sense of not being punished, but we are made able to be partakers of divine nature.



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What virulent relatively early heresy does the Transfiguration emphatically contradict? How?







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The heresy of "Arianism" states that Jesus Christ is a created being, greater in glory and honor than all other creatures, but created nonetheless, and therefore inferior to God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. The uncreated light that came forth from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the bright cloud, and voice of the Father in the cloud emphatically contradicts such blasphemous conjectures.



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When is the Transfiguration celebrated? Where are the texts of the services found? What services are celebrated? Explain the differences in the services for the feast if it falls on a weekday vs. a Sunday







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The feast of the Transfiguration of the Savior is celebrated on Aug 6, and is the last feast of the Lord in the year, which begins on September 1st.

The service is found in the "Festal Menaion". This book contains the service texts and rubrics (instructions) for 9 of the "twelve great feasts of the Lord and the Theotokos". These commemorations all occur on the same date every year, and are not dependent on when Pascha occurs, which is always on a Sunday, but a different date, each year. The "movable" feasts of the Lord are, preeminently, Pascha, and also Palm Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost. All these services are found in the Pentecostarion, with the exception of Palm Sunday, which is found in the Lenten Triodion.

The services in the Festal Menaion, in "chronological" (according to their celebration) order, are 1. The Nativity of the Theotokos (8 Sept)
2. The Universal Exaltation of Precious and Life-giving Cross (14 Sept)
3. The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary into the Temple (21 Nov)
4. The Nativity of Christ (25 Dec)
5. Holy Theophany (the baptism of the Lord) (6 Jan)
6. The Meeting of the Savior (2 Feb)
7. The Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (25 Mar)
8. The Transfiguration (6 Aug)
9. The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (15 Aug)

The Service for Transfiguration, like all great feasts of the Lord, totally supplants the normal Sunday or daily services, and is served the same way, regardless of what day it falls on.

The Eve of the feast, a vigil, consisting of Great Vespers, Litya, matins and the first hour, is served. In the morning, the Divine Liturgy is served, with special festal antiphons. After the liturgy, grapes are blessed, with a prayer given in the texts for the feast.

This feast should never be compressed into the "fast food" mentality inherent in the so-called "Vespral Divine liturgy" which is a recent innovation, along with so many other innovations which cater to convenience, and making things "easier". The theology present in the holy services is so important that excluding the hymns of matins, or the greater part of vespers, in order to make the feast a 1 day celebration, so "more people can come" and people can "have communion" (without the preparation and teaching that is inherent in the Holy services that precede Divine Liturgy) since most cannot or will not come to church the morning on a weekday, is extremely misguided. There is no "Vespral Divine Liturgy" prescribed in any typicon for any of the great feasts, as this service is ALWAYS served as part of the "lead in" to a feast, and at that, only four times a year (The day before the Nativity of the Savior and Theophany, and Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday) .



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What is the fasting typicon on the Transfiguration?







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The Transfiguration of the Lord occurs during the fast for the Dormition of the Theotokos. On this day, fish may be eaten, as well as wine and olive oil, all of which are not eaten on strict fast days, but all meat, cheese and eggs (all animal products) are not eaten.



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Why were Moses and Elijah present on Mount Tabor?







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Moses represented the law, and Elijah the prophets. Both the law and the prophets spoke of and pointed to Christ, and were in complete agreement with Him, as their conversation on Mount Tabor shows. Their presence, together with the apostles also underscored that God is the God of the "living and the dead".

"Transfigured on the high mountain, /
the Savior, having with Him His pre-eminent disciples,/
shone forth most wondrously, /
showing them forth as illumined by the loftiness of the virtues /
and as ones vouchsafed divine glory. /
Moses and Elijah, who spake with Christ, /
showed that He hath authority over the living and the dead, /
and that He is the God Who of old spake through the law and the prophets. /
Of Him was the voice of the Father heard saying from the cloud of light: /
"Him do ye obey, /
Who through the Cross made hell captive //
and granteth life everlasting to the dead!"

(Lord I have cried, Tone 4)

"Moses the God-beholder and Elijah of the fiery chariot, /
who traversed the heavens without being consumed,/
beholding Thee, O Christ, in the cloud at Thy transfiguration, /
bore witness to Thee /
as the Creator and Fulfiller of the law and the prophets. /
With them vouchsafe Thine enlightenment also unto us, O Master, //
that we may hymn Thee forever."

(Sticheron for "Now and Ever", Aposticha)

The Vespral OT readings provide further mystical illumination concerning the presence of Moses and Elijah. The former asked to see God face to face, and the latter heard Him in the "still small voice". Both intimately experienced the energies of God. Their experiences were a harbinger of things to come.



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Comment on how the dual nature of Christ was revealed on Mount Tabor, and the implications for our nature.







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When Christ was transfigured on Mount Tabor, He remained a man. His human flesh shown with the uncreated light, and His divinity and humanity was readily apparent at the same time. This is a promise for those who love Him, and follow his commandments. Our flesh has been made capable of apprehending the divine energies.

Revealing the human form /
of Thy second and awesome coming with Thy glory, O Savior, /
Thou wast transfigured on Mount Tabor. /
Elijah and Moses conversed with Thee, /
and Thy three disciples were summoned to behold Thy glory, O Master, /
and marveled at Thy radiance. //
O Thou Who then shone forth Thy light upon them, illumine our souls!

( Matins, First sessional Hymn, Tone 4)



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Comment on the implications of the Transfiguration, and the theology of St. Gregory Palamas.







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St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), was an Athonite ascetic who became Archbishop of Thessalonica. The second Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to him.

St. Gregory successfully fought against a prevailing heresy of his day which denied the possibility of ever experiencing or knowing God - in a way surpassing the knowledge of the mind. Adherents of this heresy claimed that in this life one could only know about God.

St. Gregory made a distinction between the divine essence of God, which remains inaccessible to men, and the divine energies, such as the light of transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, which are uncreated but accessible to human vision. [also manifested in the countenance of the Prophet Moses after descending the mountain, and by Saint Seraphim during his conversation with Motovilov, etc...] From his own mystical experience, St. Gregory defended the possibility of attaining true union with God, which is, in fact, the aim of all Christian endeavor: "The kingdom of God lies within" (Luke 17:21). This is the essence of the teaching called hesychasm which advocates the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer and quieting of both soul and body in order that the prayer might act to warm the heart with unceasing remembrance and burning love for God.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the very Name of Jesus a great and graceful power is present. Many holy and righteous people advise repeating the Jesus Prayer (also known as the Prayer of the Heart) as frequently as possible. The Hesychasts, who practiced the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, were defended by St. Gregory Palamas in two Councils that met in Constantinople in 1341 and 1347.

St. Gregory Palamas upheld a doctrine of man which allowed for the use of bodily exercises in prayer. He also argued, against the heretic Barlaam, that it was possible for man to experience God's energies as Uncreated Light - identical with the Divine and Uncreated Light of Tabor which the three disciples saw surrounding Jesus at His Transfiguration.

St. Gregory said, "If in the age to come the body will share with the soul in unspeakable blessings, it is certain that it must share in them, so far as possible, even now." Indeed, even in this present life some saints have experienced the first-fruits of this visible and bodily glorification. Saint Seraphim of Sarov is perhaps the best known, but by no means the only instance of this.

"When God is said to have made man according to His image, the word man means neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself, but the two together." The fact that man has a body, Gregory said, makes him not lower but higher than the bodiless angels. The Orthodox belief is that the body is sanctified and transfigured together with the soul. This is the reason we have such an immense reverence for the relics of saints.

To overcome the passions which enslave us, we need to transform our hearts which are darkened by sin. The Church gives us what we need to perform this task. During the Great Fast we follow the Church's lenten prescription. This prepares us to receive the spiritual instruction offered each week.

St. Gregory Palamas, shows us clearly by his whole life that the Christian life, Orthodox life, always begins in our heart, and only then expresses itself externally in feats of asceticism. St. Gregory helps us to understand the importance of prayer. Prayer is what we need more than anything - true, fervent, real prayer - heartfelt prayer.

The triumph of Orthodoxy always starts in a person's heart, and only afterwards is it expressed externally. True, sometimes there are cases when the external attracts the heart, as if waking it up. But for this to happen, there must be something in the heart which makes such an awakening possible. God demands our heart. To serve God without heart, Orthodoxy without heart, this is the same as a man without heart.

Thanks to Fr Mark Gilstrap. All of the preceding is from a post written by him, to the Orthodox "Indiana" mailing list, on 16 Mar 1995. The text has been slightly rearranged.


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