[From The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, ed. Harry and Rebecca Poe, Chalice Press, St. Louis, 2008]
“We Will Be Like Him” (I John 3:2)
England can be delightful in early August, when the mornings are cool and the afternoons bright. At home, on America’s mid-Atlantic coast, it’s so hot and gummy that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks. This is one of those rare patches of year when Americans might like to come to England for the weather.
Yet in the Holy Land it’s hotter still, as any pilgrim can tell you. This year’s Oxbridge conference concludes on the feast of the Transfiguration, that event which arises from the most somnolent point of summer, when August is a still lake of heat. If you’ve been to the Holy Land during such seasons, you know that the sun beats down relentlessly, and the shrubs are turning gray and dusty. Everywhere you look there’s rock and rubble. It was on August 6, as the church remembers, that Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter and James and John, and led them up the side of “a high mountain.” It is Mt. Tabor that claims this honor.
This is how St. Matthew tells the story. “[A]fter six days Jesus took with him Peter, 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 as white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” (Matthew 17:1-8)
Perhaps these three disciples were used to being taken aside for private conferences. But they weren’t prepared for what happened that day. They saw Jesus “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun.” They saw Moses and Elijah speaking with him. Peter then began to babble the first excited thing that popped into his head. That’s when the bright cloud overshadowed them, and they heard the Father’s voice. No wonder they tumbled to the ground in awe. And when Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Have no fear,” they looked up to find they were alone.
In the Sinai desert, a bit south of Mt. Tabor, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai itself, there is a monastery that has stood for fifteen hundred years. Long before its walls were built the place was already a site of pilgrimage, and men and women withdrew to those desolate crags to live lives of intense and dedicated prayer. We know them as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. But, because Bedouin marauders threatened their lives, in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian built a sturdy monastery to protect the Christians there.
In this monastery of St. Catherine, on Mt. Sinai, there is a church, and in the church, in the curved apse above the altar, there is a mosaic depiction of the Transfiguration. Since our conference focuses so much on beauty, it is a good time to appreciate the way that earlier generations of believers honored their Lord in the visual arts. These early images are, of course, called “icons,” which is the Greek word for “image.” In the centuries when most people were illiterate, when bibles were extremely expensive and rare, the most accessible “bible” would be illustrations like this. Worshippers would hear a part of the Scripture cycle read during services every week, but all during through year they could study the figures on the walls and ceilings of churches and recall the truths that they depict. Unfortunately, very few early icons survive, because they were destroyed during the “Iconoclast Controversy” in the eighth century. This Transfiguration on the ceiling of the Sinai monastery church was spared simply because the location is so remote.
This icon is dominated by a magnificent standing image of Christ, transfigured in glory. Elijah stands in midair on the left and Moses on the right, both in stances that suggest lively conversation. Below them, along the bottom edge, we see John on the left - that is, on Christ’s right hand - falling to his knees with his hands raised in prayer. John’s brother James, on the right, also kneels and seems to cower before the weight of the event. Beneath the feet of Christ, Peter has fallen prostrate. A moment before this he had been sputtering about building booths for the three holy figures to occupy.
This image is more astonishing than it initially looks, because it is not painted but is a mosaic. Thousands of tiny chips of stone and colored glass, called tesserae, combine to create the picture. It is more difficult to make an image this way, and the flowing movement a paintbrush so easily captures can be hard to achieve unless the tessarae are very tiny.
Yet mosaics have the advantage of being nearly impervious to time. As long as they stick to the wall, their color will not dim, and they can be cleaned of the smoke of incense and oil lamps without damaging the underlying image. The glass gives off a shimmering light, especially when the tesserae are set to reflect at subtly different angles, as in the gold background of this icon.
Something more about the artist’s work deserves appreciation. When you look at a photograph of this icon it appears flat, but in fact it is applied to the conch of the sanctuary apse, a curved half-shell. This is quite an achievement. It is difficult to design an icon for a dome, because the concave surface tends to throw elements out of proportion; things at the outer edge appear to be huge, while those in the high center look tiny. The artists responsible for this mosaic compensated for the curve so skillfully that when viewed directly the bowl of the apse is imperceptible. This debunks the idea that early Christian artists knew nothing about perspective. On the contrary, perspective is sometimes intentionally distorted in icons, in order to convey a sense of being outside predictable space, or of the image pressing or rushing out toward the viewer - techniques not used again until the Cubists. The making of icons was (and still is) considered an act of worship. The artists who designed and installed this image would have made it with prayer and fasting, hoping to impart to viewers some of the same awe and love that Peter, James, and John felt.
Christ gazes out steadily, bearing authority and love. White rays streak out from the sides of his dark blue mandorla, an oval space which seems to recede back into eternity, to the foundation of the universe. Christ is truly the center, of this image, of everything. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Collossians 1:15-17).
But the main thing about the story of the Transfiguration is that Christ is glowing. He is turning into light. What can we make of a story like this? What did Peter and John make of it?
It seems, understandably, to have made an indelible impression. In his second letter, Peter retells the story, preceding it with this assurance: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). John begins his intricately woven first letter with a similar eyewitness claim: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes” (John 1:1). John continues, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”
God is light. Throughout the Scriptures, God appears repeatedly in the form of overwhelming light. A cloud covers the mountain top when Christ’s glory is revealed, just as one shook Mt. Sinai with lightning when Moses spoke with God. When Moses descended the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law, his face was shining from the presence of God: “The Israelites could not look on Moses’ face, because of its brightness” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Pillars of cloud and of fire led the Israelites in the wilderness. St. Paul on the road to Damascus was overwhelmed by “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13).
But there is something about light that most previous generations would have known, that doesn’t occur to us today. We think of light as something you get with the flip of a switch. But before a hundred years ago, light always meant fire. Whether it was the flame of a candle, an oil lamp, a campfire, or the blazing noonday sun, light was always accompanied by fire.
And fire, everyone knew, must be respected. That’s one of the lessons learned from earliest childhood. Fire is powerful and dangerous. It does not compromise. In any confrontation, it is the person who will be changed by fire, and not the other way round. As Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
Yet this consuming fire was something God’s people yearned for. In some mysterious way, light means life. John tells us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Jesus says, “I am the Life” (John 11:25), and also “I am the Light” (John 8:12).
Light is life: we live in light, and couldn’t live without it. In some sense, we live *on* light. It is light-energy that plants consume in photosynthesis - an everyday miracle as mysterious as life itself. When we eat plants, or eat the animals that eat plants, we feed at second-hand on light. Light is converted into life, literally, with every bite we eat.
The fire of God consumes us, and we consume it as well. His light is life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). What could Jesus have meant by this? In recent centuries, Western Christians have offered competing theories. Some hold that Jesus meant a memorial meal, a simple commemoration of his sacrifice.
But the Greek text of John’s Gospel makes a literal interpretation inescapable, for there Jesus uses the most offensive terms possible. He didn’t use the ordinary word for “eat” (“phago”), but “trogo,” to munch and chew as a cow chews its cud. And it wasn’t even his body (“soma”), but his flesh (“sarx”). “Chew my flesh” - he couldn’t have made it much more graphic. Jesus’ intended audience obviously took it this way: they were appalled. John tells us that “many” of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him because of this “hard saying.” When Jesus asks the twelve whether they too will leave, Peter hardly sounds enthusiastic. But stalwart resignation speaks: “Lord, to whom else shall we go?”
On the far side of everything — the Last Supper, the campfire denial, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring — Peter tries in a letter to make sense of what happened on Mt. Tabor that day. Peter saw God’s glory, and he knows it is for us. He says that God’s divine power calls us “to his own glory.” Through his promises we may “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
“Partakers of the divine nature.” The life that is in Christ will be in us. In Western Christianity, we tend to take Scriptures like this metaphorically. When St. Paul refers to life “in Christ” some 140 times, we expect he means a life that *looks like* Christ’s. We try to imitate our Lord, and sing of following him and seeking his will. We ask “What would Jesus do?” We hope to behave ethically and fairly in this life, and after death take up citizenship in heaven.
But it appears that Peter had learned to anticipate something more radical and more intimate: true oneness with Christ and personal transfiguration. We partake of, consume, the light of Tabor and the life of Christ. We receive, not mere intellectual knowledge of God, but illumination. This participation in “the divine nature” is not a treat squirreled away for the select few, for mystics or hobbyists of “spiritual formation,” but God’s plan for every single human life. “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Participation in this light is not a lofty or esoteric path, but one of simplicity and childlike humility. It’s not enjoyed in sudden, swooping supernatural experiences, but gained by daily, diligent self-control. Through prayer, fasting, and honoring others above self, we gradually clear away everything in us that will not catch fire.
We are made to catch fire. We are like lumps of coal, dusty and inert, and possess little to be proud of. But we have one talent: we can burn. You could say that it is our destiny to burn. He made us that way, because he intended for his blazing light to fill us. When this happens, “your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).
Our bodies, not just our souls. Just as Jesus’ body on Mt. Tabor was radiant with the glory of God, our bodies will “bear the image of the man of Heaven,” St. Paul says (I Corinthians 15:49). This very same too-familiar body, that embarrasses and disappoints, that is marred by flaws and flab, will one day be “raised in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:43). As Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century, “Even though [the disciples had] heard that our flesh would rise up again, they did not know how. Now [Christ] was transfigured in his own flesh, and so gave us the example.” And as John, another witness of Mt. Tabor, writes: “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him” (I John 3:2).
Even the astonishing glory that Peter and James and John saw on the mountain was not all the glory that God is. In the Orthodox Church we sing an ancient hymn on the feast of the Transfiguration, which begins:
“Thou wast transfigured on the mount, O Christ our God,
Revealing thy glory to thy disciples as far as they could bear it.”
What they saw was only the amount that they could bear, carefully adjusted to their capacity by a loving God. The glimpse they had of transformation, they believed, is what God intended for them as well.
It is easy to forget this. C.S. Lewis’s literary demon, Screwtape, was able to get a man’s mind off hair-raising spiritual realities just by showing him a shouting newsboy and a passing city bus. We are grateful for distractions because, if this is true, we will have to change our lives. If God’s plan is to fill our souls and bodies with his brilliant life, we must decide whether we will cooperate. If we do, we’ll have to train ourselves to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17), gazing constantly on God who dwells in our hearts, “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master” (Psalm 123:2). We’ll have to start remembering that every other human being we encounter, no matter how exasperating, is a recipient of this same divine invitation; every person we meet is called to blaze up with glory. The fear and trembling that seized Peter, James, and John on the mountain will accompany our every remembrance of God, driving out triviality and self-satisfaction. We supply the coal, God supplies the fire: “So work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you” (Phillipians 2:12).
Where are we going? We’re all going up Mt. Tabor. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).