Transfiguration: “to alter the outward appearance of, to transform, to convert, a change in form or appearance” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” (St. Mark 9.2-4)
When Moses and Elijah were with Jesus during His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, they had, in a very real sense, already been transfigured – Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah in the fiery chariot. Nor were they alone in the changing of their appearances.
Long before Moses and Elijah, Lucifer – the “Light Bearer” – was the most handsome and comely of all the archangels; and he knew it! Lucifer, in his pride, thought himself superior to God. He was subsequently expelled from Heaven and negatively transfigured to the very essence of evil and ugliness.
Our ancestral parents were created in the image and likeness of God. It was intended that they should live forever in communion with their Creator; but in their pride they thought themselves equals with God. As Satan told Eve, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4) Like Lucifer, mankind was transfigured negatively and became mortal, being expelled from Eden.
Scripture tells us the Prophet David was a man “after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22) But even so David, in his pride, thought himself to be above God’s Law believing, as king, he could do as he pleased. He became a liar, an adulterer, a conspirator, a thief and a murderer. Having been confronted with his sins by the Prophet Nathan, David was transfigured by his repentance and penance and, once again, became a “man after God’s own heart.”
Saul the Pharisee was so filled with pride in following the letter of the law that he persecuted the Church of God. “And when the blood of … martyr Stephen was shed, [he] stood there giving [his] approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20) After his encounter with the risen Christ, the persecuting Saul was transfigured into God’s fearless champion and evangelizer Paul.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria is one of the Church’s most beloved Saints, indeed a Saint honored and esteemed for over 1,600 years. Catherine was not only a lady of stunning beauty and great wealth, but she also received the best education that money could buy. She was thoroughly tutored in all of the philosophy, history, science, and poetry of the ancients – Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Galen, and so forth; and she excelled at logic, rhetoric, and languages. All who knew her were astonished at her brilliance. But she was proud of her superiority over others. Having been given an Icon of the Theotokos she asked the blessed Virgin to allow her to see Jesus. In a dream the infant Jesus refused to look at her, saying to His Holy Mother: “She is prideful, silly and ignorant and I will not let her see me.” After receiving baptism, being thoroughly catechized in the faith and confessing her former pride, Catherine again dreamed of the Theotokos and her child Jesus. This time, however, Jesus said: “Before she was proud, and now she is humble. She is now worthy of Me.” Catherine had been transfigured into a pious and humble servant of Christ, and subsequently shed her blood in martyrdom.
The Transfiguration was not a one-time event long in the past; it is a continuously ongoing process guiding each to his or her own transfiguration and transformation in Christ. It is like the burning bush wherein God confronted His Prophet Moses. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best when she wrote: “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush is on fire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”
And it is even possible that the actual Transfiguration on Mount Tabor itself continues to this day. Interfax (01/16/2011) reported: “Science cannot explain a mystery of the cloud that every year descends on Mount Tabor where, according to the Bible, the Transfiguration of the Lord took place…The miraculous phenomenon happens on the Orthodox feast of Transfiguration. A glaring sphere rushes over believers, then the cloud appears above the cross of the Transfiguration Church, it grows in dimensions and descends on believers, covering them and pouring life-giving moisture over them.”
Transfiguration, like salvation, is seldom a one-time event. For most it is a lifelong process, a growth in surrendering selfish wills to the Will of God. For some, as with Saul, it may come as a blinding revelation. For most, however, transfiguration is a continuous and never-ending struggle against the sin of pride. Here in the evangelical “Bible-belt” one is often confronted with the question “Have you been saved?!?” Perhaps the better question might be “Have you been transfigured?”
Archim. Raphael (Moore)