extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed
Just as the Lord’s body was glorified when he went up the mountain and was transfigured into the glory of God and into infinite light, so the saints’ bodies also are glorified and shine as lightning.
—Saint Macarius, The Homilies
God became man that we might be made God.
—a saying of Saint Irenaeus, Saint Athanasius, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and other Fathers of the Church
During the several years of his public ministry, little by little Jesus revealed his divinity to his followers. The apostles witnessed not only many miracles but even his ability to calm a storm. Yet only three of his closest followers were permitted to see the glory of his divinity. Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a high place. While praying, the apostles saw Jesus in conversation with the lawgiver Moses and the prophet Elias. Christ’s clothing became “dazzling white” and his face “shone like the sun.”
For the three witnesses, this was the fulfillment of a promise Jesus had made not long before: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16:28)
For pilgrims in Galilee, Mount Tabor — a steep conical hill that rises to nearly 600 meters — is an essential stop. It is one of the oldest places of Christian worship. In 326, Saint Helena arranged the construction of a church commemorating the Transfiguration. Since then, several churches have stood on the spot, the most recent erected less than a century ago.
From Luke’s Gospel, we know what Jesus, Moses and Elias were discussing as they stood side by side: the events that were soon to occur in Jerusalem. In preparation for Jesus’s impending arrest, torture and execution, the three were given a brief experience of the Christ who would rise from the tomb.
As Moses and Elias were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elias.” Then a radiant cloud overshadowed them. The terrified disciples heard the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved son, my chosen. Listen to him!” In Matthew’s account, after the Transfiguration Christ said to the three, “Rise, and have no fear.”
Later in his life, Peter would declare, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye witnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father… we heard the voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Having been a witness to the Transfiguration, it is no wonder that light plays such a vital role in Peter’s testimony about the Lord. The prophetic word, he wrote in the same letter, is like a “shining lamp in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The Transfiguration icon is a stark realization of the story. We see Christ in white robes on the height of a mountain. Iconographers have used different methods to represent symbolically the uncreated light of divinity or, as Saint John of Damascus expressed it, “the splendor of the divine nature.” The usual iconographic device is a mandorla surrounding Christ’s body with three concentric circles pierced by knife-sharp rays of gold or white. What actually was seen by the three witnesses could never be painted. Any artistic attempt at photographic realism would only mask the event.
“The light which illumined the apostles,” Leonid Ouspensky observed, “was not something sensible, but on the other hand it is equally false to see in it an intelligible reality, which could be called ‘light’ only metaphorically. The divine light is neither material nor spiritual, for it transcends the order of the created…. [It] has no beginning and no end.”
The light that the apostles experienced on Mount Tabor, wrote Saint Gregory Palamas, one of Christianity’s great mystics, “had no beginning and no end. It remained uncircumscribed and imperceptible to the senses although it was contemplated by the apostles’ eyes…. By a transformation of their senses, the Lord’s disciples passed from the flesh to the Spirit.” Elsewhere Saint Gregory notes that: “Whoever participates in the divine energies … in a sense himself becomes light. He is united to the light and with the light, he sees what remains hidden to those who do not have the grace. He goes beyond the physical senses and everything that is known [by the human mind].”
The Transfiguration, like Christ’s Baptism, is a revelation of who Christ is — so much more than a prophet, as the disciples at first had perceived. It was also a revelation of the Holy Trinity. We hear the voice of the Father and see the light of the Holy Spirit and the blinding face of the Son. “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of your light, O Lord,” the Orthodox Church sings on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, “your light unaltered from the light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as light, and the Spirit as light, guiding with light the whole creation.”
In the icon, Moses, carrying the tablets of the law, stands on the right, Elias on the left. Their presence bears witness that Jesus is the Expected One, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Also they each had previously experienced the divine presence: Moses in a thick cloud on top of Mount Sinai, Elias on Mount Carmel where God spoke to him in a whisper.
In the lower tier of the icon are the prostrate disciples, Peter, James and John. Their locations vary in different versions of the icon as do their physical attitudes, but Peter can be recognized with his short beard and thick, curly hair, and John from his red robe. Often Peter is kneeling, John thrown backward, and James shielding himself.
The icon is not only about something that once happened on top of Mount Tabor or even about the identity of Christ. It also concerns human destiny, our resurrection and eventual participation in the wholeness of Christ. We will be able to see each other as being made in the image and likeness of God. We too will be transfigured.
Through Christ we become one with God. The Greek word is theosis; in English, deification. “God’s incarnation opens the way to man’s deification,” explains Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. “To be deified is, more specifically, to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. We are intended, said Saint Peter, ‘to become sharers in the divine nature’.”
If you have ever listened to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, you will remember his musical setting of the words of Saint Paul: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet….And the dead shall be raised incorruptible … and this mortal must put on immortality.”
We can hardly begin to imagine what we will look like to each other, how razor sharp the edges of existence will become, though it occasionally happens in this life that our eyes are briefly opened and we are truly awake, seeing things with an intensity which we tend to describe as blinding — transfigured moments of heightened awareness. Thomas Merton sometimes spoke of these life-defining flashes as “kisses from God.”