|47 The Eve of Transfiguration, August 5, 2007|
I Corinthians 4:9-16
Tragedies such as we experienced in our own city this last week confront us with many questions of meaning and purpose. Perhaps some even of those who believe in God could not help but wonder why God does not intervene in the world to prevent such tragedies, and even far worse ones, from occurring. In answer to such questions, the Church sets before us the icon of God crucified on the Cross, taking upon himself the consequences of our sins in order to open to us the gates of Paradise. The Church reminds us that no evil comes from God; evil and suffering have been introduced into the world not by God but by humanity choosing in the bridal chamber of the heart to disregard the ways of God and to pursue the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.
Let us also understand that the grief we feel in the face of such tragedies is but a taste of the grief felt by the blessed Theotokos and all the saints in the Holy Spirit. You will not find, for example, the saints laughing or full of gaiety in the icons of the Church. The expression on their face is sad and sober; for, in the Holy Spirit they see and feel the tragedy of human existence more deeply than we do – and no doubt, as evidenced by their steadfastness even in the face of martyrdom, they experience depths of grief that we could not bear.
But you also see in their eyes, radiating from deep within, a serenity that seems to come from somewhere even deeper than the grief you see in their faces. Their serenity does not blind them to the tragedies of human existence nor does it numb their grief. Quite the opposite; it renders them much more sensitive to it. The testimony of the saints tells us that the deeper one experiences the grace of the Holy Spirit, the deeper one’s grief over the tragedies of human existence both small and great.
At the same time, in the Holy Spirit, the grief of the saints does not cancel their serenity; nor does it render them angry and despairing. It deepens their compassion for the world. It becomes clear that their grief over the tragedy of human existence proceeds from the divine compassion of the Holy Spirit who is in them.
Thus, in their grief, the saints render the love of God incarnate who, though he was God – or rather, precisely because he is the only-begotten Son of the Father and the perfect Icon of the invisible God who is love, emptied himself and became man and was obedient to the Father to the point of taking upon himself our grief, of carrying our sorrow, even to the point of dying in the flesh for our sakes on the Cross, in order that as God, he might destroy death by his death and so open the gates of Paradise that were closed to us because of our transgressions.
The experience of this ineffable love of God grounds the grief of the saints in the serenity of divine compassion. It is the divine compassion born of the blessed Mother of God, who gave the substance of her flesh to the Savior that he might become man and become one with us even to the point of sharing with us in our death. Thus, when we confide our grief and our sorrow to a saint, what we receive in response is the saint grieving with us in the love of the blessed Panagia, the Theotokos, and in the love of Christ her Son and our God in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, who is love. United with us in our grief, the saint renders the love of God and his Holy Mother, the Church, incarnate to us; and when we feel in the depths of our soul God and his Holy Church grieving with us through the divine compassion of the saint, it can comfort us in our grief; it takes us in our grief and raises us with the Theotokos from the depths of our sorrow to the joy of the transfigured Christ on the heights of Mt Tabor.
From these reflections, we begin to see that the light shining forth from Christ when he was transfigured on Mt Tabor is the uncreated light of divine compassion. What was transfigured was not the Divine Logos but the flesh of the Divine Logos – in other words, our flesh. And his flesh, our flesh, was not consumed in the Transfiguration because to partake of the divine nature so that it is divine love in which we move and have our being is what the flesh was made for.
Christ was transfigured on the mount shortly before his Passion. Yet, the Church in her liturgical cycle has placed the Feast of Transfiguration in the Season of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos. In this way, the Transfiguration of Christ is made to serve as a divine witness of God’s ineffable love for his Mother, the blessed Theotokos, icon of the Church, the bride of Christ. It teaches us that his blessed Mother and all those who are born of her as children of God in the holy font of the Church participate in God. They partake of the divine nature. They are animated by divine love, permeated with divine compassion, made one with God in the ineffable love of God; and this is the meaning of our existence, the principle of our essence. It is our true and natural destiny. Therefore, the flesh of Christ was not consumed in his Transfiguration; it was perfected. In Christ transfigured on the mount, we see in the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, what it is to be truly human. And this destiny for which we were created cannot be destroyed by death or rendered null and void by the tragedies of human existence; for Christ God has destroyed death by his death. He has purified the process of dying into a pouring out of our selves in love into God. He has transfigured death into the death of the old man and the birth of the new man. He has transfigured the tomb into the bridal chamber where the Bride receives the Heavenly Bridegroom and becomes one with him in the ineffable and sacred mystery of the Spiritual Marriage of Christ and his Holy Church. This vision proclaimed by the Church reveals what it is that God has prepared for those who love him and who seek to do his will as did his holy Mother, the blessed Theotokos. It is this vision that the saints have seen with their inner “eye” that is the lamp of the body, and that has filled their whole being with light, the light of divine compassion that shone from Christ on Mt Tabor and unites their grief to the grief of God, and therefore also to the love of God and so renders their grief and their sorrow into the expression of their unity with the whole world in the joy and the peace, the faith and the hope of the love of God.
I think this lesson of Transfiguration opens our eyes to see what perhaps we would not have otherwise seen as we contemplate the tragedy of human existence. We see people grieving and sorrowing; we see individuals risking their own lives to save others from peril; and they do this in the moment, without thinking. It’s as though the crisis awakens in them that selfless love for the neighbor that is most natural to us, that was corrupted by the Fall but not destroyed.
In the light of Mt Tabor we look on the grief and sorrow that people feel in the face of tragedy, and on the selfless, heroic deeds that people perform in the midst of crises as concrete evidence of our having been created in the image of God. We grieve because we are, by nature, lovers. Only those who do not love are unable to feel grief or sorrow. People performing selfless deeds of heroism in a crisis without thinking shows that we are, most naturally, selfless creatures, made in the image of God who emptied himself and was obedient to the Father out of his great love for us even to the point of dying for our sake on the Cross, that we and the whole world might be saved.
It is this image of God in us, our true nature, the principle of our being, that the Church seeks to awaken in us and to bring forth so that we begin to live and move in the image of God not just in crisis but in every moment of our life, so that we can live every day, every hour, every moment in the deep joy of divine compassion; and in that deep joy, suffer the grief and sorrow of the world; and in our suffering, unite the world to the love of God, which alone can heal the tragedies of human existence. The Church awakens this image in us through the beauty of her theological vision. She brings it forth from the depths that it may become incarnate in our everyday life through her ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting.
As you know, we went on pilgrimage to Holy Dormition monastery this last week. We spent two full days at the monastery. We ate and worked and prayed with the nuns. We did not just observe the monastic life; we entered into it – in a very superficial way, of course; but enough to get a taste of the monastic life. The monastic life is a rhythm of work, prayer, eating and rest, centered on the worship of the Church. We worked under the supervision of Mother Macrina on the more than 120 acres of the monastery grounds. Some worked with Mother Olympia in the kitchen. One evening after supper, Mother Abbess Gabriella came to our quarters and spoke to us for over an hour, answering questions about monastic life such as, why do monks wear black; how are they able to get by on so little sleep; do they ever wish they could leave the monastic life and return to the world; why is obedience so central to the Christian life? We fell in love with the nuns, and especially with Mother Abbess Gabriella, because of their gentleness and their goodness. We saw how the spirituality of the Church transfigures those who give themselves completely to it. Outwardly, the monks appear rather plain, especially because they are dressed all in black; but they exude an inner spiritual beauty, a compassion and understanding that awakens in one’s own heart love for the things of God; and one discovers in that experience that love for the things of the Spirit is much deeper than lust for the sensual pleasures of the flesh and the pride of life. One feels a yearning to be transfigured into that spiritual beauty; but one also hesitates from fear of the pain of the renunciation that is required to attain such beauty.
Perhaps to this fear, Mother Gabriella would point us to this morning’s Gospel. If your faith is even as small as a mustard seed, nothing will be impossible to you. One can begin to grow one’s faith, one’s natural love for the things of God, by practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church to the degree that one is able, even if it is very small. One begins by placing oneself under obedience to the Church; an obedience which is made incarnate by submitting to the spiritual guidance of the priest. This means confessing our sins regularly in the sacrament of confession so that our life becomes centered on our baptism, when we were united to a death like Christ’s – this happens when we are immersed in the waters and again when we confess our sins – and when one is united to a resurrection like his – this happens when we are raised from the font and again when we receive the absolution so that we can partake of the divine nature in Holy Eucharist. In the setting of a life centered now on the confession of sins, begin to read the bible with attention. Start by reading the daily assigned Scriptures. Organize your day so that you can spend at least a little amount of time – perhaps time as small as a mustard seed – standing before God in prayer, praying for yourself and others. Even if you pray for only one minute, work to say the prayers of the Church in that one minute with attention and from your heart. Bring the difficulties you may experience with this discipline and your questions to the confessional and receive guidance and direction from the Church. Use the monastic pattern of work, eating, rest and prayer, as a model of your own life: that is to say, center your life of work, eating and rest on prayer and the worship of the Church. Participation in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and on the Feast Days should be a minimum discipline. If you are able and willing, expand your rule to include Saturday evening Vespers. If you are able and willing, expand that to include participation in the Tuesday and Friday morning Matins, and in the Wednesday evening Daily Vespers – when they are scheduled.
By taking up this ascetic discipline of the Church mindfully and from the heart, even if only in a small way, we begin to bring out our natural love for God and to give expression to our desire to enter into the mystery of the holy Theotokos and to be transfigured with her in the love of God so that the image of God that is our true self may begin to shine forth in us like the stars of heaven, and that we may become by the grace of God concrete witnesses to the divine compassion and joy that has conquered death and filled the tragedy of human existence with meaning and purpose, bearing witness even in our own suffering to our natural destiny that is nothing less than to become partakers of the divine nature, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. Amen.