Fr. Luke A. Veronis
Why do we come to Church each week? What are we seeking from our Christian faith? Or maybe we need to ask, are we consciously and seriously seeking anything from our faith? Ultimately, what is our goal as Orthodox Christians in this brief life here on planet earth?
We will celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration in two days, and this feast teaches us that our goal in life, and in the Church, should be nothing less than transfiguration! To be transfigured, to be transformed, to be lifted up out of the superficialities of the world and to become “a new creation” in Jesus Christ, one truly united with our divine Lord and filled with His Divine Light and energies! This is the message we hear in yesterday’s Gospel and Feast – catching both a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature, while also realizing our own true nature, a humanity destined to unite with Christ’s divinity!
Let’s begin with the story itself, and think a moment about the disciples. Of course, the twelve had traveled with Christ for three years, hearing his inspiring teachings, witnessing his amazing healings and miracles, and constantly wrestling with the question, “Who is this man?” Is He a great prophet, like Elijah and the prophets of old? Is He a mighty King, like the military king David who conquered the nations all around Israel? Is He a great teacher like Moses? Or is He possibly the Messiah, the long-awaited and anointed Savior of Israel?
The crowds agreed that no one ever taught with such authority. He even claimed to forgive sins! Yet, the disciples remained caution. They hoped Jesus was the Christ, but at the same time, He confused them. In fact, just six days prior to His Transfiguration, Jesus bewildered his followers by saying, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and even be killed.”
Any faithful Jew would never have imagined their long-awaited Messiah suffering and dying. They hoped for the exact opposite – a Christ who would establish an eternal kingdom!
Yet not only did Jesus tell his disciples that he must suffer and die, but he bluntly challenged each one of them by saying, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Such talk of suffering, self-denial, a Cross, losing one’s life, and death itself made little sense to the disciples. Was this the long anticipated Messiah, or simply a great teacher and man, who risked his teachings and life by angering the authorities?!?
Well, to encourage and enlighten his followers, Jesus revealed His true nature to his innermost core of disciples – Peter, James, and John. Together, they climbed high up Mount Tabor to pray, and while Jesus was praying, the disciples catch a glimpse of Christ’s divine nature. Jesus was transfigured before them. His face shined like the sun. His clothes became as white as light. And as a bright cloud overshadowed Him, they heard a voice say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
The disciples received confirmation that YES, this human Jesus truly is the Messiah, the Christ; He also reveals the uncreated Light of Almighty God. This uncreated light that shined forth from Jesus revealed His divine nature, His identity with God Himself!
The message for the disciples, however, was not only that Jesus is God. He simultaneously revealed to His followers something about their own humanity. The true nature of our humanity! Unfortunately in the English language, we have adopted some false and distorted sayings, like “To err is human.” Or when we make a mistake and fall short of our goals, we say, “Well, what did you expect, I’m only human.” Such sayings minimize the potential of our humanity; humanity as it was meant to be lived.
Contrary to our fallen human nature, the Transfiguration of our Lord raises our eyes up to our original destiny, which St. Peter affirms in his epistle, when he writes, “[Our Lord’s] divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… and through his great and precious promises, [we] may be partakers of the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world.” (2 Pet 1:3,4)
Each of us may become partakers of the divine nature!!! Jesus affirmed this teaching throughout his ministry when He invited all people to enter into His divine light. He wants all humanity, including you and me, to become one with Him. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus teaches. “Abide in Me and I in you… As the Father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love.”
Thus, the feast of the Transfiguration not only reaffirms the divine identity of our Lord, but also reveals to each one of us our true nature; we see our destiny in divine transfiguration! Human life is not about petty, mundane, superficial pursuits of pleasure, comfort, power, and worldly success, but instead is about a greater call, a return to our original calling and destination! Life is about transformation and transfiguration into the life of Christ!
Thus, the Church sets a lofty goal for each of us to pursue! But HOW do we pursue it? How do we set our course in life towards divine transfiguration?
The story of the Transfiguration guides us on this path. First, we must ascend the mountain of prayer. The disciples witnessed Jesus’ Transfiguration while in prayer. He ascended Mt. Tabor to earnestly and wholeheartedly pray. Only as our Lord communed with His Father did His being transfigure. Thus, the first question we must ask ourselves: If we truly desire transfiguration in our own lives, are we willing to pray? Are we willing to become people of prayer? Authentic, consistent, disciplined prayer of the heart? Such deep prayer does not come easily, but is learned and experienced through practice and discipline, through guidance and faith.
A second necessity on our path towards transfiguration is self-denial, sacrifice, and putting aside one’s desire and will. We must make space in our own hearts and lives for God’s presence, and this automatically implies denial of our egocentric ways. We all need to realize that the Christian life is not about ME! It is not about what I want, what I desire, what makes me happy! At the center of the Lord’s Prayer is the phrase, “Your Will Be Done!” True happiness only comes through love, and divine love always means sacrificing for the other! The Christian paradox is that the more we sacrifice, the more we receive. The more we deny ourselves, the more we feel fulfilled. The more we die, the more we discover life. This is precisely why Jesus told his disciples before the Transfiguration, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed.” Christ Himself followed that path of sacrifice and fulfillment, of death and life. And then he called his disciples to walk the same path. “If anyone desires to come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
Just as we must sincerely ask ourselves about our life of prayer, we must also be ready to evaluate ourselves and see if we are living lives of self-denial, sacrifice and divine love? Only through such practices can we reach our goal of transfiguration!
Finally, transfiguration occurs only when we are ready to offer back to the world what God freely gives us. When Jesus was transfigured, Peter wanted to bask in His glory and suggested that he make tents for all to stay on the mountain and permanently enjoy the moment. Christ, however, reminded his disciples that such ecstatic spiritual experiences were a foretaste of the victory that awaits us, were momentary bursts of enlightenment and energy to empower us to go on in the spiritual struggle in this brief life. We are transfigured so that we can then carry the divine light of Christ to the world around us. Our Lord desires each one of us to be transfigured, so that His light will then be carried forward to a dark world all around us! Transfiguration leads to service, ministry, and outreach!
So, why are we here in Church every Sunday? What is the fruit of an authentic Christian life? What is our goal as Orthodox Christians in this brief life here on planet earth? The Feast of the Transfiguration reminds us that our goal should be nothing less than our own transfiguration!