Icon, Part 14: The Transfiguration


by Theophanes the Greek

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!” And when the disciples hear it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.  Matthew 17: 1-8, Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), 2008.

On August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Great Feast of the Transfiguration.  The Feast is often overlooked today, unless it occurs on a Sunday, probably because it is somewhat overshadowed by the Dormition Fast in which it falls (more on that in the coming essay on the Dormition), and because it is in the middle of Summer, and somewhat separated from any related festal observances.  I have personally found that the Transfiguration is itself often entirely overlooked in the wider non-liturgical Christian world.  The event may be the subject of the odd sermon, but such is usually confined to confirming some variation on “Jesus is revealing who He truly is to his closes disciples.”  As far as sermon material goes, the parables seem to offer more tempting fare.  When my eldest daughter graduated from 12 straight years of Christian private school, she said she had never heard any talk of the event at all in any of her Bible study classes.

And yet this event is of considerable theological importance, for within this event – an experience so utterly full of divine awe that it sent the 3 disciples to the ground in terror, and set Peter (a man difficult not to love for things like this) gibbering on about quickly setting up a couple of tents – do we find much that has informed Christian understandings on faith, on the ultimate goal of the Christian life, on what it means to be human, what it means to be a saint, and even how and why we depict these things iconographically.  In short, in a mere eight rather understated verses, we find a revelation deep and profound in ways beyond the reach of parables.  And on a personal level, we know it marked Peter deeply, for he referred to this moment years later in one of his letters.

A Coptic-style of icon

Two Curiosities

The date of August 6 is curious.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the Transfiguration occurs not long before Palm Sunday.  In both Mark and Luke, the timing is similar.  This should put the Feast near the end of Great Lent, and early church accounts do sometimes refer to it occurring then, but perhaps to make Lent less crowded, or more likely to mark the dedication of a particular church on the summit of Mount Tabor, the commemoration was fixed on August 6, a date still universally observed in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches (though the importance of the observance varies).  Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book Introduction to Liturgical Theology (a book on the history and development of Orthodox worship and liturgical cycles), said the time of observance in the calendar seemed out of place.⁠1 Metropolitan Hilarion, however, notes that the Feast occurs exactly forty days before the Exaltation of the Cross⁠2, and has this to say:

In the opinion of several ancient authors, the transfiguration took place forty days before the crucifixion of the Savior.  But if the celebration were to take place forty days before Great Friday, it would always fall during Great Lent.  For this reason, it was decided to transfer the feast to the summer period and to celebrate it forty days before the Exaltation of the Cross, when the church bows down before the cross of Christ and remembers the Lord’s crucifixion.⁠3

And this brings about the other curiosity of the Feast: while tradition has placed the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, nowhere in the Gospels is the particular mountain actually named.  The writings of the early Christian theologian Origin are the oldest surviving writings to reference Tabor, but how he knew is no longer known to us, and he may have been citing an already established oral tradition, or else other written works long lost to us. However, Mount Tabor is well in the north of Israel, and would have been several days’ journey (maybe more, if Samaria were to be avoided) from Jerusalem, where Jesus was headed next.  Yet tradition is fixed on Tabor.

The Feast

The Lord said to Moses: Come up to Me into the mountain, and stand there; and I will give thee the tablets of stone, the law and the commandments, which I have written to give them laws. And Moses rose up, and Jesus his attendant, and they went up into the mount of God. And to the elders they said: Rest there until we return to you; and behold, Aaron and Or are with you; if any man have a cause to be tried, let them go to them. And Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of God came down upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the Lord called Moses on the seventh day out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was as burning fire on the top of the mountain, before the sons of Israel. And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and went up to the mountain, and was there in the mountain forty days and forty nights.  Exodus 24:12-18

This passage from Exodus, along with significant portions of chapter 33 and 34, and I Kings 19 (which in the Orthodox Bible is actually III Kings, the books of Samuel being called the first and second books of Kings) is read at the Vespers service on the evening of August 5 (the liturgical day running from sundown to sundown).  These passages are read as foreshadowings of Christ’s own coming transfiguration, and in Jesus’s transfiguration both Moses and Elijah appear.  Why is this significant?  The liturgical hymns⁠4 say:

When Thou wast transfigured, O Savior, on a high mountain, in the presence of Thy chief Disciples, Thou didst shine forth in glory, symbolizing that they who are recognized for the sublimity of virtue, shall also be made worthy of divine glory. As for Moses and Elijah, when they conversed with Christ they made manifest that He was the Lord of the living and the dead, and that He was the God Who spake of old in the law and the Prophets, the same to Whom the voice of the Father did bear witness from a radiant cloud, saying, Him do ye hear; for He it is Who by the Cross hath taken captive Hades and hath bestowed life eternal to the dead.  Menaion of Vespers, Verse 2.

This is the same cloud of radiant light, the same glory that descended on Sinai has descended on Jesus.  It is speculated in some of the church fathers that when Moses was allowed a glimpse of the glory of the Lord in Exodus 33, that perhaps Moses was given a glimpse forward in time to the Transfiguration.  The voice of the Lord tells the witnessing disciples exactly who Jesus is.  Verse 6 of the Menaion says:

When Thou wast transfigured before Thy Crucifixion, O Lord, the mount resembled heaven, and a cloud spread out like a canopy, and the Father bore witness unto Thee. And there were present Peter with James and John, since they were to be with Thee at Thy Betrayal; so that seeing Thy wonders they might not be dismayed at Thy sufferings. Make us, therefore, to worship the same in peace for Thy Great Mercy. (Ibid.)

In this, the Transfiguration is a revelation that in the coming crucifixion, the disciples should not lose hope.  Of course in that moment we have those selfsame disciples falling over in terror, and Peter offering to build some tents – a bit of common humanity in a moment of Trinitarian revelation. And this is a Trinitarian revelation, much as with the Baptism⁠5 in the Jordan., for it is God the Father’s voice we hear, Jesus Christ we see transfigured and revealed, and the luminous cloud as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. 

There are still deeper revelations to be understood here.  The light that has transfigured Christ, and that shines through the cloud, is the uncreated light of God, and we too can be so transfigured.  As Leonid Ouspensky puts it:

The future transfiguration of the entire human nature, including that of the body, is revealed to us in the transfiguration of the Lord on the Mount Tabor… According to the Fathers, Christ shoed to His disciples the deified state to which all men are called.  Just as the body of our Lord was glorified and transfigured, becoming resplendent with diving glory and infine light, so also the bodies of the sains are glorified and become luminous, being transfigured by the force of divine grace.⁠6

This transfiguration, this shining with the light and life from God, is why saints are depicted in iconography with the golden nimbus, or halo around their faces, even if we cannot always see it ourselves.  There is a question implied in the Transfiguration: if anyone else had been present, would they have seen what the disciples saw?  Perhaps so, but more likely they would not – such revelations are often only glimpsed as gifts.  Saint Seraphim of Sarov was seen this way, as were other saints at times, perhaps only Moses of old shone forth so brightly to so many.  But glimpses still happen, as Father Stephen Freeman relates⁠7:

He was Orthodox from Estonia. He grew up in the Soviet era and had come to hate all things Russian, including the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he saw an Orthodox procession in the streets of his city one year, a procession that included the Russian bishop (whom he also hated and believed to be a KGB agent). However, he saw the bishop surrounded by light. It was an experience that led him into the Orthodox faith. You might hate the man, and the Church as well. But the undeniable glory of God revealed what his hatred could not see.

We are ultimately all called to be such vessels of God’s grace.  The Light of Tabor⁠8 should in some wise be seen in us all.

The Icon

The icons of the Transfiguration are all quite similar.  In the top center we will find Christ atop a hill, robed all in white, and usually surrounded by a blue mandorla (Greek for “almond”) representing the light which is beyond light (we see this same light in icons of the Resurrection⁠9).  To His right and left we find Elijah and Moses.  On the slope of the hill we find Peter (whose hair and beard are gray), James (also bearded), and John (the youngest of the three), all fallen down in fear, and unable to look.  Sometimes we will see mini scenes depicted in the hills of Jesus leading his disciples up the mount, and then back down again.  This layout of the icon varies little except in the stylings over the centuries, whether the icon is Russian or Greek, Coptic or Ethiopian.

Author’s Note

The Transfiguration is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, and is found, besides in Matthew, also in Mark (9: 2-12), and Luke (9: 28-36).  But Peter, who is said to have been present in all 3 gospel accounts, does later briefly speak of it, in 2nd Peter 1: 16-18.  Peter’s two surviving letters are (especially compared to Paul’s) not long.  He notably does not reference the parables of Jesus, or recount the details from the ministry of Jesus either.  But he does refer back to the Transfiguration.  Perhaps, aside from the Crucifixion and Resurrection, this one moment made the greatest and most lasting impression on him.

For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.  (OSB)

1 Schmemann, Alexander.  Introduction to Liturgical Theology. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, NY, 1986.

2 https://ricochet.com/552045/archives/icon-part-2-the-elevation-of-the-holy-cross/

3 Alfeyev, Met. Hilarion.  Orthodox Christianity, Volume IV: The Worship and Liturgical Life of the Orthodox Church.  Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, NY, 2016.

4 All liturgical texts are from the Antiochian Archdiocese, www.antiochian.org

5 https://ricochet.com/585972/archives/icon-part-6-theophany/

6 Ouspensky, Leonid.  Theology of the Icon.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992.  Page 159.

7 https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/08/06/the-scandal-of-the-transfiguration/

8 https://ricochet.com/610696/archives/the-second-sunday-of-lent-gregory-palamas/

9 https://ricochet.com/617636/archives/icon-part-10-the-harrowing-of-hades/

This one’s been venerated rather a lot.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey

    the light which is beyond light 

    A very fine phrase.

    • #1
  2. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller

    SkipSul: But glimpses still happen, as Father Stephen Freeman relates

    It still happens, and not just to “saints” in the high sense of the Lord’s favorites; to ordinary saints (all Christians) too and even some who don’t know the Lord by name. 

    The Mass is understandably a locus of such glimpses. My mother has seen angels gathered around the altar and heard them singing along. Sometime in the past year, I saw a halo around our priest throughout the eucharistic ceremony. 

    Even so, I find it hard to imagine that scene with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Did His disciples recognize the prophets immediately or upon Christ addressing them by name? 

    Jesus later returned from death and walked beside disciples who did not recognize Him until after conversation. The Bible speaks often of hearts hardened or opened to grace and truth. I like to think the prophets were known immediately, though their faces were hereto unfamiliar, because the Lord’s grace revealed that knowledge in the disciples’ hearts. Knowledge is among the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    The tents seem an almost comical moment, as if to say “Moses, Elijah! Come back!” 

    • #2
  3. SkipSul Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    the light which is beyond light

    A very fine phrase.

    Not my own.  It is used often by many writers over the past 2000 years..

    • #3
  4. SkipSul Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    The tents seem an almost comical moment, as if to say “Moses, Elijah! Come back!” 

    One of the things I love about Peter is that his character shines through so often.  He is impulsive, has a sharp tongue, a short temper, and dithers under pressure.  David Bentley Hart, an often controversial Orthodox theologian, put out his own personal translation of the New Testament a couple of years ago, and he said that this same character of Peter shines through the prose of his epistles.  Translators tend to smooth things over, and of course they want the letters of the apostles to sound, well, high-falutin’ and holy.  Hart said that this obliterates the very rustic and jumpy character of Peter’s voice. 

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Hart said that this obliterates the very rustic and jumpy character of Peter’s voice. 

    Are you suggesting Peter spoke like a fisherman?

    • #5