Friday, August 12, 2011

The Awesome God and the Transfigured Life

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Look down from heaven, O Master, upon those who have bowed their heads unto Thee, the awesome God.” (From the Divine Liturgy)

The Afterfeast of the Transfiguration of Christ will continue until the Leavetaking of the Feast on August 13. Having ascended Mt. Tabor with the disciples of the Lord, we will then descend back into the world in order to hopefully witness to the glorious vision that has been vouchsafed to us of Christ shining resplendently in His divine glory (MK. 9:1-8; MATT. 17:1-13; LK. 9:28-36). Biblically, the “glory of God,” refers to a palpable “shining forth” of the presence of God that overwhelms the recipient of such a vision. With their spiritual senses purified by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were able to “see” the glory of God revealed in Christ on Mt. Tabor, and they, too, were overwhelmed. Truly, therefore, the Transfiguration is an “awesome” Feast!

Yet, today, everything is described as “awesome:” the loud, the superficial, the mundane. Are we witnessing a kind of experiential egalitarianism, where nothing is allowed to stand apart from or above anything else? Is even the awesomeness of God succumbing to this leveling effect? How discouraging that would be, for we refer to God liturgically as “the awesome Judge,” the “awesome God;” and the Eucharist as the “Awesome Mysteries of Christ.” This is as it should be, for the word awesome is based on the noun “awe” which remains defined today as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” It is God Who is truly awesome! Anything else that can be genuinely described as awesome derives that quality from God.

More specifically, is the awesomeness of the Transfiguration somehow reduced to just one more passing “church event” that comes and goes with an alarmingly insignificant amount of impact on our Christian minds and hearts? Can the awesome Feast of the Transfiguration even “compete” any longer with a new blockbuster film for our attention and capacity as human beings to be “awed” by the sacred and sublime? I am convinced that when everything is “awesome,” then nothing is really awesome. Inevitably, we will find ourselves calling the most boring of occurrences “awesome,” but with no real enthusiasm or conviction. (Perhaps we can excuse our younger children who are now using the term “awesome,” for the “little things” in life can still fill them with a sense of wonder that we adults have lost).

Be that as it may, the disciples were awed by Christ on Mt. Tabor when “He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light” (MATT. 17:2). This metamorphosis – the Greek word behind our transfiguration - was a direct revelation of Christ’s divine nature or, more precisely, of the uncreated energies of His divinity which now shone through the flesh He assumed in the Incarnation. Jesus did not become something He previously was not, but revealed His true identity as both God and man. To the glory of God, Jesus Christ is a human being fully alive. Such a revelation is unique to the Gospels and clearly prefigures the Lord’s resurrection and the glory of the Age to Come. Moses and Elijah appeared flanking the Lord, “talking with Him” (v. 3). Peter wanted to build three booths: one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elijah. In other words Peter wanted to prolong the vision and the experience. But this was not to be. Interestingly enough, in an apocryphal account of the transfiguration, Peter is openly rebuked for his mistaken desire. Peter and other disciples – James and John – must come down from the mount and witness to Christ through the remainder of their lives and through their deaths ultimately.

The same is true of us. If we have not lost our capacity to be awed in the presence of God, perhaps primarily in the Liturgy, but also when reading the Scriptures, praying alone, looking into the face of another and seeing the “image and likeness of God;” then we must take that awesome experience with us into the everyday flow of events and encounters that mark our lives. We must come down from those metaphorical mountains that we climb, seeing only Jesus after the vision vouchsafed to us by God; and bear witness to that presence and experience by the quality of our Christian lives:

O Christ our God, who was transfigured in glory on Mount Tabor showing to Thy disciples the splendor of Thy Godhead, do Thou enlighten us also with the light of Thy knowledge and guide us in the path of Thy commandments, for Thou alone art good and lovest mankind. (Litiya verse of the Feast)

The fact that it is in the Orthodox Church that the Transfiguration is considered a great Feast is meaningless if the experience of the Feast does not have an impact on us. The goodness, truth and beauty that shine forth from Christ are the uncreated energies that free us from apathy and cynicism; and free us further to pursue the virtue of Christ that “has covered the heavens.” (Liturgy of Preparation)

Fr Steven

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