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Saint Gregory Palamas on the Transfiguration


For an explanation of the present feastday and discernment of its truth, it is necessary for us to turn to the very start of the present-day reading from the Gospel: “And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James and John his brother, and leadeth them up onto an high mountain apart” (Mt. 17: 1). First of all we mustneeds ask, from whence doth the Evangelist Matthew begin to reckon with six days? From what sort of day be it? What does the preceding turn of speech indicate, wherein the Saviour, in teaching His disciples, didst say to them: “for the Son of Man shalt come to be in the glory of His Father”, and added further: “amen I tell ye, there indeed be some standing here, which shalt not taste of death, until they see the Son of Man come into His Kingdom” (Mt. 16: 27-28); – that is to say, it is the Light of His forthcoming Transfiguration which He terms as the Glory of His Father and as His Kingdom. [trans. note: the Synoptic Gospel Mt. 16: 27-28 parallel in the Gospel of Mark is Mk. 9: 1, familiar as the concluding verse in Gospel readings for feastdays of the Holy Cross; the Synoptic parallel in Luke is Lk. 9: 26-27]. The Evangelist Luke points this out and more clearly reveals this, saying: “And it came to pass however after these words, about eight days thereafter, He taketh Peter and John and James, and ascendeth onto a mountain to pray. And it came to pass, that as He did pray, His Countenance was altered, and His garb gleamed whitely resplendid” (Lk. 9: 28-29). But how can the two be reconciled, when one of them speaks definitively about the interval of time as being eight days between the sayings and the manifestation, whereas the other (says): “after six days”? Listen and think it out.

On the Mount there were eight, but only six were visible: the three – Peter, James and John, had come up together with Jesus, and they beheld Moses and Elias (Elijah) standing there and conversing with Him, such that in number altogether they comprised six; but together with the Lord, certainly, were both the Father and the Holy Spirit: the Father – with His Voice testifying that This be His Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit – shining forth with Him in the radiant cloud. In such manner, these six consist actually of eight and as regards the eight it presents no sort of contradiction; in similar manner there is no contradiction with the Evangelists, when one says: “after six days”, and the other: “and it came to pass after these words eight days thereafter”. But these twofold sayings as it were present us a certain format set in mystery, and together with it that of those actually present upon the Mount. It stands to reason, and everyone rationally studying in concordance with Scripture knows, that the Evangelists are in agreement one with another: Luke spoke about the eight days without contradicting Matthew, who declared “after six days”. There is not another day added on representing the day on which these sayings were uttered, nor likewise was there added on the day upon which the Lord was transfigured (which the rational person might reasonably imagine to tack on to the days of Matthew). The Evangelist Luke does not say “after eight days” (like the Evangelist Matthew in saying “after six days”), but rather “it came to pass eight days thereafter”. But in what the Evangelists seem to contradict, they actually one and the other point out to us something great and mysteried. In actual fact, why did the one say “after six days”, but the other in ignoring the seventh day have in mind the eighth day? It is because the great vision of the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is a mystery of the Eighth Day, i.e. of a future age, coming about to be revealed after the passing-away of the world created over the course of the six days. About the power of the Divine Spirit, through the dignity of Which is to be revealed the Kingdom of God, the Lord forespake: “”There indeed be some standing here, which shalt not taste of death, until they see the Kingdom of God come in power” (Mk. 9: 1). Everywhere and in every way the King wilt be present, and everywhere wilt be His Kingdom, since the advent of His Kingdom does not signify the passing over from one place to another, but rather the revelation of its power of the Divine Spirit, wherein is said: “come in power”. And this power is not manifest to simply ordinary people, but to those standing with the Lord, that is to say, those affirmed in their faith in Him and like to Peter, James and John, and those foremost of all free of our natural abasement. Therefore, and precisely because of this, God manifests Himself upon the Mount, on the one hand coming down from His heights, and on the other – raising us up from the depths of abasement, since that the Transcendent One takes on mortal nature. And certainly, such a manifest appearance by far transcends the utmost limits of the mind’s grasp, as effectualised by the power of the Divine Spirit.

And thus, the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord is not something that is born and vanishes nor is it subject to the faculties of sensation, although it was contemplated by corporeal eyes over the course of a short while and upon an inconsequential mountaintop. But the mystery-initiates (the disciples) of the Lord at this time passed beyond mere flesh into spirit by means of a transformation of their sense-faculties, effectualised within them by Spirit, and in such manner they beheld what, and to which extent the Divine spirit had wrought blessedness in them to behold – the Ineffable Light. Those not grasping this point have conjectured, that the chosen from among the Apostles beheld the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord by a sensual and creaturely power (faculty), – and through this they attempt to reduce to a creaturely-level [i.e. as something “created”] not only this Light, the Kingdom and the Glory of God, but also the Power of the Divine Spirit, through which it be mete for Divine mysteries to be revealed. In all likelihood, suchlike persons have not attended to the words of the Apostle Paul: “of which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor ascended in the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for those that love Him. To us however God hath revealed through His Spirit: for all things be scrutinised of Spirit, even at the very depths of God” (1 Cor. 2: 9-10).

And thus, with the onset of the Eighth Day, the Lord, taking Peter, James and John, went up on the Mount to pray: He always either prayed alone, withdrawing from everyone, even from the Apostles themselves, as for example when with five loaves and two fish He fed the five thousand men, besides women and children (Mt. 14: 19-23). Or, taking with Him the several that excelled others, as at the approach of His Saving Passion, when He said to the other disciples: “Sit ye here whilst I go and pray thither” (Mt. 26: 36), – He then took with Him Peter, James and John. But in our instance right here and now, having taken only these same three, the Lord led them up onto an high mountain apart and wast transfigured before them, that is to say, before their very eyes.

“What does it mean to say: He was transfigured?” – asks the Gold-Worded Theologian (Chrysostomos), and he answers this by saying: “it revealed, that is, something of His Divinity to them – as much and insofar as they were able to apprehend it, and it showed the indwelling of God within Him”. The Evangelist Luke says: “And it came to pass, that as He prayed, the appearance of His Face was altered” (Lk. 9: 29); and from the Evangelist Matthew we read: “And His Face did shine, like the sun” (Mt. 17: 2). But the Evangelist said this, not in the context that this Light be thought of as subsistent for the senses (let us put aside the blindness of mind of those, who can conceive of nothing higher than that, known through the senses). Rather, it is to show that Christ God – for those living and contemplating by spirit – is the same as how the sun is for those living in the flesh and contemplating by the senses: therefore some other Light for the knowing of Divinity be not necessary for those who be enriched by Divine gifts. That selfsame Inscrutable Light did shine and mysteriously become manifest to the Apostles and foremost of the Prophets at that moment, when (the Lord) was praying. This shows, that what begat this blessed sight was prayer, and that the radiance happened and was manifest by an uniting of the mind with God, and that it be granted to all who, amidst constant exercise in efforts of virtue and prayer, strive with their mind towards God. True beauty essentially can be contemplated only with a purified mind; diligently to gaze upon its luminance assumes a sort of participation with it, as though some bright ray doth etch itself upon the face. Whereof even the face of Moses was illumined by his association with God. Do you not know, that Moses was transfigured, when he went up the mountain, and there beheld the Glory of God? But he (Moses) did not effect this, but rather he underwent a transfiguration; however, our Lord Jesus Christ of Himself possessed that Light. In this regard, actually, He did not have need for prayer for His flesh to radiate with the Divine Light; it is but to show, from whence that Light doth descend upon the Saints of God, and how to contemplate it – since it be written, that even the Saints “will shine forth, like the sun” (Mt. 13: 43), which is to say, entirely permeated by Divine Light as they gaze upon Christ, Divinely and inexpressibly shining forth of His Radiance, issuing forth of His Divine Nature, and on Mount Tabor manifest also in His Flesh, by reason of the Hypostatic Union [i.e. the union of the two perfect natures, Divine and Human, within the Divine Person (Hypostasis) of Christ, the Second Person of the MostHoly Trinity. The Fourth OEcumenical Council at Chalcedon defined this Hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, Divine and Human, as “without mingling, without change, without division, without separation” (“asugkhutos, atreptos, adiairetos, akhoristos”)].

We believe, that He manifest within the Transfiguration not some other manner of light, but only that which was concealed beneathe his exterior of flesh. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such it was Uncreated and Divine. So also, in the teachings of the theologian-fathers, Jesus Christ was transfigured on the Mount, not taking upon Himself something new nor being changed into something new, nor something which formerly He did not possess. Rather, it was to show His disciples that which He already was, opening their eyes and rendering them from blindness into sight. For do ye not see, that eyes with sight in accord with natural things, would be blind as regards this Light?

And thus, this Light is not a light of the senses, and those contemplating it do not simply see with sensual eyes, but rather they are changed by the power of the Divine Spirit. They were transformed and only in such manner did they see the transformation, transpiring amidst the very assumption of our perishability, with in place of this the deification through union with the Word of God. And thus also She that miraculously conceived and gave birth did recognise, that He born of Her is the Incarnated God. Thus too it was for Simeon, who but only received hold of this Infant into his arms, and the Aged Anna, coming out [from the Jerusalem Temple] for the Meeting – since it was that the Divine Power did illumine, as through a glass windowpane, giving light for all those having pure eyes of heart.

And why indeed did the Lord, before the beginning of the Transfiguration, choose the foremost of the Apostles and lead them up onto the Mount with Him? Certainly, it was to show them something great and mysteried. What in particular great or mysteried would there be in showing a sensory light, which not merely the chosen-foremost but all the other Apostles already abundantly possessed? Why would they need a transforming of their eyes by the power of the Holy Spirit for a contemplation of this Light, if it [the Light] were merely sensory and created? How could the Glory and the Kingdom of the Father and the Holy Spirit project forth in some sort of sensory light? Indeed, in what sort of like Glory and Kingdom would Christ the Lord come at the end of the ages, when there wouldst not be necessary anything in the air, nor in expanse, nor anything similar, but when, in the words of the Apostle, “so that God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15: 28), that is to say, will He alter everything for all? If indeed so, then it follows therefore to include – light. And hence it is clear, that the Light of Tabor was a Divine Light. And the Evangelist John, inspired by Divine Revelation, says clearly, that the future eternal and enduring city will not “require sun or moon to provide it light: for the Glory of God wilt light it, and its luminary will be – the Lamb” (Apoc. [Rev.] 21: 23). Is it not clear, that he points out here that This [Lamb] is Jesus, – Who now upon Tabor is Divinely transfigured, and the flesh of Whom doth shine, – is the luminary manifesting the Glory of Godhood for those ascending the mountain with Him? The Theologian John says likewise about the inhabitants of this city: “they will require light neither from lamps, nor from the light of the sun, for the Lord God giveth them light, and there wilt not be night henceforth” (Apoc. [Rev.] 22: 5). But how, we might ask, is there this other light, of which “it be without change and without threat of darkness” (James 1: 17)? What light is there that is constant and unsetting, unless it be the Light of God? Moreover, could Moses and Elias (and particularly the former, who clearly was present only in spirit, and not in flesh [Elias having ascended bodily to Heaven on the fiery chariot]) be shining amidst any sort of sensory light, and be seen and known? Especially since it was written about them: “they appeared in Glory, and they spoke about His demise, which would come about at Jerusalem” Lk. 9: 30-31). And how otherwise could the Apostles recognise those whom they had never seen before, unless through the mysteried power of the Divine Light, opening their mental eyes?

But let us not fatigue out our attention with the furthermost interpretations of the words of the Gospel. We shall believe thus, as those same ones have taught us, who themselves were enlightened by the Lord Himself, insofar as they alone know this well: the mysteries of God, in the words of a prophet, are known to God alone and His perpetual proximity. Let us, considering the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord in accord with their teaching, ourselves strive to be illumined by this Light and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty, purifying the spiritual eyes of worldly thoughts and refraining from perishable and quickly-passing delights and beauty, which darken the garb of the soul and lead to the fire of Gehenna and everlasting darkness, of which let us be freed by the illumination and knowledge of the Incorporeal and Perpetually-Extant Light of our Saviour transfigured on Tabor, in His Glory, and of His Father from all-eternity, and Life-Creating Spirit, of Whom be One Radiance, One Godhead, and Glory, and Kingdom, and Power now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

a Homily delivered by Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica