Glory to Jesus Christ! It is a blessed time to gather for Matins and celebrate this wonderful feast of the Transfiguration. When we will come to the Divine Liturgy, we will hear a different Gospel reading than the one which we have just heard. We just heard the story of the Transfiguration according to the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. Each Evangelist’s perspective has its own genius, and it is well for us to spend time letting this unique voice speak for itself. Today I would like to point out three aspects of Luke’s account that can only be found in what we have just heard, and ask how God may be speaking to us today. There is the glory of Jesus and the Prophets, the way that the Apostles saw this mountaintop experience, and the response that they had to this vision of glory. Each of these can speak to our hearts if we have ears to hear.
First, we have the event of the Transfiguration itself. There is a common thread in all three Gospels with this story, where three of the Apostles accompany Christ on a mountain, and as he prays he is transfigured in glory, just as our Troparion of the Feast says. In addition to seeing Christ on the mountain, we hear that Moses and Elijah appear in glory with Christ. Let’s look at the icon of the feast. Normally we see these two Old Testament saints standing next to Christ. It’s as though they are two witnesses pointing us to Him, just as God the Father speaks from a cloud and points to the Lord to get our attention focused on Christ. After all, when Peter suggests that booths be made for them, these Old Testament witnesses of the Law and the Prophets disappear. But only in Luke do we read something more. Let’s listen again to what is said about these two men.
We hear that Christ was speaking with Moses and Elijah specifically about his coming exodus which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. It was not a mere symbolic gesture to have Moses and Elijah speaking with him, but we hear about the conversation between them in Luke’s account! What does exodus or departure mean? The word used here, Exodos in Greek, is only used three times in the New Testament, and in the other two occasions it refers to the death of Joseph and St. Peter. It’s an exodus to the life of the world to come. Why would Jesus speak to these two prophets in particular? If we step back to the end of Moses’ life in Deuteronomy and the end of Elijah’s life in 2 Kings, we see something amazing. Both of these prophets’ last moments on earth were spent in Jericho by the Jordan River. While Moses died in expectation of the Promised Land without crossing the Jordan River, Elijah was taken up into heaven after crossing the Jordan. With Christ and his coming exodus we see both death and Ascension at the same time. He died as Moses, and yet he rose into heaven at his ascension into heaven, reminding us of Elijah’s departure (but without the chariots of Fire). Perhaps Luke is showing us that the death, resurrection and Ascension of Christ is pictured in the lives of both Moses and Elijah, just as Christ is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.
Christ’s exodus is a conquering of death and an Ascension into heaven, and that life which transcends death comes to us when we receive the Jordan water through baptism.
Second, let’s consider what it was like for the apostles to be at the Transfiguration. Now when we hear that someone had a “mountaintop experience”, what comes to mind? We tend to think of soaring emotions, life changing experiences. But is that what we hear in this Gospel? Yes and no. We heard that Jesus was talking with the Prophets who had come from the dead, and the apostles were privileged to witness this. Verses 29-31 make it clear that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were there in their glory. The disciples were not just on a mountain with Jesus, but they were there at this amazing event of Transfiguration. And yet, what is so shocking to read is the response of the Apostles in verse 32: it says that they were “heavy with sleep” until they had seen this glory. The Gospels according to Matthew and Mark skip over this detail, but Luke wants us to know that Christ in his shining glory was preceded by his followers nearly falling asleep. Later, at a moment of darkness but even more glory, his disciples will sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus goes to his voluntary and life-giving Passion for us. This shows us something important-No matter how remarkable an experience one has, we may be “asleep” even in the midst of glorious encounters with our Lord and the Saints.
I want to encourage you to ask these questions: How am I closed and drowsy in the midst of blessings? How can we wake up and see the transfigured glory which renews all creation?
Lastly, let us turn to the response of the Apostles to the Transfiguration. They saw Jesus shining in glory. He was joined by Moses and Elijah who had their own glory, and as we hear in verses 34 through 36, the Glory of God the Father came down in a cloud and a voice declaring :”This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” As the cloud dissolves away our eyes are fixed on Jesus, who is alone. No amount of awe or wonder of seeing Moses and Elijah, no terrifying amazement at hearing the voice of God (as Moses once did), can compare to seeing this one who is about to go to his own Exodus in Jerusalem. What did Peter, James and John do? Verse 36 tells us.
“They kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen”.
Can you imagine? To see the pinnacle of the glory that Christ had on earth and to say nothing? We love to share stories of when we meet someone famous, but perhaps this shows us that in a real encounter with glory, silence comes to us. In Matthew and Mark we read that Jesus charges the disciples to keep silent. Now, we could just say that this command is something that Luke skips over, and is the reason for silence. But if we just let Luke speak to us, we will stop for a moment and realize that some of the most beautiful moments in life are those where words fail us. The wonder of God’s love for us leads us to share our faith ultimately, just as Peter, James and John became great preachers for the faith. But in those days, as it was fresh on their minds and their hearts, we hear that they kept silence. As the Theotokos so often is described as treasuring in her heart the things that she saw in Christ’s life, so too did these Apostles revel in silence. The wonder of Transfiguration can captivate our hearts so deeply that we will feel a need for pause, for keeping holy the revelation of God’s glory. Perhaps we too need to have that stillness, so that the glory of the Lord does not pass by us, so that we do not sleep as they did before they woke up and were driven to awe and amazement.
May the blessings of this feast point us to Christ’s glory and His work of salvation which comes to us through the Jordan, and may we open our eyes to draw near to him in faith and love. And may silence nourish our hearts as we live as members of the Body of our Transfigured and Risen Lord. He moved to save the world through his exodus, may we too find the way to do the same with our lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!