ENGLISH VERSION: Entering the Divine Tabernacle Through An Uncomfortable Life: A Homily on the Transfiguration by Igumen Gregory (now Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov), August 6/19, 2008
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord. Today this feast might not be entirely clear to the majority of those who read the Gospel account of this event. Many particularities were completely clear and transparent both when the Gospels were written and several centuries later, as we can see from homilies given on this feast in the sixth century. One of these, regarding the establishment of this feast in Antioch, has come down to us in Georgian. But later even the Holy Fathers forgot what the literal meaning of this feast was – although, of course, they always preserved the spiritual meaning. But we need to understand well both the literal and the spiritual content of this feast.
What is the literal meaning? What did Christ show? What does it mean that He and His garments suddenly shone in a certain light? And why did Moses and Elias appear before Him?
This means that He showed Himself to be the Heavenly Tabernacle, that is, the heavenly abode of God – or, in other words, as the Heavenly Temple, because the Temple is the place of God and the tabernacle (tent) was the original Temple that Israel had in the desert. Later the Tabernacle became the holiest part of the Jerusalem Temple, which was called the Holy of Holies.
Christ says in the Gospel in different places that He is that very Temple. In particular, He said that in three days He would restore the Temple, referring to His own Body. The Heavenly Tabernacle, of course, differs from everything earthly, because it is full of heavenly light, as is said by everyone who saw it in the Old Testament. Therefore Christ showed Himself in this light. But what is this light?
This was explained both in the Old Testament by the Holy Prophets, who saw it, and later by the Holy Fathers. This was not some earthly light – although, indeed, we do depict light on pictures, on icons, and bring out light at the divine services, when the taper-bearers bring out the lamps. This light is a symbol of the heavenly Light that we saw today.
But today we saw not some symbol of light, but rather we beheld the light of divinity itself, which is divine. If we say that it is still a symbol of the divinity, then we also need to say that God Himself becomes His own symbol, as St. Maximus the Confessor put it, drawing from his own experience.
This light is not some natural phenomenon, not some created light – although appearing miraculously – but rather the divinity itself. But, as it says, no one has ever seen God, and seeing God is impossible. Then how is it that the disciples saw Him, related this, and wrote about it in the Gospel?
The Holy Fathers explain it like this: indeed, no human being, no creation of God, can see God; but God can see Himself. Therefore, if He Himself makes someone God and allows him to see God’s being, then this person himself begins to see what God sees. Therefore the disciples who were at the Transfiguration saw God: because they themselves were transfigured by God.
Christ was transfigured: this is, He transfigured Himself, because He is God; and He revealed Himself as He is, while normally He was hidden under the veil of the flesh, both before and after the event of the Transfiguration. The disciples, of course, could not transfigure themselves, but Christ transfigured them when the Transfiguration was accomplished so they could see Him.
If they themselves had not changed, if they had only what they had previously had (the ability to see with their created eyes), then they would not have seen anything. Thanks to the fact that they did see this, the disciples were able to understand and tell about this. But they did not immediately understand: Peter, himself not understanding what he was saying – as the Evangelist tells us – suggested building three tabernacles: to the Lord, Moses, and Elias, thereby showing that he did not understand something.
Indeed, Christ appeared as a Tabernacle (that is, the abode of God); Peter wanted to build a tabernacle on earth. And Moses and Elias appeared. Who were Moses and Elias? These are the revealers of God’s Commandments. Moses is he through whom the Old Testament was given on Sinai. On Sinai he saw the heavens open and the Heavenly Tabernacle, from which the Lord gave him a revelation. But here, on the mount of the Transfiguration, the Lord showed that he would give a New Testament that would surpass the testament that was given through Moses.
Elias was a prophet who lived in Old Testament times, but through whom was promised the revelation of the New Testament, because he already lived according to the customs of the New Testament. One should not forget that in Christianity he was always considered the founder of monasticism. Although there was no commandment to live the monastic life in the Old Testament, the Prophet Elias lived thus and was one of the first who set forth this way of life even before John the Baptist.
But most important was the promise that he would appear at the end of time. Therefore the Gospel says that even John the Forerunner and Christ were taken to be Elias, because they knew that Elias should come before the Messiah and preach of Him. They thought that Christ on the Cross were calling out to Elias when He spoke the consonant words: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Christ was taken for Elias because they knew that the prophet would appear – but He explained that Elias had appeared, in the form of John the Forerunner. But now, at the Transfiguration, Elias himself appeared, in a miraculously manner, along with Moses. This was the revelation, and we should understand it as, above all, an indication of the Messiah: of the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the Christ.
First, we should understand this in order to have an idea of how real Christianity differs from the Judaism of the Old Testament and from the doctrines of all who do not accept Christ. The difference is that we, indeed, do not need an earthly Temple in Jerusalem, which soon after the event celebrated was destroyed, because we have Christ, Who is Himself our only Temple, although He is present in every one of our churches.
We know that not only is the Eucharist celebrated in every church, but that Christ is fully present in every particle of Communion received by a believing person. Thus we should understand that that we are thereby receiving the whole fullness of the Heavenly Tabernacle, entering into it, for which reason we are always in this Temple. Therefore we received that of which the Jews were deprived.
The Jews did not have this. They had something promising this completeness. And, most importantly, anyone who later fell away from the Church was also deprived of this, because none of the heretics believes in that which is salvation. We often say – and perfectly correctly – that no heretical faith leads to salvation. But if we even analyze in detail the content of this faith, we see that what they call salvation (of course, all heretics say that they teach about salvation) does not at all contain salvation in the Orthodox sense of the word.
There is only one Orthodox sense of the word: union with God and being God. This is our dogma and, like any dogma, it must be expressed in asceticism, that is, in our daily lives. How, in our daily lives, can we express that which we are celebrating today?
Of course, many people know that this is expressed in the holy ascetics by the fact that they themselves pray in the Light of Tabor, that they see it. The Transfiguration is thereby their own experience. Of course, that is the way it should be for all Christians. But the vast majority is very far from this. And if we are so far from this, then how can it be present in our lives?
This must be answered as follows: all the saints followed the same path and began from the same point, which is possible for everyone. But what is possible for everyone? Why is it that