August 6, 2010

The Chapel of the Transfiguration on the Peak of Mount Athos

In Greek mythology, Athos was one of the Gigantes. He threw a mountain at Zeus, who knocked it to the ground near Macedonia. The mountain became the holy peak of Mount Athos. On the peak of this mountain was a temple built to Zeus of Athos. Today, near the summit of Mount Athos at around 6,000 feet, there is a chapel dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ.

Each year, before the feast day on August 6th, a party of monks climbs the mountain laden with tools and materials to repair the damage caused by the storms and lightning strikes of the previous winter. The monks then spend the night in the chapel, keeping the vigil of the feast. The next day they return to their monasteries elated, the words of the night office still ringing in their ears:

Thou wast transfigured upon Mount Tabor, O Jesus, and a shining cloud, spread out like a tent, covered the apostles with Thy glory. Whereupon their gaze fell to the ground, for they could not bear to look upon the brightness of the unapproachable glory of Thy face, O Saviour Christ, our God who art without beginning. Do Thou, who then hast shone upon them with Thy light, give light now to our souls.

The emphasis of the canon is on theophany, on the revelation of the divinity of Christ on Mount Tabor and our response to it. It picks out just one strand—though the most important one—of an extremely rich patristic tradition on the Transfiguration. It is the revelation of Christ transfigured that inspires all the ascetics and monks of Mount Athos to imitate Christ and pray for their own transfiguration.

The chapel itself was built during the time of Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III in 1894 and was dedicated in August of 1895. It fits about 20 people with 12 stasidia. On the top of the mountain there is also a big iron cross dated 1897. See also this excerpt from Gerasimos Smyrnakis from p. 408 of his 1902 book ΤΟ ΑΓΙΟΝ ΟΡΟΣ:

Below is the opening sequence of the 1978 movie Escape to Athena with shots of Mount Athos (including the Chapel of the Transfiguration at sunset) and the Island of Rhodes.

Below is a video of pilgrims going to the Great Vespers service on August 14, 2008 on the peak of Mount Athos.

See also a video of the vigil on August 6/18 here.