August 6, 2013

The Theological Meaning of the Transfiguration of Christ (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The theology of the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ always moved me, together with the theology of the feast of the Resurrection and Pentecost. Even by reading the hymns of the feast of the Transfiguration, it feels like those who wrote them had the experience of the uncreated light of divinity, which emanates from the Body of Christ.

The Holy Fathers of the Church, especially however Saint Gregory Palamas, that hagiorite saint, not only saw the uncreated light of divinity, but he also developed this great event theologically and then identified the difference between contemplative theology and hesychastic theology. Contemplative theology is associated with metaphysics, while hesychastic theology is associated with the purification of the heart and illumination of the nous. Herein lies the difference between Western and Orthodox theology, and, of course, the difference between the contemplatives - metaphysicians and the Orthodox hesychast Fathers.

The vision of the uncreated light, according to the teaching of the Church, is participating in the Kingdom of God, and certainly we know that there is the kingdom of God which is the entire creation, and the Kingdom of God which is the uncreated grace and energy of God, which is enhypostatic, since "the agent of energy is the hypostasis which uses the energy" (St. John of Damascus). The sharing in the Kingdom of God is at varying degrees according to our participation and communion with the Grace of God, which we taste of not as a so-called mystic but as the actual Body of Christ.

When man partakes of the uncreated glory of God, then he is glorified, according to the confession of the Apostle Paul: "If one member is glorified, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:16), because the glorification of a member of the Church has consequences for all the people. For example, the Prophet Moses was glorified, he entered the divine cloud, and then guided the people with the laws, advice and his entire inversion.

With these conditions we understand that in the Orthodox Church we cannot speak of a militant and triumphant Church, in the sense that those living biologically are in the militant Church and those who are asleep and have entered divine glorification are participating in the triumph of Christ. This is because every saint who reaches the vision of the glory of God, and is thus glorified, definitely from now participates in the triumph of Christ. Although found to be in biological life, they participate in the triumphant Church. If one reads the writings of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, they will see this truth formulated in a theological and empirical way.

It should also be said that in the Orthodox Church we attach great significance to the methodology which leads to glorification and in the sharing in the triumph of Christ over death. This is because a wrong methodology, such as metaphysics which is associated with fantasy, and moralism which is associated with human-external devices, do not result in the vision of the uncreated light and the salvation of man. And this is important, because sharing in the Kingdom of God, the uncreated light of the future age, cannot be accomplished if the person from now has not prepared themselves for this purpose and has not tasted the rays of this glory. So, through the purification of the heart, in noetic prayer, which is an indication of the illumination of the nous, man can participate in the glory of God.

At this point we find the value of Orthodox monasticism, which maintains unadulterated the Orthodox methodology that leads to theosis, which is the purpose of man. Outside of this Orthodox methodology prevails the secularization of the faith and the Christian life.

In all of his works Saint Gregory Palamas speaks of this Orthodox method. In one of his texts he writes that it takes the true faith, because the distortion of the faith does not lead to the fulfillment of man's existence. "We believe as it was taught by those who were illumined by Christ." He speaks of illumined Fathers, and of obedience to them for the preservation of the faith. But this is not enough, but a personal experience of the uncreated light is necessary: "We proceed towards the brilliance of that light." This is not a luxury of the spiritual life, but the authentic purpose of our existence. For this purpose is required the purification of our intellect of all earthly filthiness, with contempt for everything that is delightful and beautiful which is not permanent. "We must purify the eyes of the intellect from earthly filthiness, scorning the delightful and beautiful things which are not permanent." The delightful that is not permanent is the desire that causes suffering and which "surrounds the soul like an unsightly tunic of sin". For this reason Saint Gregory Palamas clearly argues that we get rid of the fire of hell by the "effulgence and awareness of the intangible and pre-eternal light of the Lord's Transfiguration."

The theology of the Transfiguration is integrally connected with the method we must use to experience this great light, and the Orthodox faith is connected with Orthodox hesychasm, because when one is disconnected from the other, then we arrive either at metaphysics or external ethics, which do not save man.

Many times I think that we contemporary Christians chant the beautiful hymns of the Transfiguration of Christ as well as the Apolytikion of the feast, supplicating to God: "Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners", or we pray the prayer of the First Hour: "May the light of Your Countenance shine on us, that in Your light we may see the unapproachable light", but our entire ecclesiastical life orbits outside the path by which we could see the uncreated light. It exists, that is, as a crisis of identity for the future of the Church, when it is not coordinated with the experience of the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God.

Contemporary science dazzles humans, because it speaks of the "mapping of the genetic code", of "decoding the genetic code", so that many diseases can be healed and for an extension of biological life to occur, yet we overlook the fact that the greatest disease is death, which is only destroyed by sharing in the glory of Christ. We must remember that the actual genetic code, the spiritual wonder of man, is the likeness of God, theosis, which is the original purpose of the creation of man, and as much as this purpose is not fulfilled, so will man remain empty. It is characteristic that the day the discovery was communicated for the decoding of the genetic code (June 27, 2000), a newspaper (AFP) wrote: "The identity (of life) has been found, and its meaning is sought." When man does not find the meaning of life, then his life is a tragedy.

Human science, when it is not understood in the light of God, becomes a disaster for man. A concrete example is what happened on August 6th in the year 1945 in Hiroshima. While the Church celebrated the Transfiguration of Christ and hymned the light of the divinity of Christ who spreads peace and joy and offers to man to overcome death, in Hiroshima another light shone, the light of contemporary man, the atomic bomb, which created catastrophe, pain, sorrow, death. Two lights, the created and the uncreated, two different worlds with opposite results.

The Transfiguration of Christ in conjunction with the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, as well as with the great feast of Pentecost, in which the Disciples became members of the Body of Christ, show the purpose and meaning of the existence of man. Unfortunately we remain far from the Transfiguration of Christ, and we live in the distortion of our image. We distance ourselves from the path of theosis and fritter on the path to dehumanization. We chant the hymns of the Transfiguration of Christ and within our soul we live the tragedy of the downward spiral.

"Christ our God,... Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners, through the prayers of the Theotokos...."

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasis, "Το θεολογικό νόημα της Μεταμορφώσεως του Χριστού", July 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.