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Scott Cairns

Scott Cairns

Posted: August 6, 2010 06:47 AM

The Feast of the Transfiguration


The Transfiguration of our Lord is one of the "Twelve Great Feasts" of the Orthodox Church, honoring key events in the life of Christ as well as several key events that led up to and followed his unique life. Each is laden with symbolic beauty and each has been provocative, over the centuries, of much engaged interpretation.

In Greek, the word for this particular feast day is Metamorphosi (Μεταμόρφωση), and the feast honors the moment of a terrifying change in Christ's appearance as witnessed by three of his disciples -- Peter, James, and John -- and as recorded in the synoptic gospel accounts of another trio: Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

According to these Evangelists, Jesus led the three disciples to a "high place" to pray. As the Lord prayed, the appearance of his face was altered, shining "like the sun," and his robes became "white as the light," "shining, exceedingly white, like snow," and "glistening." We are told, as well, that two other figures joined him there, Moses and Elijah, and that the three spoke of his imminent death, "which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."

As the three disciples observed this marvel, a voice came out of the cloud, saying -- just as that same voice had previously attested during the Lord's baptism at the hands of John the Baptist -- "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!"

What might we make of this apparent "change" in the Christ we speak of as being one of the Holy Trinity? What does it mean to say that God appears to change?

By and large, the Orthodox Church -- in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of its Lord -- is relatively comfortable with theological speculation, and somewhat less comfortable with -- acutely less tolerant of -- scholastic, theological nit-picking and definitive theological certainties. The Eastern Church even has a word for the more provisional, interpretive activity; it is theologoumena (Θεολογούμενα), which is to say, simply, "to speak of God."

To speak of God is, of course, not a thing one should do -- ever -- with anything like certainty. It is always a practice to be approached modestly, humbly, and fully aware of the inadequacy of language to "set terms" to the One Who Exceeds All Terms. Our "God talk" must be understood always to be an interpretation, and no interpretation should occasion idolatry -- which is what happens when we allow our terms to eclipse the Mystery we hope to serve.

Like the rabbis leaning into their texts to puzzle out a likely midrashim, we do well to preface our every utterance with something approaching "And another interpretation might be."

I like very much how Chrysostomos, the Archbishop of Etna, defines theologoumena; he calls it the "privately-held, though possibly accurate, views held by some Fathers." He also makes clear that setting a firm line between dogma and theologoumena is a Western disposition, and that the Orthodox view favors "a thorough, careful search of the Fathers and ... an existential immersion into their spirit -- to something that ultimately rises above the useful tools of research that we have borrowed largely from Western theological schemata."

This probably comes as a surprise to many Americans, including most American Christians, largely because most have had no real opportunity to know of the prior, Eastern tradition -- which, I dare say, happens also to be their own early tradition, their own, due inheritance. Oy.

As I say, then, when confronted with a mystery, speculative interpretation is to be expected, as is humility.

For this mystery, this Feast Day of the Transfiguration, I would focus on one remarkable and exhilarating bit of theologoumenon offered by Saint Maximos the Confessor, a "Father" who was pleased during his lifetime (circa 580-662) to pore over the Transfiguration at great length, to witness the radiance of the Lord on Mount Tabor as the Uncreated Light of God, and to speak of human apprehension of His Light as an endless development -- passing, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa would say, "from Glory to Glory."

In his Centuries of Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation, the Saint Maximos writes:

[T]he Lord does not always appear in glory to all who stand before Him. To beginners He appears in the form of a servant; to those able to follow Him as He climbs the high mountain of His Transfiguration He appears in the form of God, the form in which He existed before the world came to be. It is therefore possible for the same Lord not to appear in the same way to all who stand before Him, but to appear to some in one way and to others in another way, according to the measure of each person's faith.

To this provocative speculation, I would add my own, provisional glimpse.

As We See

The transfiguration of our Lord -- that is, the radiance in which
he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor -- did not manifest
a change in Him, but a change in those who saw Him.
--Isaac the Least

Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
dividing what is seen and what is here.

The Book there on the stand proves arduous
to open, entombed as it is in layers
of accretion, layers of gloss applied
to varied purposes, hardly any of them
laudable, so many, guarded ploys
to keep the terms quite still, predictable.

Which is why I'm drawn to -- why I love -- the way
the rabbis teach. I love the way they read -- opening
The Book with reverence for what
they've found before, joy for what lies waiting.
I love the Word's ability to rise again
from chronic, homiletic burial.

Say the One is not so hidden as we
are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,
puzzled, leaning in without result. Let's say
the meek, the poor, the merciful all
suspect His hand despite the evidence.
As for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?
Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.

--Scott Cairns

 
 
 

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