Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,“Who do men say that the Son of man is?”14 And they said,“Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”17 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus,“Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”5 He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them,“Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.”10 And the disciples asked him“Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?”11 He replied“Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.”13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Mark 9:2–13, Luke 9:28–36
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Feast of Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
The Feast of Transfiguration (Պայծառակերպութիւն, Այլակերպութիւն) is one of the five principal (տաղաւար) feasts of the Armenian Church. Although a three-day feast (an innovation of St Nersess Shnorhali), the season of Transfiguration begins on the fourteenth Sunday following Zadeeg and ends on Sunday preceding the Feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God. Jesus takes three of his disciples up a mountain, (traditionally, Mt. Tabor) to reveal to them his glory, a revelation of the Holy Trinity (the Father’s voice is speaking while the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a bright cloud). A mountain is highly symbolic of God’s presence and divine revelation (see Genesis 22:2, Exodus 24:13-17, Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Isaiah 2:3, Matthew 5:1-2f., John 6:3f.).
What is our perception and experience of Jesus? Do we become so accustomed to his appearance that it becomes commonplace, taken for granted? Are we in need of a reminder that in him is light, that he is Light? St. John reminds us in his first epistle, “In him is no darkness at all,” and “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (I John 1:5,7) How do we experience his light without necessarily seeing it corporeally? Jesus came specifically to share himself with us, his divine life: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (John 1:9). Is our gaze so fixed on the person of Christ and are we walking so closely with him that he is the prism by which we experience moments of transfiguration, by which we reflect God’s love to others, by which we count it all joy when we meet various trials, and by which we disperse his light to the world?
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
St. Gregory of Narek beautifully and poetically sums up the event of the Transfiguration in one of his festal litanies:
With inexpressible mystery you revealed your Divinity today on Mount Tabor to your holy apostles: to Peter and the sons of Zebedee. And the Father from above acknowledged his beloved Son. And in accordance with the word proclaimed by Moses and Elijah, you became known (to them) as Ruler and Lord over life and death. As they witnessed the overwhelming sight of your splendid transfiguration, terrified by your light and divine radiance, they fell to the ground half dead.
Who today revealed the inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery of your Trinity and One Divinity foreknowingly on Mount Tabor to your holy apostles and prophets, the radiance of your Divinity to us transients, even after them. (trans. Abraham Terian)
The Light Who Illuminates Us
The transfiguration of Christ (his changing of appearance in a radiant, glorified manner) is considered a “theophany” in which Jesus is revealed as divine, as God himself, the second person of the Holy Trinity (see also the baptism of Christ: Matthew 3:13-17). St. Peter, not knowing what to say, suggested that they build three tabernacles, or dwellings (associating the event with the Festival of Booths during which tabernacles or “booths” served as symbols of God’s dwelling), but the voice of God interrupts Peter saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The dwelling (տաղաւար) of God is the person of Jesus Christ, and everything that preceded the Incarnation of Jesus, i.e. the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), points to and is fulfilled by him. Our eighth-century Church Father, Stepanos Siwnetsi, affirms this in his Gospel commentary: “The Gospel and the law and the prophets were united and became one.” When Moses and Elijah disappear, the disciples saw no one but Jesus.
John, who witnessed the transfiguration along with Peter and James, writes in the first chapter of his Gospel,
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (vv. 9, 14)
Once again, Jesus is the dwelling of God, the true light, the light who illuminates us. We, as his disciples, as his Church, are to be transfigured, changed to appear like Christ by sharing in his divine life which comes through the sacraments of the Church (Baptism, Holy Communion, Crowning, etc.), by living a life of repentance and holiness (II Corinthians 3:18), by becoming a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11).
John also writes in his first epistle (1:5-7), imaginably reflecting on that unforgettable, divine moment on the mountain that day, something which should remind us to remain in communion (fellowship) with Jesus, what could easily be one of the many messages of the Feast of Transfiguration:
God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
The Transfiguration of Christ is a glimpse of the life we have, here and now, when we enjoy true fellowship with him. The life of the Church is about communion, it’s about being enlightened, that is, knowing God. To be a disciple is to share the transfigured, divine life of Christ, to be changed by it and to radiate it to the world.
As a parish community, as individuals, are we walking in the light? Would we describe our community as being ever transfigured, or like Peter, do we interrupt the glory of God with our own flawed understanding of what God is trying to do in our midst? Are we truly listening to Jesus as the Father instructed us on that mountaintop? As a community, we are called to be in communion with God and with one another, but that kind of fellowship is not synonymous with socializing at coffee hour or mingling at social events. Rather, it is the actual participation in the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. In other words, we don’t just remember the Transfiguration in our minds, we don’t just read about it in the pages of the New Testament. When we celebrate this wonderful feast, we mystically participate in the actual event of the Transfiguration itself. Quite the mystery, but quite the reality. God becomes what we are so that we might become what he is, as St. Athanasius so notably put. We feebly offer our time, our very lives with all of its flaws, bruises, hurts, and fears, and in exchange he offers us the eternity of his Transfiguration, his Այլակերպութիւն.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Just before the event of the Transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples,
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?
Six days later, the disciples follow Jesus up a mountain, assuredly a treacherous, dangerous, and difficult path. Interestingly, in every account of the transfiguration event, the story is followed by a story of a boy who is ill.
Peter, James, and John directly experienced God’s glory. They tasted heaven. Where could they possibly go from there? How could they go back to the ordinary world and ordinary time from which they came after such a supreme and enlightening experience? In fact, Peter wanted to stay!
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
It is a very good thing to witness God’s glory, but as Peter is making the case to stay on the mountain top, he is interrupted by the Father’s voice:
He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
So where else could they go but down the mountain? In other words, there is work to be done. Go down the mountain because there is a boy who is ill. Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down the mountain, back to the so-called ordinary, equipped to address the pain of the world – a world in which there is hurt, thieves, madness, chaos, hypocrites, and demons; but a world transfigured by Christ.
It was also the place of those who would betray and kill Jesus. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story mentions that Elijah and Moses “Spoke of [Jesus’] departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (9:31) Just as Peter, James, and John were taken up the mountain to experience God in order to prepare them for future ministry, Jesus was being prepared for his death on the Cross, of course, a symbol of our own ministry. In his first epistle, Peter writes about the connection between God’s glory, the Cross, and our ministry as the Church, perhaps recalling his experience on the mountain that day:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (I Peter 4:12-13)
The way to glory in this life is the way of the Cross, through suffering, by taking up the Cross and following Jesus Christ. The Cross is not a symbol that everything is all right in the world, but that through suffering, there is hope, and carrying the Cross is the path to glory and reconciliation. This is exactly why we venerate whom the Church canonizes as saints, and it is sainthood that we should all be striving to attain as we deny ourselves and become poor for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus Christ.
Just as Jesus descended to earth and took on flesh and blood to share his glory with us (see John 1:14), he descended the mountain where he was transfigured in order to share his glory with that little boy at the bottom of the mountain who was ill. In other words, with each one of us. And now he calls us to carry the cross of self-sacrifice, to suffer out of love, to share in the Transfiguration, to follow him into the valley of suffering, but a valley also infused and mingled with God’s glory and divinity. As the priest prays during Badarak in the opening of the Eucharistic Prayer,
As the divine master-builder building a new work, he thereby made this earth into heaven. [p. 29]
The message of the Transfiguration is the joy that awaits us in this life, the joy that helps us endure the cross we are called to carry. Whenever we grow weary of carrying our cross, recall the Transfiguration and pray that God will help us to see beyond the ordinary, to see his extravagance and glory in the mundane, to see his glory in the shame of the Cross, to see his divinity in the flawed humanity of others, so that we are always,
Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
What goes up must come down. We are raised up to the top of the mountain every time we celebrate Badarak. As we pray and sing we are raised to heaven where the angels join us in worship. Just before the Gospel procession, the priest silently prays:
Lord our God, you, who have established in the heavens the orders and the hosts of angels and archangels for the ministry of your glory, make now the holy angels also enter with our entrance and serve with us and glorify with us your goodness. [p. 13]
In the beginning of Badarak, as the priest descends from the khoran and censes throughout the Church, the people sing “Parekhosootyamp” using the same word as this feast day (Պայծառակերպութիւն, Baydzaragerbootyoon) to describe the Church.
Vor kerakooyn kan zergeenus baydzaratsootser sooro zegeghetsee aryamp kov Kreesdos:
O Christ, who with your blood has made your holy Church more resplendent than the heavens.
And so we experience God’s immediate presence in Badarak whether we feel it or not, whether we intellectually understand or not. As his Church, we are resplendently transfigured when we commune with him and with one another. But we don’t remain in that place. We are told to “Depart in peace” «Yertayk khaghaghootyamp,» to carry our cross into the valley of suffering and find a little boy who is ill.