The Icon of the Transfiguration
Sermon written by Ioana Popa and delivered by Shannon Sakellariou at St. Mary Church on March 12, 2017 as part of Antiochian Women's Month
As a chaplain, my husband Sebastien has the reputation of being able to engage and enliven many people with dementia, to the point of making them talk after years of silence. He can sooth a crying patient, even when he does not even know his or her spoken language. I have been struck by my husband’s work from the first day I met him at Holy Cross at the Pappas Institute, when he presented his theological paper “Past, Future, Present after St. Augustine, in Spiritual Work with Patients with Dementia”. Back then I marveled in disbelief: what does he mean by past, future, and present for patients with dementia? People with dementia don't remember their past nor have a vision for a future, I was thinking to myself with my skeptical scientific mind. Intrigued by his title I attended his presentation and was touched by the beautiful image of the soul that he sees in every person, including in those whose memories are lost.
In hearing about his work and reading his writings I sensed a fundamental core premise which he breaths and embodies and is a daily inspiration for me. No matter what modern science is telling us, no matter what our senses or thoughts are telling us, there is so much more in a human being. Inside each and every one of us there is a sacred place where the uncreated light of God meets the created beautiful human being made of feelings, thoughts, language, memories, desires, hopes, beliefs, imagination, visions, soul and body. The human being is a window and an opening into an infinite universe, a micro-cosmos, which sometimes we can barely sense, as in a patient with dementia, but nonetheless it exists.
The 14th century theologian St. Gregory of Palamas, who we celebrate today, beautifully defines and describes in his work the subtle ways in which the mystery of God is revealed in the world. He writes about the essence and the energies of God. He describes “Nonetheless, there is only one unoriginated essence, the essence of God.”” There are however energies of God which have beginning and an end, as all the saints will confirm”. Many theologians have described his teachings in a metaphor: the sun represents the essence of God, and the sun’s rays, warming up the earth, nourishing and moving all of us, represent the energies of God.
This beautiful connection and flow from the essence of God, through His uncreated energies to the entire creation, is clearly captured and depicted in our Orthodox ethos. We see this beautiful flow and co-creation embodied in our church: from the liturgy and all our church services, to church architecture, chants and hymns, church fathers’ writings, monastic life, modern theologians, and all the way to our icons that we venerate and are studying this month.
Each icon represents a window into the timeless God and reveals in it’s symbolism the eschatological reality of past, present and future, the reality which is to come, but in a mysterious way was and is already fulfilled in our present moment. Past, present, and future are all condensed, and space and time become one. Through the icons, we experience the energies of God, and through them we get a glimpse of His undivided essence.
I’m particularly fond of the Transfiguration icon, a depiction of Christ’s transformation on Mount Tabor in Mathew 7:1-8. “1 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
It is true that an image is better than 1000 words and this icon is no exception. In only one image, the Transfiguration icon encapsulates what could probably be described in volumes of theological books. Without going to that length, I will try to summaries a few elements. As you look at the icon, you notice the mountain, which is usually the scene of many important events throughout the story of salvation both in the Old and New Testament: from Abraham bringing his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount, etc. When someone goes to a mountain, it is usually to capture our attention, drawing us in the story. We notice Christ transformed and illumined and the slight “rays” coming from Christ, which represent the energies of Christ shining forth from His essence towards his disciples, and by extension, to us as well.
Moses and Elijah are next to Christ and we might wonder, why are they in the story and in the icon? These two figures, whose lives did not intersect with the historical Jesus, are revealing the mysterious unified field of God, in which past, present and future are inseparable. We know from the Hebrew Scriptures that Moses was a man of great stature and the giver of the Law. His presence in the story is pointing to and revealing the person of Jesus as the fulfillment of that Law. Elijah is one of the prophets of Israel, someone whose coming, according to the Jewish belief, would usher in the Kingdom of the LORD. His presence gives us a glimpse into God’s heavenly kingdom.
At Christ’s feet we observe Peter, James, and John, bended in different postures, almost overwhelmed by the awesome mystery unfolding, and in the same time, comforted by the rays of light coming from Christ. In the story, Jesus, in his majesty, continues to minister to them, telling them not to be afraid. Throughout this beautiful icon we get a glimpse of God's essence as expressed through His energies into our humanity. The energies of God help to draw us closer to Him.
A similar mysterious revelation is given to us at Christ’s birth, at Epiphany when he was baptized, at the Resurrection, Pentecost, on the road to Emmaus, and in any other encounter. And the reality is that every event, every day, and every second in our lives all have the potential of revealing God's energies and movement from His mysterious essence. Our church fathers talk about the process of “Theosis”, a co-creation, a process of transformation in which the grace of God illumines and helps to transforms us.
There are pockets of mysterious Transfiguration happening every day, by us holding a greater vision of kindness, love and compassion for all humanity, as Christ assures us it will be in the Kingdom of God at the end of times, where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Our complicated times can be seen as very distressing, but what if we could see them as a greater opportunity for us to become saints and to hold that vision of respect and dignity for every human being, beyond separations of gender, religion, wealth, political affiliation, or power?
The chaplain who has a vision of human resilience beyond the surface, can bring the patient with dementia, deemed to silence by a medical diagnosis, into aliveness and sound. The special-ed teacher who sees the uncreated human potential in the student with dyslexia and years of failing grades can instill hope and a greater vision, which transforms the student. Every vocation out in the world or at home, every human being and action, any part of the creation has the potential of being sanctified and illumined and transformed by the energies of God, as Christ was transfigured on Mount Tabor.
Transfiguration is an unfolding grace of God in our reality, which requires of us to be prepared and open, in order to perceive and welcome this mystery. Jesus, Peter, James, and John had to remove themselves from their community and go on Mount Tabor. We live in an era of many opportunities, distractions and inner fragmentations, in which is it is difficult to sense sometimes the uncreated energies of God. Although we can be alone at home, through computer, Facebook, twitter, instagram, and emails we are constantly connected and bombarded with information. Sometimes we even become too busy with words and thoughts while we are praying, and therefore our minds are neither quiet, nor open to God.
We too will benefit by removing ourselves at times from the world, but going on Mount Tabor could look differently in our 21st century. It could be a formal retreat or as simple as turning off electronics and going into a quiet space in our house, our office, or in nature. My invitation today for us is to cultivate this openness and quietness on a daily basis so we can become an open vessel for God, allowing His mysterious essence and energies to move us and surprise us. During this Lenten season let us all be open and surprised every day by the possibility of Transfiguration in our lives. Amin