August 6th is the feast of Holy Transfiguration in which the Church celebrates an event in the life of Christ narrated by all three synoptic gospels. Christ foretold His disciples His impending passion, and then after six days revealed His divinity to them in a marvelous way.
The question we want to address here is: Was Christ transformed into something He was not or did He allow the eyes of the three disciples to become receptive to see Him the way He always was?
In the Orthodox understanding, what occurred on Mt. Tabor was not a momentary change from the human form Christ had assumed (which was in every respect like ours) to the form He would assume after His resurrection (as Western scholarship often sees it), because Christ was actually always the same, resplendent with the divine light emanating from His divinizing flesh. He did not appear glorious in a brief transformation of His body, but He was always in His divine glory (John 17:5), which, however, was veiled for those who were unworthy to contemplate it, while others saw it and testified about it (John 1:14).
Christ is Always the Same
The witness of the Fathers of the Church is that Christ’s humanity after His resurrection is not different from what it was before. St. Gregory the Theologian states:
In my view, He will come as He appeared or was manifested to the disciples on the Mountain.1
St. John Damascene as well explicates somewhere what took place:
His holy Body at no time remained deprived of the divine glory. From the moment of the hypostatic union of the two natures, the divine and the human, the body of Christ was enriched with the glory of the invisible divinity.
St. Gregory Palamas elucidates further this understanding, declaring that Christ has one body, one human nature, not three: one at His Transfiguration, another outside His Transfiguration, and yet another after His resurrection. Thus, he states,
when Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was He changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was.2
Elsewhere St. Gregory Palamas returns to the subject stating:
Indeed, not only will Christ be eternally thus in the future, but He was such even before He ascended the Mountain.3
He then adduces St. John Damascene as his witness:
Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality He did not possess previously, nor by changing into something He never was before, but by revealing to His disciples what He truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what He had been before, He appeared to the disciples in His splendor; He is indeed the true light, the radiance of glory.4
St. Gregory Palamas also offers the following comment in the form of a rhetorical question:
Moreover, the transformation of our human nature, its deification and transfiguration—were these not accomplished in Christ from the start, from the moment in which He assumed our nature?5
Then at the end of the following unit he adds:
Therefore Christ possesses this light immutably, or rather, He has always possessed it, and always will have it with Him.6
Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos states:
Christ revealed what He had been concealing, He manifested the glory of the divinity with which His human nature was united from the moment of His conception in the womb of the Theotokos.7
A contemporary theologian also states concisely the Orthodox faith received:
His human nature was glorified from the womb of the Theotokos, but until then it was not shown ... Now for the first time the eyes of the disciples were opened to see what Christ had from the moment of His incarnation. That is, in reality it was not Christ who was transfigured, but the eyes of His disciples, to be able to behold the uncreated light.8
We Need to be Transformed to See Him as He Is
This last statement, i.e. that it was not Christ who was transfigured, but the eyes of His disciples, to be able to behold the uncreated light, is the teaching of St. Maximos the Confessor, who writes:
They passed over from flesh to spirit before they had put aside this fleshly life, by the change in their powers of sense that the Spirit worked in them, lifting the veils of the passions from the intellectual activity that was in them.9
St. Gregory Palamas confirms:
At that moment, the initiate disciples of the Lord ‘passed...from flesh to spirit’ by the transformation of their senses, which the Spirit wrought in them, and so they saw that ineffable light, when and as much as the Holy Spirit’s power granted them to do so.10
Elsewhere he also states that,
He was divine before, but He bestowed at the time of His Transfiguration a divine power upon the eyes of the apostles and enabled them to look up and see for themselves.11
The Agioreitikos Tomos incorporates this teaching of the Orthodox Church:
He is transfigured, not by assuming what He did not possess, nor by changing into what He was not, but by revealing Himself as He was to His disciples, opening their eyes and healing their blindness.12
Therefore the appearance of the Lord in His glory did not add anything to the glory that He possessed since His conception. It was a revelation and a manifestation of His eternal glory, an unveiling of the underlying splendor of His divine body in a way visible to the transformed eyesight of His disciples. The disciples were granted the grace to behold Christ’s glory, veiled oeconomically in the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), in order to carry on the plan of salvation.
Thus we see that for a brief time, the veil was drawn aside, and the disciples were enabled to contemplate the radiance of His glory, “not entirely, so that they may not lose their life together with their eyesight”13 that revealed Him as He truly was.
The Hymnology of the Church
The hymnology of the Church as well declares that the eyes of the disciples were allowed to see on Mount Tabor what was Christ’s habitual or natural appearance. Both the Troparion and the Kontakion of the Feast of Holy Transfiguration mention that the disciples saw as much of Christ’s glory as they could bear.14 Christ lifts up the veil a little so that the disciples would get a glimpse of the glory with which He was surrounded, or rather the glory emanating from His divinizing human body. The purpose of it is stated in the Kontakion: “so that when they would see You on the Cross, they would know that You suffered willingly,” because it was obvious that He was God almighty in the flesh, and therefore if anything would happen to Him, they would know that it would happen voluntarily; only if He would allow it.
It is as if the Lord had told His disciples, “Look at me.” Indeed I am “the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16) you confessed me earlier, confirmed by the voice of my Father, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 17:5) Know then that the Passion is not forced upon me, but I walk voluntarily toward it, to save the lost sheep… This explains why Christ appeared to them in “garments of skin” (Gen. 3:21), the garb of man after the fall, whereas being the “heavenly One” (1 Cor. 15:49) He was always clothed in the splendor of uncreated light.
The glory of the Lord is seen in the iconographic depiction of Holy Transfiguration.15 We see that the light does not come from the outside, but emanates and radiates out of the Light-giver Christ. The light did not appear temporarily, to shine for a time and then fade away. It is the uncreated eternal light, His light, the light of His glory, which always radiates from His “glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
The “cure” of fallen man consists in his participation in the uncreated light that originates from the divine body of Christ. We are all called to resemble Christ, because only then, as a hymn states, “those who attain the height of virtue will also be counted worthy of the divine glory.” (Third Idiomelon of Vespers)
So, was Christ transformed? From the perspective of the three disciples, He was, as from our perspective the sun rises and sets, while remaining the same.
The subject of Christ’s holy Transfiguration is treated together with that of His holy Baptism in Unit 42 (pp. 428-39, particularly in pp. 434-39), of Fr. Emmanuel's book, Jesus: Fallen? The Human Nature of Christ Examined from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective (Orthodox Witness 2013).
- Letter to Cledonius 101.
- hom. in Transfig. 34.13.
- Triads 3.i.15.
- hom. 34.12-13.
- Triads, 3.i.15.
- Triads, 3.i.16.
- “The Transfiguration of Christ” in The Feasts of the Lord, p. 147.
- Meletios Vadrahanis, “What Reveals the Transfiguration of Christ,” Orthodoxos Typos, No. 1890, Aug. 5, 2011.
- To Eutropius 2.10.
- hom. 34.8.
- Triads, 3.i.15.
- PG 150:1232C.
- Third Sticheron of the Lite of the Vespers of August 6.
- The Great Horologion, p. 434.
- See the study The Uncreated Light, An Iconographic Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church by Solrunn Nes, 2007.