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…
and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5).
What is the human being
If we attempt to understand what a human being is based on empirical observations of his constitutionality, behavior and characteristics, we will arrive at an incomplete and distorted picture. It would be better to ask, “What is the potentiality of the human being?” Yes, this is what the human being is, not what it is but what it can be. Just as when we look at an infant we envision what it will be when it grows up, so with every human being; we reflect on what it might be when it becomes what it can be. The human potentiality is not theoretical and abstract, because it has been fully realized, and we see it in Christ Jesus.
On Mount Tabor Christ showed us His transfigured humanity, and at the same time He showed us our potentiality. The third Sticheron Idiomelon of the Feast says:
“O Lord, when You were transfigured on a high mountain in the presence of Your foremost disciples, You radiated with glory, showing how those who lead an outstanding life of virtue will be made worthy of the glory of heaven.”
Therefore, today, in the transfigured Christ, we see the potentiality of the human being in its highest degree attainable, a perfect human being, a model for each and every one of us. The glory of Mount Tabor is available
“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom. 2:7).
Now, through Christ, His glory is available to everyone
“and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).
The Fathers teach that in order to be able to ascend to God we must purify our senses and our heart from the passions and cleanse our mind (nous) from all earthly and mundane thoughts, as we chant in the Cherubic Hymn, or else we will not be able to comprehend the mysteries of God (cf. Lk. 8:10) and reach the theoria (vision) of God. The Saints are those who have arrived at the vision of God, and thus have reached their potentiality–perfection, union with God, which is the goal and purpose of life of all of us. The Saints are the complete human beings.
“When a person’s heart is cleansed he becomes more sociable, balanced. He behaves properly within society, because his selfishness has given way to love for God and love for man. Selfish love is transformed into unselfish love… Thus, when selfish love is changed into unselfish love, one speaks of the person as having become a real human being. And it is this transformation which is considered the cure of man.”1
A static view of man
While this is the teaching of the Church concerning man’s ascent to achieve a transfigured life, unfortunately far from engaging in a struggle to achieve his potentiality, man dismisses it, accepting himself for what he is. There is nothing to achieve, there is no potentiality. The potentiality is a static “me.” The genes made me, and, if not, society is to be blamed. This is the new norm: I am what I am–without apologies, without excuses–in fact with some (unwarranted) pride. Homosexuality, gluttony, obesity, alcoholism, drug dependency—any unnatural physical and mental tendency, any moral depravity and uncontrollable passion we might have—are now accepted and tolerated by our permissive society.
Is man only matter?
With our science we have exempted the human being from all responsibility to himself and to society, from any accountability of his actions, since we have accepted that he can make very few choices, and what he is and what he can achieve are “programmed” in his genes. We have come to believe that a human being is only quantitatively higher among the primates, and in essence no different than inorganic matter, which is constituted of the same basic elements of existence.
Modern biology managed to deprive the human being of his volition, and thus of any possibility of change and transformation. With the human genome decoded there are no longer any “secrets” with the human being. To understand ourselves and our potentiality we can analyze our chromosomes and the genetic code of the human being—and we should do that. We caution the researcher, however, that such an examination will not yield findings that will reveal what the human being is, any more than a chemical analysis of the paints used by Monet reveal his artistry to us.
Discover our potentiality
In the midst of our insolence and most despicable behavior, in our utter alienation from God, we should still be able to see our potentiality for “high flights”, for redemption,
“for transformation and radical change on both the moral and religious levels [of] the very people who by their own low spiritual condition simply tend to frustrate any attempt at transformation.” 2
We must reorient ourselves, discover our potentialities, and pursue the life for which God has destined us: to behold His glory. The transfigured life is not the privilege of a few predestined, “lucky” souls. It is the potentiality of everyone, though in actuality, it is realized only by those very few who want it, desire it, strive eagerly for it,
“with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength (cf. Mk. 12:30).
Our cooperation for a transfigured life
The Lord revealed Himself in His glory to His disciples, “as they could bear it,”3 in order to strengthen them before His upcoming suffering. We too should gaze upon the glory of the transfigured Lord, at the glory of our transfigured human nature, whenever the vicissitudes of life beset us, whenever doubts creep up in our minds, whenever darkness and gloom envelop us. The glory of the transfigured Lord, the theosis of our nature, should give us hope and strength to continue the arduous climb towards the transfigured life. But let us understand one thing clearly: Transfiguration does not happen in a vacuum, without our cooperation—though ultimately it is a unique gift of God’s ineffable love for us. We would be sorely mistaken if we were to believe that such a change would be as natural of a process as the transformation of the larva into a butterfly. We must
- exhibit the will
- equally show the effort
- and produce the results
To share the glory of God we need to “ascend” the mountain.
“Living within the Church by grace, man must first cleanse his heart of the passions; attain the illumination of the nous—Adam’s state before the Fall—and then ascend to theosis, which constituted man’s communion and union with God and is identified with salvation. These are the steps of spiritual perfection—the foundations of Orthodox spirituality.”4
As we’ve seen the steps of Christian perfection are three:
- With God’s grace man should repent and cleanse his heart of the passions — stage of purification
- Attain illumination of his mind — stage of illumination, and then
- Reach the stage of “theosis,” or deification, that is union with God.
Salvation is transfiguration
Salvation is for us, Orthodox Christians:
“A radical transformation of ἄνθρωπος [the human being] wrought by the grace of God”.5
Let us take courage, my friends, for, as St. John Chrysostom says,
“Christ did not take another flesh but this very one beset with troubles.”6
It is the same, crucified and suffering flesh which shone more brilliantly than the sun, in the splendor of the uncreated light. In Christ, the goal of theosis is complete, perfect. In Christ, the entire human nature has achieved union with God. With Christ and in Christ the path is cleared for the entire human race to follow on His footsteps.
Isn’t it wonderful, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, wonderful beyond our wildest imagination, that God is sharing with us the riches of His gifts with His lowly creation?
“To make known the riches of His glory for the objects of mercy.” (Rom. 9:23)
Humanity has been on the quest of the elixir of perennial youth. Today serious efforts are being made through genetic engineering to preserve and prolong the human life. Yet this has been achieved by Christ and we ignore it and spurn it. It’s here on Mount Tabor, free for our taking. Together with Christ and in Christ we too can be the same today and always, as
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8).
Sharers of Christ’s eternity
What is the human being? a creature denigrated, scoffed at, brought down to the level of primates, stripped of its dignity, honor and divine call and, therefore, deprived of the gentlest and noblest aspects of its humanness? What has the human being been reduced to in our technological and technocratic age? a machine? a random encounter of molecules and genes, a total sum of parts?
My dear fellow Christians: beyond the changing, fleeting, corrupt realm subject to our senses, lies a spiritual, incorrupt reality, the crown and glory of which is the deified human nature of the Theanthropos Jesus Christ. In Him we realize our potentiality. In Him we realize our perfect state. May we pursue it and attain it with God’s grace. Amen.
- Archim. [now Metropolitan] Ierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Spirituality: A Brief Introduction, p. 64).
- Metropolitan Demetrios, Being Transformed: Chrysostom’s Exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans, p. 5). Translation slightly edited.
- Kontakion of Holy Transfiguration
You were transfigured upon the mountain
and Your disciples as they could bear it
Your glory, O Christ our true God, contemplated;
so that when they would see You on the Cross, O Lord,
they would know that You suffered on Your own free will
and proclaim to the Universe
that You are most truly, Word Divine,
of the Father the Splendor.
- Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos, o.c., p. 44.
- o.c., p. 14.
- On Romans, Homily 13; PG 60.514, in o.c., p. 15.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis