In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The story of the Transfiguration takes place, as tradition and scholarship both suggest, at the time of the Jewish Festival of Booths. The Festival of Booths was both a festival of harvest or ingathering, when people brought the first-fruits of their fields as an offering to God, and time of remembrance. The people would make little booths out of mud and sticks, the kind of thing you could knock together in an afternoon if you knew what you were doing, and shelter in them for the week of the festival. Recalling the tents they dwelt in after escaping Egypt but before entering the Promised Land. In this way, the Transfiguration is connected to the story of the Exodus. This connection is further underscored by the fact that in the Gospel reading for Matins we hear that Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his coming exodus, though the English translation often says “decease” or “departure” instead. But notice here an interesting reversal. In the Old Testament The exodus from Egypt comes first and Moses’ receiving of the law and shining with divine glory come later. Here the law and the glory are present before the exodus, which is Jesus’ passage through death and hell to the right hand of the Father. Why is that? Remember that what happens in the Old Testament is a type or foreshadowing of what was to come in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To say this another way, the Old Testament tells us something, and something important, about the meaning of Christ’s saving work but does not exhaust or circumscribe it. There is something new to be learned here. And the fact that the order is reversed points us to that something. That the glory of God is revealed in the flesh of the man, Christ, prior to his descent into Hades recalls the words from Melito of Sardis’ Paschal poem; Hell took a man and met God below. It is the presence of divine life in the flesh of Christ that makes him a stranger to corruption and it is that divine life which overcomes the power of death. The new lesson for us here is clear. If we are going to come after Him then we will need that same divine life dwelling in our flesh at the hour of our departure from this world. We need the glory before we can cross the water.
It is important to understand that sharing in this glory, the uncreated light of God, isn’t just for monks or ascetics. It isn’t like a secret menu item for those special souls who know what to ask for. This glory belongs to all Orthodox Christians. It is nothing other than the divine life of God in us; the Holy Spirit. How do we acquire this gift? St. Athanasius very clearly connects the glory of God with his crucifixion and death. We enter into that glory-bearing death, acquiring by grace, the same glory He possessed rightfully as the Word of God, in baptism. (Col. 2:12) Recall also the Apostle Paul’s words elsewere: If we suffer with him we shall reign with him, (II Tim. 2:12) and, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:5) Truly, because of our baptism we now hold this treasure in earthen vessels. (II Cor. 4:17) The fact that we do not see this light or shine outwardly with it, as Christ and some of the saints have done, does not mean it isn’t there. It may mean we are hiding it under a bushel, “veiled” as St. Gregory the Theologian says, by an excess of worldly cares and concerns. But the glory is buried in our hearts despite our unworthiness and we will have to give account on that Last and Great Day for our stewardship of it. (Mt. 25:14-30) And so we come full circle: The Festival of Booths, the Transfiguration, this Liturgy.
We are folded in to the one story of God’s people. The Transfiguration not only connects us to the Exodus of old, it illuminates the meaning of Christ’s exodus, which, in turn, prepares us for our own. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle Paul says that He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… (I Cor. 15:20) The ingathering of the harvest of the Kingdom of Heaven has begun and though we are still making our tents in a foreign land we are a part of it. God’s blood runs thick in our veins, his light burns in our hearts, so that when the pledge of our baptism is fulfilled in earnest, and we die a mortal death, we will likewise be raised to an immortal life by the power of Jesus Christ. You have the glory. Are you ready to cross the water?