Today marks a turning point in the liturgical calendar as the last Sunday before Lent. And today we remember the story of the Transfiguration (whose main feast is in August). For me, it’s the perfect story to think about at this time of year, to mark this transition between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent.
The metaphor of light for our salvation or sanctification (for more Protestant-minded readers) is unquestionably one I return to often. I come by it honestly, since the theologians who have had the greatest influence on my thought and practice — men like St Maximus the Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Gregory Palamas, and their twentieth-century interpreters, such as John Meyendorff, Vladimir Lossky, and Olivier Clement — are all in the lineage of the Theology of Light of the Eastern Church.
And so, I’ve written on this theme many times. And all of these variation on this theme come back to me today. I’ve written about how Lent is not a dark season, but about turning the light of God inwards, exposing the darkest, shadowiest parts of our hearts and minds to God’s light. I’ve written about how the Transfiguration represents the capacity of our human bodies and souls to bear to overflowing the presence and glory of God, and to shine that divine light out into the world. And just the other day, I referenced the Transfiguration as the blueprint of the life of faith, a life that is not about rejecting the world (and far less rejecting our bodies) but about transfiguring it, about uniting the spiritual and material, the divine and the human into a beautiful, hyper-saturated, whole.
The ancient Christian maxim still stands: We become by grace all that Christ is by nature. He is the Light of the world; we are therefore also the light of the world. God is an all-consuming fire, and as we approach God — with faith and love and fear and trembling — we too catch fire, becoming all flame, and shine his light into the world.
And so, as we reach the end of the season of Epiphany — the season when we remember all the ways that God’s light has shone out into the world in Jesus — we also remember that this is our calling and our challenge: that we too must shine out into the world with God’s light, must be God’s light for the world. We too must be transfigured in order to participate in God’s transfiguration of the whole of creation:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5.14ff)
I want to end these brief thoughts today with a prayer from the end of on of St Gregory Palamas’ homilies on the Transfiguration, a fitting prayer for us today and as we transition into Lent this week:
Let us, considering the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord … strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty of God, purifying our spiritual eyes of the things of this world, perishing and quickly passing, which darken the garb of the soul and lead to the fire that is everlasting darkness. Let us be freed from these by the illumination and knowledge of the glorious and ever-existing Light of our Savior transfigured on the Mountain, in His Glory, and of His Father from all eternity, and His Life-Creating Spirit, Who are One Radiance, One Godhead, and Glory, and Kingdom, and Power now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
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