. . . and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as snow and behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish I will make three booths here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Mt 17.1–92, see also Mk 9.1–9; Lk 9.28–36; 2 Pet 1.16–18).
Transfiguration. Sounds painful, maybe grotesque. What does it mean exactly? According to Websters, it means “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.
To transfigure is to go across or beyond the figure, the form. One of the key feast days in Eastern Orthodox worship. It celebrates the revelation of Christ on Mount Tabor in His true form, the Uncreated Light of His Divinity. Christ reveals Himself to three current disciples, John, James and Peter and to two Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elija in a way joining the past and the present as witness to His majesty. Like the parallel event, the Alpha, in the Theophany when Christ started His ministry and was proclaimed as the God-Man, the Transfiguration, the Omega, reiterates this same truth: that He is the living incarnation of God living among men in the flesh. The Transfiguration reveals the kalos, the beauty and glory that this man is not just a man trapped in a body but God incarnate. The Uncreated Light that shines from Christ is so brilliant the apostles have to shield their eyes. It is not insignificant that only three were invited for the showing.
The Transfiguration has much to offer an artist struggling to see. First, Christ Transfigured radiates with a light that is sacramental and beyond human perception. But it is this Light that allows the soul to know and perceive the world in a totally different way. It is only through His Light that we are able to see light. The uncreated light from the glimpse I caught when I witnessed it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was so different from anything I have witnessed. This light reveals things and penetrates the soul to the point that it recasts or recreates them. Once you witness the Uncreated Light the world you see changes; charged with the glow of the divine. Indeed, heaven opens up and you are able to see it right there in front of you. It changes your eyes, if you can stand it without going blind. To see God even under a shade even for a moment is so transformative, it transfigures you. I remember standing on the rooftop of the hotel we had been staying with my mother taking in the domed and jigsawed rooftops of the Old City, the ecstatic gonging of the bells of the Holy Sepulchre, the shouts of pilgrims from the streets—“Christ is Risen! Christos Voskresni! Xristos Anesti!”the zigzagging of doves through the blazing blue sky on that glorious day of Christ’s Resurrection, and it was as if my soul would explode within me pulsating with a thousand rays of light. That light that bathed the sky and all I saw that day so brilliant, so glorious—it had been transfigured. I saw the beauty, the goodness, the hope, when only just yesterday plunged into despair, on a cocktail of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers, I had seen it as just another skyline.
Second, the Transfiguration brings up questions of seeing. It is the job of an Orthodox artist not to capture objects and people as they are, but also to transfigure them, to go beyond the flesh and reveal the spirit. This is a tall order of course. It is a fine tingling line to draw between the real and the ideal. Many times I ask myself if what I see is really what is there and not what I want to be there. Artists have a responsibility to capture the essence of the object or subject as it is in itself, but most artists put themselves and their vision In their work. How I paint the world is as much a reflection of me as it is of the world itself. You can’t separate the painter from the painting. An Orthodox artist has to put her soul in order so that she can transmit the kalos. To reveal God as He really is not as she would want Him. It is important to realize that God is a mystery, an entity in and of Himself that is separate from humankind’s depiction of Him. In fact, it might be impossible for humanity to ever depict God in all His facets. (I object to any depictions of God, even in icons).
Lastly, Christ’s Transfiguration serves an artist by reminding her that to be invited to see that great spectacle and unveiling, she must be pure enough to receive the Light. Two people can look upon the same thing and one see so much detail while the other sees none. Not many are deemed worthy to see the Uncreated Light of Christ (eight disciples were left to sleep on the slopes of Mt Tabor.) To be an artist in the Christian tradition means one must struggle with the passions and the darkness in one’s own soul. She must clean the windows for the light to enter. As such, the Transfiguration gives me hope that one day we will be able to give witness to the beauty which is the good. As one of my favorite lines in Psalm 17 says, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” This is the purpose of our lives, to become living icons of God.
Lord, may we be deemed worthy to witness the Uncreated Light of your divinity. May we be bathed in Your vivifying Light so that we might see the beauty which is the good in ourselves and our world. May we be transfigured so we might be blessed to gaze upon the beauty of Thy countenance.