Feast of the Transfiguration (Old-Style)

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
“We were Eyewitnesses of His Majesty”
Feast of the Transfiguration (Old-Style)
19 August, 2008
2 Peter 1:10-19 ; Matthew 17:1-9

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We will generally discover while we are passing through life, as we gain experience in life, that things are generally not exactly as they appear to be. That is especially the case with people. The difficulty for us is that, when we pay too much attention to the fact that appearances can be deceiving, it then seems to us that our experience is in fact most often negative. By this, I mean that people will often present themselves to be very good ; but after a time, we find out details of their lives which are not so good. Perhaps the details are even rather bad. On the one hand, the difficulty lies in how people are presenting themselves. On the other hand, the difficulty lies in how we respond to the presentation and to the details which reveal variances from the presentation.

Human beings, being sensitive creatures and easily hurt, very quickly begin to assume that just because things (and especially human beings) are not as they appear, then inevitably the hidden part is not so good. This is not by any means always the case. There are many times in my life when I have encountered people who, at first appearance, I thought were sort of “questionable”, or strange. Then, after I got to know them, I found out that I was completely “out to lunch” in my assessment. In fact, these people were actually rather good people, and very faithful, God-loving and stable people. Of course, when it comes down to how other people assess us, we Orthodox people often find ourselves being in this category of strange people. Why is this the case ?

This is the case because Orthodox people, by their way of life, try to take seriously the Gospel. They try to live in accordance with the principles of the love of Jesus Christ. They try to be hospitable. Now, of course, concerning this, I have to tell you an anecdote from my recent visit to Romania. I was taught by some Romanian monks last month that there is such a thing as “Orthodox terrorism”. It may not be immediately clear what this “terrorism” is, so I will say what it is. The “terrorism” is the table. It is hospitality. When I told this story to a Lebanese bishop at a meeting in Kyiv following my visit to Romania, he responded : “Yes, that is very much so ; in Arabic there is a saying that there is a love that kills. We ‘terrorise’ each other with love, food, hospitality and kindness. It is not so bad as all that” (although sometimes it can be rather bad for the blood pressure and for excess baggage).

We are a little strange in the eyes of people in the world (and sometimes quite strange) because the way we react to situations and people is not always the way of the world. If it is not the way of the world, I, as a bishop would say : “Glory to God”. The way of the world is the way of fallenness ; it is the way of darkness, and in the end, it is the way of death. The way of Christ, the way of the Gospel is the way of light. It is the way of life. It is the way of joy. It is the way of peace. We should not really fit into the way of the world. It would be a nice surprise for people when they find out that even though we might be odd, we Orthodox Christians are not so bad, after all. I think that actually, we all have concrete experience of this, especially in today’s Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ.

People had all sorts of ideas about Who is Christ. They had all sorts of expectations (especially those who thought that He was the Messiah). Of course, they were right. He is the Messiah. However, they thought that He was going to establish a political kingdom. They thought that He was going to overthrow those nasty Romans that were oppressing them. He was going to make Judaism the religion of the whole world. Everything was going to be cleaned up — just like that. People expected that it would all be done by force, because they were translating their expectations into worldly ways, based on their previous experience. How do earthly kings act except with violence and oppression ? No matter what their good intentions are, worldly kings end up always wielding violence. It is a sad thing.

Nevertheless, the people had to understand Who is this Christ, and what the implications are about our life and all creation because of Who He is. Ultimately, the only way that they were going to understand was through the witness of the apostles, just as the Apostle Peter says today : “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty”. He, himself, and the Apostles James and John were eyewitnesses of these Events on Mount Tabor. What were these Events ? We just participated in them with those three apostles. Our Saviour stands on the top of the mountain and He allows the three apostles to see Who He is. He shines with the brightness of the sun. We get an idea of why it is that Moses, when he encountered the Lord, was shining so brightly that he had to put a veil over himself when he came down from Mount Sinai after receiving the Law. He was shining so brightly with the uncreated light of the Grace of God that people could not bear to look at him.

Thus it was that on Mount Tabor today, the apostles, encountering that same light, fell on their faces because they could not bear the intensity of it. Standing with them in the presence of Christ, were (appropriately) the Prophet Moses and the Prophet Elias, and they were speaking with each other. We hear once again the Lord’s voice coming from heaven, the voice of God, the Father, saying : “This is My beloved Son”. We have heard this previously during the Baptism of Christ in January. Standing there on the top of the mountain, our Lord reveals Who He is. He and the apostles then go down from this mountain, and they immediately apply that experience of the love of God to people who are in need. This is always the way of Christ. When we encounter the Lord in His love, He always sends us to share it.

This has been the experience of hermits in our Church for the past 2,000 years. Saint Anthony the Great in Egypt, the first great hermit that we know of, and that is written about, withdrew into the desert. He encountered the Lord and was filled with the love of the Lord. What happened ? All sorts of people came to live with him so that they could encounter the same love, and encounter the same Lord, and grow up into Christ as he had been doing. What did he do ? He tried to run away, but it did not do any good. The same thing happens with saint after saint in our history. They go off by themselves, and they hide by themselves as best they can to be with the Lord. The Lord comes to them, fills them with His love, and then He says, as it were : “All right, share it”. He sends person after person to them so that they can be His hands and His feet and His mouth to help the one in need.

This has always been the way of our Saviour. His love must act. The greatest and the most famous of the more recent saints is Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who had precisely the same experience. There are also the saints of Optina Monastery, and others. It goes on and on, saint after saint. They were filled with the love of God, and the Lord sent people to them. I still remember the stories of saints who thought they would get away from people by living in trees (thus, they were called “dendrites”). Sometimes, they lived on the top of a column or a column-like structure. They built themselves little platforms on the top of columns so people could not get close to them. They lived there on the top of these columns, and so they were called “stylites”. What happened to them ? It did not matter if they lived in a tree or on a column : people came to them, and stood at the bottom, and said : “Help us !” “Pray for us !” Because of love, the saints had to pray for them and help them.

When we are filled with the love of the Lord, the same thing happens to us as happened to them. Always the people who are in need of the fruits of this love come to you and to me, and they say something like : “Help. You know Jesus Christ. You have encountered Jesus Christ. Help me with this love. Pray for me. Bring the Grace of the Lord to me. Help me”. That is what they are saying to you and to me, Orthodox Christians, who also have encountered, along with those three apostles on Mount Tabor, the Grace of the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus Christ. We are going to receive Him very soon, and this little baby waiting for the baptism to be completed is going to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, too, very soon. The Grace of the Holy Spirit is coming to us in the sacraments, and particularly in Holy Communion. We will then, having received this Grace and the refreshment of this love, be expected to reassure, help and strengthen each other. With our neighbours and friends, we will pray for each other, give each other hope, give each other strength, share our joy and our peace which we, along with the apostles, have received.

Let me conclude with this last little anecdote. Some people will likely remember Archbishop Nikolai (Shkrumko) of the Patriarchal Jurisdiction who was bishop in this area a long time ago. When I was visiting him one time, he told me how it was when he was an archimandrite in the Middle East a very long time ago. In those days, he always had to go to Mount Tabor to serve the Liturgy on this feast-day. Always on the Feast of the Transfiguration, at night-time, at the time of the vigil (which would have been last night for us), there are clouds already gathering around the top of Mount Tabor. (At this time of year in Palestine there are no clouds at all – just sun, sun, sun.) The people go into the church on the top of Mount Tabor, and they are praying in the middle of the night. During this time, this cloud, which is not exactly like ordinary clouds (they say it has a different quality of some sort), comes down on top of the mountain. Archbishop Nikolai says that instead of bringing all their fruit into the church, the people leave it outside. The cloud comes down, and when they come out of the church in the early morning, everything is all wet. The people understand that God, Himself, has blessed their fruit. Indeed, there are also reports that one can actually feel the special texture of the clouds that thus descend on the mountain. This happens every year. I heard about this from someone who just came back from Mount Tabor (who was there on the new calendar date). In fact, this phenomenon is happening on both the old and new calendar dates. The Lord does not seem to care too much about on which calendar the feast is observed. Rather, He cares about us, and He constantly reassures us with His love. He does many things such as this. For instance, there is the Holy Fire that comes every year at Pascha in Jerusalem. The Lord does these things in order to reassure us, to encourage us, to give us strength and determination to carry on, knowing that He is with us.

Perhaps you and I will never be on Mount Tabor on this feast. However, we know those who have had the blessing to be there, and we know that the words of today’s Gospel are true. What happened then continues to happen now. The Lord is with us. That is the point. The Lord loves us. He is ready to renew us, and to transform us. Let us do our best to follow the words of Saint Herman of Alaska, who says to us : “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will”, and in so doing, glorify the all-holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.