Ripe for Metamorphosis: The Great Feast of Transfiguration

Ripe for Metamorphosis

Transfiguration is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church.

It comes forty days before the Elevation of the Holy Cross, and is the next-to-last feast of the ecclesiastical year. In this feast we are reminded of our calling as Christians: to be transfigured, to mature into ripened fruit, and to be glorified in Christ.

It is no coincidence that blessing grapes often accompanies this festal celebration. In places where grapes are not readily available, other fruit such as apples are used. This ceremony originates in the Christian Roman Empire’s blessing of first fruits in the seventh century, as the Patriarch of Constantinople would aid in the blessing and distribution to the people.

Following the Divine Liturgy for this feast day, the priest prays regarding the grapes:

Bless, O Lord, this new fruit of the vine, which Thou hast been well-pleased to bring to full ripeness through temperate seasons, showers of rain, and calm weather, that we who partake thereof may be filled with joy; and upon those who offer this fruit of the vine for use at Thy Holy Table, may it confer forgiveness of sins, through the sacred and holy Body and Blood of Thy Christ, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.

In this prayer, we are reminded that the ripeness of fruit does not come automatically. The hands of a farmer’s labor must be blessed by the abundance of God. The work of men is combined with the work of God in creation: temperate seasons, plentiful rain, and the right amount of sun. It is synergy, and the grape symbolizes our own maturity or “ripeness” as glorified Christians.

As the Church is the true vine of Christ, we are only able to mature into ripe images of God by drawing life and energy from him. A grape cannot survive apart from the vine, nor can it ripen on its own. There is a necessary cooperation. These blessed and ripened grapes are then transfigured into wine, which is given back to us from Christ as His true blood and life.

When Jesus tells the young man (Mat. 19:21) to sell all that he has and give it to the poor in order to be “perfect,” (τέλειος), he is not speaking about some sort of legalistic debt or mere moralism. Rather, this τέλειος or becoming perfect is a way of telling both him and us to live up to the highest standard; to live up to our true likeness as images of God. In other words, to become like the God-Man himself, for this is our true calling. The surest path towards this achievement is in self-sacrifice and living not for ourselves, but for others. A grape that has ripened is τέλειος. It is perfect. It has achieved its highest calling in this age, and is ready for the next.

When a person becomes ripe in faith, they are ripe for transfiguration, for μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis). Transfiguration refers also to a process we observe in nature, as when a caterpillar emerges from a cocoon as a matured butterfly. Given enough time—and once the proper process has taken place—the former worm is now a beautiful, transformed creature. Similarly, as a Christian devotes their energies to a more perfect union with God, this struggle and overcoming of sin—this cooperation or synergy between the person and the energies of God (Phil. 2:12)—is what leads to our glorification (Mat. 17:2).

Just prior to his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Christ tells his disciples that “some standing here . . . will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Mat. 16:28). The ascetic and life-giving journey is what leads to one’s experience of the kingdom of God and a trans-formative union with the Son of Man. Peter, James, and John could personally attest to this revelation of the kingdom. Others, such as St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Seraphim of Sarov have experienced transfiguration on this side of the age to come. They became in themselves an apocalypse where the barrier between heaven and earth breaks down, or “thin places” as in ancient Celtic spirituality.

While not everyone will experience the fullness of glorification in this present, evil age, the calling and glory is nevertheless offered to all Christians without discrimination. Glorification is not something reserved only for the Saints on our calendar. Just as some grapes ripen before others, we can all experience the fullness of God’s kingdom in our own time, as we struggle from this life to the next; as we devote our lives and efforts to the service of Christ and his reign. As we work with the Holy Spirit in our lives, seeking to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14), we can become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

Theosis is a journey of becoming tabernacles fit for the Holy Spirit, as Peter discerned from his experience on the mountain (2 Pet. 1:13-18)—and this is one of the reasons why the feast of Transfiguration has replaced the Jewish festival of Tabernacles. In acquiring the Holy Spirit, a person shines with uncreated light and is transformed into a fully-ripened and mature image of God. A person created according to the image and likeness of God.

And as Christ promised his followers:

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. —Matthew 13:43

Comments

  1. Marc says

    Thanks for another illuminating post Gabe. The Feast of Tabernacles has many facets of meaning fulfilled by our Lord Jesus Christ. You hit on some of them regarding the Transfiguration. The high mountain of the Transfiguration is more likely to have been Mount Herman, than Mount Tabor due to the considerable difference in elevation and the proximity of Mount Herman to Caesarea Phillippi (see Matthew 16:13). The Transfiguration itself probably did not happen on the Feast of Tabernacles because the Lord would have been in Jerusalem at that time.

    • says

      Thanks, Marc.

      I think Orthodox Tradition is fairly unanimous in the transfiguration occurring on Mount Tabor, not only in our hymns and services, but also in the Fathers.

      I don’t think the transfiguration occurred on the same day as Tabernacles, but it is certainly now celebrated as a fulfillment of such. As you said, they would’ve definitely been at the Temple (as John’s Gospel often records Jesus’ presence for these great feasts).

      • Marc says

        Gabe,

        You are correct about Mt. Tabor being the traditional location of the Transfiguration since St. Helena had a Church built there in the fourth century. It is also of interest that Transfiguration was first celebrated on the second Sunday of Lent, forty days before the Crucifixion, but later moved to August 6th for many of the reasons you touched on in your post.

        Regarding the fulfillment of Old Covenant Holy Days by our Lord’s actions, it is pretty much complete. He was probably born on the Feast of Trumpets in 2 BC., thus being conceived on December 25th of the previous year, and proclaimed the King of the Jews by the wise men from the East on December 25th of His birth year. He was probably Baptized on the Day of Atonement in AD. 29. His actions fulfilled the symbols of the two goats taking away the sins of the people. The Lord’s Transfiguration clearly fulfill many of the facets of the Feast of Tabernacles. His Crucifixion at Passover fulfilled all the blood sacrifices of the Old Covenant Holy Days. His resting in the tomb on Saturday fulfilled the Sabbath. His Resurrection on the Feast of First Fruits fulfilled the beginning of the resurrection harvest. He sent the Holy Spirit to His Church fulfilling the the first fruits of the wheat harvest by initiating the First and Spiritual Resurrection of His Church. I suspect that the remaining facet of the General Resurrection yet to be fulfilled in the Feast of Tabernacles, may indeed take place during the harvest season between the Feast of Transfiguration on August 6th, and the Feast of Tabernacles in late September to mid October in the year of our Lord’s choosing.

  2. sharon says

    this is my first major Feast day since coming to Orthodoxy and it has been especially meaningful to me because of the theology seen in your article (which I’ve been reading in other places as well this week) so I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your articles ; they are certainly timely and help me stay on course . An ascetic Christianity is new to me, and it is hard and wonderful at the same time.

  3. Marc says

    Gabe,

    Do you know when the Orthodox Church moved the Feast of Transfiguration from Lent to August 6th? I have only been able to find a Roman Catholic explanation that the Pope made the change in 1456 to celebrate a Christian victory over the Turks at Belgrade on August 6th of that year.