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; to be glorified in Christ.
It is no coincidence that blessing grapes accompanies this feast. In lands where grapes are not traditionally 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 of the fruit to the commoners.
Following the liturgy for this feast, a priest will pray over 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 just the right amount of sunshine. It is synergy, and the grape symbolizes our own maturity and “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 legalism or vain law-keeping. 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 ultimate 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 life, and is ready for the next.
When a person becomes ripe in faith, they are ripe for transfiguration; for μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis). Transfiguration or metamorphosis refers also to a process we observe in nature, as when a caterpillar emerges from a cocoon as a mature butterfly. Given enough time—and once the proper process has taken place—the once-immature worm becomes a beautiful, transformed creature with wings to fly. Similarly, when a Christian devotes their energies to a more perfect union with God, this struggle and overcoming sin—this cooperation or synergy between the person and the energies of God (Phil. 2:12)—is what leads to our shining like the sun (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 can personally attest to this revelation of the kingdom. Others, such as St. Symeon the New Theologian have personally experienced transfiguration on this side of the resurrection.
While not everyone will experience transfiguration (theosis) in this present, evil age, the calling and glory is nevertheless offered to all Christians without exception. Just as some grapes ripen before others, we may all experience the fullness of the kingdom in our own time, as we struggle from this life to the next; as we devote our lives and our efforts to the service of Christ and his kingdom. If we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, seeking to discern between both good and evil (Heb. 5:14), we will all 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 that uncreated light and is transformed into a fully-ripened and mature image of God; into a person created after both God’s image and likeness.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. —Matthew 13:43