You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Your everlasting
Light also shine upon us sinners.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos,
O Giver of Light, glory to You!
(Troparion for Transfiguration—Tone 7)
During my Seminary days, walking into Chapel meant walking by, detouring around, the Icon of the Transfiguration. It was open on the back of a large Gothic Lesson lectern, standing in the wrought-iron entranceway to the quire in chapel, where we all sat to worship antiphonally. Day in and day out, greeting the icon and venerating it was part of my day, twice a day—even if, in my haste, I only saw Christ’s feet most of the time, as I bow with the Apostles. This simple gesture of faith was one of the ways we witnessed to our personal piety; and even, how we discovered other like-minded friends in each new class of students. I was actually there longer than most, because I worked on staff as a librarian for fifteen years and enjoyed the Divine Office, ordering my day with Scripture and praise through all of it. The sides of the icon were closed during the season of Lent; and seeing it reappear again in Easter Week, it was surprising how sweetly exhilarating it was to be bathed in its divine light again.
The light of the Transfiguration icon teaches us, as I kiss the feet of the Savior day after day, that Jesus Christ well-beloved by His Father in heaven, is always present, radiating glory into the complicated corners of our lives—not just on the feast-day, but every day. Indeed, the true astonishment about the Transfiguration scene with Jesus is that, in that moment, the Apostles are finally able to see the glory that Jesus always radiated; they are ready now in the progress of their faith to humbly receive it and participate in it.
As Gregory Palamas explains it: “The light, then, became accessible to their eyes…this mysterious light, inaccessible, immaterial, uncreated, deifying, eternal, this radiance of the Divine Nature, this glory of the divinity, this beauty of the heavenly kingdom, is at once accessible to sense perception and yet transcends it” (The Triads 3.1.22, N. Grendle, trans., 1983, 790). And in that flash of transcendent clarity, however momentary, we share a glimpse of eternity. Vladimir Lossky observes as well that, since “Christ appears coming in the glory of the future age, the Transfiguration was the anticipation of His glorious second coming, the moment which opened a perspective of eternity in time” (The Meaning of Icons, 1989, 212).
So, did we get all that, just kissing the icon?—probably not. But I will tell you that, leaning down to kiss the feet of Christ, I do experience the sense of joining with the Apostles below; entering, even for a moment, into the eternal truth that is revealed. Prostrating in adoration, we are all gazing up, the Apostles and I, energized by the transcendent Savior, in a glimpse of astonishing Beauty so extravagant that Moses and Elijah are invoked and embodied, sharing wisdom beside him.
Now, retired, and enjoying the precious luxury to work each day crafting lectures and sermons, I look up, across my studio, to the top of a bookcase, at an icon of Christ Pantokrator (shown below), which I continually venerate as the Transfiguration Christ figure, even though He is enthroned in Byzantine majesty. It illuminates my work, day in and day out, with glimpses of the heavenly radiance of the Savior. Christ’s glory is lighting the way forward, the ordinary plowing-forward of my life doing theology, reminding me—in moments of laziness or lust or self-advertisement or depression—that the loving and redemptive presence of the Lord stands ever before me, his blinding glory lighting the way, especially in my prayer and repentance and praise.
The Studio One Christ Icon was “written” in the 1980’s in St. Petersburg by a husband-and-wife team of iconographers whom I visited on pilgrimage and commissioned. The Savior is crowned with the distinctive cross-halo inscribed with Greek words HO and ON meaning “who is,” found in Rev. 1:8 and again in Ex. 3:14. The folds of his garment glisten with “assisting,” gold signifying reflected divine light. Christ’s transcendent glory is displayed simultaneously bursting through three layers of shape and texture. Red diamond-shaped ground lies beneath a green mandorla; both are veiled by a rosy translucent membrane stretched over the rectangular shape of the icon. It is filled with flashes of radiated light while gold “assisting” luminously depicts archangel praise bursting forth from Him in fiery shards, just as Pseudo-Dionysius describes: “Having glimpsed his divinity with angelic eyes,” they radiate away from his countenance, reflecting “a transcendent understanding of God’s work” (Cel. Hier 4, PG 3.180A, 208C, trans. C. Luibheid, 1987, 156, 164).
The Word of God is open on Christ’s knee as he blesses with His right hand. The Scripture text is a fragment of John 8:12: “I am the light of the world, He who follows me will not walk in darkness,” written in elegant Slavonic lettering. The green mandorla in the icon is an unusual shape, pointed on top and rounded on the bottom; and, within it winged cherubim hover in flight, attending his radiance. They seem at once to both crowd around and burst forth from the presence of the Christ figure. The seraphim nearest to him hide their faces and are barely visible for the intensity of fiery light on their wings reflected in the radiance of the face of Jesus. Careful inspection reveals fragments of several more angels peeking around the edges of the throne.
Day in and day out—in those rare exalted moments of inspiration; but, navigating as well all the times of lesser daily productivity—I glance up at Christ’s face and pray toward his blessing hand, in little rushes of gratitude for moments of gifted creativity; but frankly, just pleading for mercy most of the rest of the time. I can’t see the Apostles, prostrating in awe and wonder. Yet I must confess, I still think of it as a Transfiguration icon, like the one at Seminary, because of the good fortune that I am allowed to see the Savior in glory. And in moments of prayer, I am the awe-struck apostle squinting up from below. I am the one bowing in adoration. I am the one, the apostle naïvely begging for the ineffable pleasure of the moment to last—and dazed in gratitude to remember it afterward.
Of course, the divine gift of Transfiguration isn’t all about bright cloud and light; for as John McGuckin reminds us: “As soon as the voice of God has revealed the truth—that the disciples must listen to the Son’s difficult teaching—all the phenomenal seeing is suddenly evaporated. It all disappears in an instant, almost as if to underline that the Word remains” (“Ambivalence of Seeing the Divine,” in Collected Studies, I, 170). And so it is with us. We must carry on with the message of Jesus in our hearts and the memory of his transfigured glory. It may lead us to surprising places in the depth of our souls, where the only response is to continually cry out for mercy so that the Lord can lead us and transform us; purify us and deploy us for God’s work.
O, lead us, sweet luminous Savior:
“Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
Up to the farthest, highest peak of mystic Scripture,
Where the mysteries of God’s Word
Lie simple, absolute and unchangeable.”
(Ps.-Dion., Mys. Theo. 1, PG3.997A)
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.