Reflecting the Glory of Christ
In the account of the
transfiguration, Jesus is not merely lit up by glory from outside himself, nor
introduced into it. It is his own glory; when the disciples awake they see his
glory (Lk. 9:32). In Matthew too it is
not only the garments of Jesus that are radiant but his face that shines like
the sun. At the moment of the Incarnation, the divine light was concentrated on
Christ, “in whom dwells the whole fullness of the godhead bodily”. That is to say, throughout his earthly life,
Christ always shed forth eh divine light, which however, remained invisible to
most men. The transfiguration was not a
momentary happening: Christ underwent no change at that moment. But a change occurs in the awareness of the 3
apostles who received the ability to see their Master as he was, resplendent in
the eternal light of God. Hilary of
Poitiers says the miracle is rather that for the other days of Jesus’ life he
suppressed the natural radiance of his body.
As Gregory the Great says, “Why be surprised at the radiance of Christ
on Tabor? Everything he ever did was radiant with light.”
The transfiguration of Jesus and of the world
on which he shines is the promise and first installment of the eschatological
transformation of the world as a whole; and for St Paul this truly begins with
living the Christian life--as a reflection of the glory of Christ--in a way
that is both visible and invisible: "All of us gazing on the Lord's glory
with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory in to his very
image by the Lord who is the Spirit" ( 2 Cor 3: 18).
The aim of Christian life for the
early fathers is the acquisition of the Spirit of God, or deification. St Basil described man as a creature who
received the command to become a god; and Athanasius said that God became man
that man might become God. The final goal of every Christian is to attain this
divinization. For the Fathers, it was
another way of expressing salvation and redemption. Behind this lies the idea of man in the image
and likeness of God, and Christ praying that we may share the life of the
Trinity (Jn 17:21); the idea of personal union with God, God dwelling in us and
we in him, is a constant theme of St John's gospel. We also find it in St Paul who sees the
Christian life above all as a life in Christ.
And St Peter in his second letter refers to us becoming partakers of the
divine nature. There is no question
here, of course, of union with the divine essence; we remain creatures while
becoming partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Now this deification is something
that involves the body, as Peter the Venerable tells us the lectionary reading
for the Feast of the Transfiguration: "Today, by the brightness of His
face and clothing, the Word made flesh demonstrates the deification of that
same flesh He united with Himself."
Since man is a unity of body and soul, and since the Incarnate Christ
has redeemed the whole man, it follows that "man's body is deified at the
same time as his soul" (Maximus the Confessor). In that divine likeness which man is called
to realize in himself the body has its place: "You must know that your
body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within. . . ."(1 Cor
6:19); "And now, brothers, I beg
you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy
and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1). The full deification of the body must wait
until the last day, when the inward splendour of it "comes out from
within" (Macarius, V, 9). It is this transfigured Resurrection body which
the icon painter attempts to depict; that's why he deliberately avoids making a
realistic and photographic portrait. To
paint men exactly as they now appear is to paint them in their fallen state, in
their earthly not heavenly bodies.
"Icons," wrote Nicholas Zernov, "were pledges of the coming victory of a
redeemed creation over the fallen one.
The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the
celestial glory; it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original
harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. Icons were part of this transfigured
cosmos" (Russians and their Church).
But even in this present life, some
saints have experienced something of this visible and bodily glorification, “the
overflowing of the soul’s glory into the body, “as St Thomas Aquinas called it,
this foretaste of the Resurrection (Summa, IIIa, 7, 4, ad 2). The face of St Antony, the father of monks, we
are told, "had a great and indescribable charm. . . It was not his stature
or his figure that made him stand out from the rest, but his settled character
and purity of soul. For his soul was unperturbed,
and so his outward appearance was calm.
The joy in his soul expressed itself in the cheerfulness of his face,
and from the body's behaviour one saw and knew the state of his soul"
(Vita 67). One of St Seraphim's "spiritual children" described what
happened on winter day as the two of them were talking together in a forest.
"Why don't you look at me?"
"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because your eyes
are flashing like lightning. Your face
has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you."
"Don't be afraid," he said. "At this very moment you
yourself have become as bright as I am.
You yourself are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you
would not be able to see me as you do. . .don't be afraid; the Lord is with
After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even
greater reverent awe. Imagine in the
centre of the sun, into he dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man
talking to you. You see the movement of
his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel
someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even
see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for
several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow which covers the
forest glade. . .
There are other examples from early
--Abba Arsenius: "A brother came to the cell of Abba
Arsenius at Scetis. Waiting outside the
door he saw the old man entirely like flame. The brother was worthy of this
sight." (Arsenius 27)
--Abba Pambo: "They said of Abba
Pambo that he was like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when
his face shone. His face shone like
lightning and he was like a king sitting on his throne. It was the same with Abba Sylvanus and Abba
Sisoes." (Pambo 12) (cf Sisoes 14; Sylvanus 12).
These stories show how sanctification
includes the body: it is not their souls only, but their bodies which are
transfigured by the grace of God. Nor,
at least in the case of Seraphim and his disciple, can they be said to be in a
state of ecstasy; both can talk in a coherent way and are still conscious of
the outside world, but both are filled with the Spirit; divine light takes
visible form, outwardly transforming the body. The transfiguration fo created nature is a pledge of the new heaven and the new
earth, the entry of the creature into
eternal life, even before death and resurrection.
This lies behind the Church's
reverence for relics, because the body is sanctified, transfigured with the
soul. The grace of God present in the
saint's body during life remains active in relics when they have died, so that
God uses these relics as channels and instruments of divine power and healing.
The cult of relics are not the fruit of ignorance or superstition but spring
from a highly developed theology of the body.
In one of his last sermons on the
Song of Songs, St Bernard describes the invasion of the entire body by grace,
exterior beauty witnessing to the simplified and purified heart of the Bride:
When this beauty and brightness has
filled the inmost part of the heart, it must become outwardly visible. . . .It
shines out, and by the brightness of its rays it makes the body a mirror of the
mind, spreading through the limbs and the senses so that every action, every
word, look, movement and even laugh (if there should be laughter) radiates
gravity and restraint. So when the
movements of the limbs and senses, their gestures and habits, are seen to be
resolute, pure, restrained, free from all presumption and licence, with no sign
of triviality and idleness, then the beauty of the soul will be seen openly. .
When Bernard describes his friend the
Irish Bishop Malachy, he says:
In my opinion, the first and greatest
miracle that Malachy presented was himself.I do not even mention the inner
man. His character and way of life
showed forth his beauty, strength and purity, and he carried himself outwardly
in so modest and becoming a manner that there was nothing in him that could
displease those who saw him. Anyone who
offends not in word is a perfect man.
And no one who watched Malachy, no matter how closely, ever caught him
idle in word or even his least gestures. Who ever saw him using wither his hand
or foot to no purpose? Was there
anything in his walk, his appearance, his bearing, or his countenance that was
not edifying? Never did sadness darken
his joyful features, nor laughter make him frivolous. Everything in him was
disciplined, everything bore the mark of virtue, everything had the form of the
perfect man. (Vita Malachiae 19:43)
When Bernard says that everything in
him was disciplined and had the form of the perfect man, he is speaking of the
formation of the whole man, the image of God restored in all its original
beauty. This idea of bodily expression
of spiritual beauty, the outward manifestation of inner grace, is thus related
to the theme of the restoration of the divine image in man. There
are many examples of saints in more recent times who were also
transfigured by uncreated light, such as St Louis-Marie Grignon de Monfort (1673-1716)
and St Charles de Foucauld.
St John Climacus asks in his Ladder of
Divine Ascent, (Step 30): “If the face of a loved one clearly and completely
changes us, and makes us cheerful, gay and carefree, what will the Face of the
Lord not do when He makes His Presence felt invisibly in a pure soul? And holy
love consumes some, according to him who said: Thou hast ravished our heart,
Thou hast ravished our heart. But sometimes it makes others bright and cheerful…So
when the whole man is in a manner flooded with the love of God, then even his
outward appearance in the body, as in a kind of mirror, shows the splendour of
his soul. That is how Moses who had looked upon God was glorified. There are
many examples of saints in more recent times who were also transfigured by uncreated light, such as St Louis-Marie Grignon de Monfort (1673-1716)
and St Charles de Foucauld.
All this talk of deification and
transfiguration may sound remote. Yet we
forget that baptism gives us the image of God, causing the image of God to
shine in us. Likeness to God needs our
cooperation. In the measure that we try
to love God and fulfill his commands, no matter how weak the attempt and
however often we may fall, we are already to some degree "deified." By faith, hope and love, by the sacraments, the
transfigured life is already a reality, one that will be perfected in the life
to come. All this simply presupposes
our life in the Church, the life of the sacraments. The Church, the place of transfiguration,
"the world in process of transfiguration," as Olivier Clement defines
it, and the sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby man may acquire
the Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.
In Christ, by eh working of the Holy
Spirit we are changed. “If anyone is in
Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Cor
5, 17). In baptism we are re-born and
re-made; we die to the old world of sin and death and enter the glorious new
life of redeemed humanity. We are joined
in the closest possible way to Our Lord, becoming limbs of the Body of which he
is the Head. The transfigured lives of the saints show that such a change
wrought by sanctifying grace is a real change.
But the end is not yet: Christians are changed men and women, charged
with the task of becoming perfect men and women. The real change effected by baptism must with
our cooperation extend and deepen itself within us until we become what we are.
When we think of deification, we must think of
prayer but also of our activity, of Seraphim's face but also of Br Lawrence who
was transfigured in the kitchen, while flipping omelets. As we saw in an
earlier talk, the habitual, attentive gaze directed towards God in prayer or in
work has the power of transforming us, of transfiguring us by supernatural
realities until one's being is possessed and impressed by them. "By the very persistence of our inner
gaze," wrote Dom Delatte, "His beauty
penetrates and transforms us. It is said that certain types of marble reach the
point, after a long period, of fixing the light within themselves and becoming
phosphorescent under the action of the sun.
Our souls are not as hard as marble." "The supernatural beauty on which we set
our eyes with so much love enters into us little by little, penetrates and
transfigures us. Face to face with the
light, we become light. We come to
resemble more and more the One whose glory we contemplate." If we look at things from this perspective,
we can begin to see the connection between contemplation and action, between
abiding in God and going forth to a particular work.
Finally in order for this
transfiguration to take place, it is necessary that we become more and more
transparent before God, as Our Lord and Our Lady were--in perpetually
accomplishing the Father's will, in their perpetual looking at the Father, in
proclaiming the truth which they had received from God. They are those who, not seeking themselves, permit
the will, the love, the glory of God to pass through them, in a transparency
that does not look for glory from men but for that glory that comes from
God. All this opens up a space in them
through which God's glory may be made manifest, the space opened up by an
abandonment which holds itself open to receive God's glory and splendour. Let
us ask God, through the intercession of Mary, teacher of faith and
contemplation, to enable us to receive within us the light of Christ, the light
that shines so brightly on the face of Christ so that we may reflect his image
on everyone we meet.