Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber

IMG_0719There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position of modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole thing.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming as it is in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth, that does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to life. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts.

On the New Calendar, today is the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast look at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things.

But the Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber – a glimpse, out of sequence, of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and us up from the life below to the life of heaven.

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25 Responses to “Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: Looking out towards Nazareth from the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. Tabor).

  2. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    You said, “Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth, that does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive, theological writing.”

    Yes, I understand. I experienced an other-worldliness (my word) when I attended Divine Liturgy. The only thing similar to it was when I attended a Tridentine Mass with my Catholic friend as a child, before Novus Ordo. The three times I attended Divine Liturgy this summer, I was taken to heights of inexpressable joy. It was as if I were in another place away from worldly cares and concerns. The flow of the liturgy carried me with it and I felt wrapped in comfort and love.

    How timely this article is! I have been thinking about the Transfiguration on and off for the past several weeks. In my pondering, I was longing to understand the depth and meaning of this miraculous, sacred event. I knew in my spirit that it could not be grasped with my intellect.

    Once, while praying the Rosary and meditating on the Fourth Luminous Mystery (which is the Transfiguration), I experienced somewhat of an epiphany. I’d only been praying the Rosary for a short time and still had strong Protestant misgivings about the communion of the saints. Really, my praying was a test to see if this belief was a bunch of nonsense or if there was some truth to it. As I was praying, the beauty of the communion of saints became very clear to me in the Transfiguration. Right there in the very pages of Scripture, within this joyous event that actually happened, Christ was speaking and communicating with two people who had already died! And then the reality of Christ’s words came crashing in, “For He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

    I must begin attending Divine Liturgy again. What do I have to fear? Pray that the Lord gives me the resolve to do so.

    In Christ’s Immeasurable Love,

    Darlene

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Fear God.

  4. Dana Ames Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    It happened to me too, at Vigil last night, with the OT readings. Both Moses and Elijah were hidden in the rock while the Presence passed by them. They were granted a “vision” of God in their own days, “a glimpse, out of sequence, of the fullness of Divinity”, repeated on the rock of Tabor as they beheld and spoke with Jesus. Breathtakingly awesome.

    And the Lord granted that Peter, James and John should catch the “glimpse, out of sequence, of the fullness of Divinity”, “as far as they could understand it”, that would sustain them through the horrible time of Golgotha (echoed through the canon as well), where the fullness of divine love was manifest. Oh yes, almost too much to bear.

    I love the Vigils.

    Darlene, you have walked quite a long road… Wish I could give you a hug in person- consider one sent from California🙂

    Dana

  5. Sea of Sin Says:

    The idea or observation that the Transfiguration is “out of sequence” this is very intriguing to me. It speaks about God’s loving condescencion, His plan of salvation His economia and His great care for us. Perhaps this is why I have an unexplainable affinity for this Blessed Feast.

    How brute we moderns are – the three Apostles could hardly bear the vision. I suspect this is because we haven’t beheld His glory.

  6. Yudikris Says:

    Wonderful photo, Father!

    And it nicely accompany a very beautiful post. Thanks for this posting. I am surprised by the profound thought in the second paragraph.. Thanks, Father!

  7. More on the Transfiguration « The Franciscan Mafia Says:

    […] More from Fr Stephen’s Blog here. […]

  8. GVM Says:

    Fr Stephen,

    I’ve heard the connection between Elijah and Moses and life and death is common in the Fathers, but I’ve never heard this comparison before as a Protestant and now catechumen.

    Could you expand on this a bit?

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    GVM,

    The connection is drawn rather richly in the liturgical texts for the feast of Transfiguration (particularly the Matins texts which are almost always the treasure house of theology on a feast). Elijah for the living – because he was carried up alive into heaven. Moses for the departed because, according to one ancient tradition, he was carried bodily into heaven after his death (cf. the Assumption of Moses). Of course also Moses as the Law and Elijah as the Prophets. Both images are reference in the hymns of the feast. So again, in Orthodox hermeneutics, such scenes are “multivalent” – they are not only susceptible to a number of meanings but are rightly read in that manner without fear of contradiction. Reality generally has this character about it – as opposed to reductionist interpretations which are inherently unreal and mere intellectualizations.

  10. spiritof76 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you again for a great post. The Transfiguration is my favorite icon. For me it is a picture, or a presence really, of the Christian life. So much of Orthodoxy leaves one speechless. Real Christianity is like that, ineffable.

    Your post makes me want to participate in Orthodox Church life more fully. But the nearest Church is over 200 miles away. What do you sugjest that I do to be more fully in Church life. Any books , perhaps prayer guides, that might help?

    I have a daily rule of prayer that consists of cirtain Orthodox prayers and some psalms, and my family and I read the Devine Liturgy (actually something I modified for our use) on Sunday. Some tims we read Vespers. What more do you sugest?

    “O God, your way is in the holy place…..Your way is in the sea.”

    Kev

  11. GVM Says:

    Fr, Bless!

    How do you think the fact of Elijah and Moses appearing before Christ and the Apostles influences our belief about Communion of Saints?

    I know that as someone seeking the Catholic Faith, the idea of petitions to saints was a difficult one to accept, until I began to reflect on this event further (as well as many others).

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

    Peace,
    Gabe

  12. Mark Epstein Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    How wonderful to awake to your post this morning. As I flew home yesterday, I was meditating on the light in Saint Gregory Palamas’ defense of the Hesychasts. I cannot help but agree that the compartmental approach to theology leaves one divorced from the totality of the knowable and unknowable aspects of God.

    Mark

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  15. Steve Says:

    Father Stephen this is a wonderful example of how God speaks in the liturgy of Church which is Christ transfigured, resurrected, glorified etc (or ought to be…).

    I picked up something of your sense of awe and wonder while listening to Fr. Hainsworth’s broadcast on The Ascension the other day, paraphrased below, from hurriedly scribbled down some notes:

    “Denominations have gone horribly wrong (in their understanding of Christs’ ascension)… threatening to leave us dangling somewhere between a disembodied Jesus and a beheaded Church…”.

    And…

    “Christ most certainly not become a spaceman in the ascension. The ancient world knew exactly what was meant by this. His ‘going-up’ is a metaphor for joining himself to God’s ineffable world and our ‘looking-up’ at Him as he does so..”.

    Fr. Hainsworth was speaking on the Parousia which incidentally does not refer specifically to a “second coming” at all, but rather seems identical to the Shekinah or “the majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to ‘dwell’ among men”. On another note, the communion of saints is also very central to Jewish belief.

    Truly no end to the wonder. Glory to God!

  16. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Fr. Stephen, wonderful post indeed.

    The only thing I struggle with is the “out of sequence glimpse” comment.

    In my 2 cents opinion God never does things out of sequnce but everything flows accurately following a divine plan. We may not always understand the story line from a human perspective and things may seem to us as being out of line, but for Him I don’t think is the case. His sequence is perfect.

    Transfiguration falls very well in this plan. It serves the purpose to show that the true revelation of God, His true glory manifested toward humanity is accomplished through the Son. Moses and Elijah, the Old Testament prophets saw God too in the times of the Law, but God revealed himself, as through all the Old Testament, in a very subtle and imprecise way. Moses saw “the back” of God on Mount Sinai, Elijah perceived God as a “still small voice” while hidden in a cave. The three Apostles saw God in His glory, as much as they could bear, but still a hundreed fold more that has ever been revealed to anyone.

    Did they understood what was going on? No, they understood it in a human way, practical way: “it is good here let’s make three dwellings “. Did they understood the mision of the Son, the Cross, the death, the Resurrection? No way. But they will, eventually, when the Holy Spirit will open their eyes (as He did in the breaking of the bread to Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus) and they will recognize the light of Tabor in the light of Resurrection.

    In that cornerstone moment they would look back and all will suddenly make sense and THAT will keep them ticking in their apostolate. The light of Mt Tabor will shine so bright in their lives that not even death will stay in their way: all the apostle took a martyr death except for John, if I recall well.

    Of couse therre is more to it than just this. A cataclismic event like Transfiguration cannot be described in a blog post, but you get the idea🙂

    Sorry for my mumbling, but I LOVE this feast.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Vasile,

    My “out of sequence” comment was referring to the sense of a glimpse of the glory of the age to come and the fulfillment of all things while they were yet preparing for the cross and the suffering of Christ, etc. Of course, I agree that God unfolds these things to us in the way they are needed – but that often transcends a merely rational “chronology.” That was my intent. I’m sure you agree. He is a good God and gives us what we need when we need it – regardless of chronology.

  18. Sea of Sin Says:

    The “out of sequence” speaks of a certain disruptive aspect – disruptive to us that is. Look at the three Apostles in the icon of the Transfiguration. They are overwhelmed, unable to behold God’s glory, unable at the moment to make sense of the event. We see the same thing on Mt. Sinai. It was God who disrupted Moses, not the other way around.

    Certainly all this is not a surprise to God, but it is to us. We see this to this day, in our own lives. If it was up to us, it would all be “neat and tidy”, chronological, rational and fully comprehensible. But the Gospel has this way of crashing our party. If we let Him in.

  19. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Agree,
    This is the main problem of mankind, the separation of mind and heart (nous). The heart is our only “organ” that can perceive the rationality of God. We all need to be “transfigured” in order to free our heart from any human logic an imaginationa and let God reveal Himself to us as He IS (O on) not as we imagine him to be through our fallen human mind. The gap between God’s rationality and our logic can only be fulfilled by the Logos-incarnate, ICXC, Who brings logos (sense) into our lives.

  20. Lizzy L Says:

    Thank you for this post and also for richness of the comments.

  21. oruaseht Says:

    I’m always impressed by the fullness and richness of Orthodox spirituality. Thank you for another enlightening post!

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  23. Dean Arnold Says:

    Good thoughts.

    A detail question: could you please tell me who is honored on the other days of the week? (Monday, angels; Tuesday, John the Baptist, etc.).

    Thanks.

  24. davidperi Says:

    I just finished an indepth study on The Mystery of the Rapture…the deifying experience of the “Rapture” of the apostle Paul “to the Third Heaven” that is, to Paradise. It was 28 pages of study from synodinresistance exploring what Paul experienced…backed up by different church fathers thoughts on the subject. The glory that the apostles saw on the Mt of Transfiguration was just a glimpse into what the Moses, Elijah, the prophets experienced….and what all saints experienced and what we have to look forward to.

    It really throw a monkey wrench into what the Rapture means to modern-day preachers on the subject.

  25. Dean Johnson Says:

    Bringing the ideas of the bridal chamber together with the transfiguration is breathtaking. I relate to your comment, “I found myself speechless. The idea was too full.” Full indeed.

    The newest article on the blog “URfriendly Reflections” entitled “The Bridal Chamber – Becoming One” addresses the separation in our mind, and brings together the ideas of the bridal chamber and the transfiguration. It ends with the bright and shining wedding garments adorning the new and perfect man.

    Perhaps you might enjoy it.
    http://deanjohnson.blogspot.com/2009/06/bridal-chamber-becoming-one.html

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