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  • Fr. Garabed Kochakian

Transfigured by Light: Icon of the Transfiguration

Vartavar Transfiguration

When Jesus said: "I am the Light of the world" (John 8:12), He - as the Giver of Life and Light was identifying Himself as God; The Creator who said at the creation "Let there be Light" and to Moses, "I Am that I am."

God is life, and in away his Light gives/is life. I once heard a good friend of mine, an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist Dr. Vigen Guroian, say that… in some sense, it is light that we eat when we eat anything. It is light energy that plants consume in photosynthesis. They turn light into plants. They turn light into squash or watermelon or daisies or anything else - it’s all made from consuming light. And when we eat plants, or when we eat animals that eat plants, it’s secondhand, we are eating light. So, it is light energy actually that sustains us. Profound words that give insight to Christ's Transfiguration.

It was about a week after His sojourn in Cæsarea, when Jesus took three of His disciples Peter, James, and John, and led them to a high mountain, where He was Transfigured before their ravished eyes:

"Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. A bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said: 'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him." ( Matthew 17: 1-2, 5)

Both Matthew and Mark express this Theophany with the Greek word metemorphothe, which the Latin Vulgate Bible renders transfiguratus est, and as we say in Armenian Պայծառակերպեցաւ Baidzaragerbetzav/ Այլակերպեցաւ Aylagerbetzav, meaning He, Jesus, became dazzling white showing on His face the Light of God's very countenance.

The Icon of the Transfiguration Feast is one of the earliest festal images to adorn the walls of holy sanctuaries in many Churches, no less the sacred texts and bibles. Visible signs of this compelling story of God showing his glory in Christ, God the Son, has been preserved as early as the 6th century in our Armenian Sacred art tradition both in illuminated manuscripts and buildings.

Vartavar icon transfiguration

I present the story here with various Armenian Icon Illuminations of the Feast which not only recount the Gospels description but also impart to every Christian believer an eternal message.

At once all of our senses are captured by the iconography that this dazzling brightness of Jesus' Divine and Human Body outwardly emanates. The blast of Divine Energy coming forth from the interior shining Light of God the Father in Himself. In addition, the figures of the saintly Moses and Elijah appear with Him on the mountain, as if all conversing with each other.

Why are they there and why are they a part of this second Epiphany of the Trinity?

Judaism had rejected Christ as the Messiah, but now transformed Judaism, represented by Moses [the presenter of God's Law] and Elijah, [the father of the Prophets] recognize that for the second time, God the Father has proclaimed Christ as His Only-Begotten and beloved Son and the Light Eternal.

By this glorious Theophany, Christ who had just foretold of His Passion to the Apostles (Matthew 16:21), and now speaking to Moses and Elijah tells of the trials which awaited Him at Jerusalem. And, Jesus' Transfigured strengthens the faith of Peter, James, and John, preparing them for the terror and struggle of which they are to be witnesses in Gethsemane and on Golgotha. At the same time, this revealing event gives them a foretaste of the glory and heavenly delights which they and we all may inherit.

As stated, God is called Light not just according to his Essence but also according to His Energy. In the writings of some Armenian Church fathers, particularly St. Gregory of Narek, St. John of Odzoon that bright halo of Light surrounding Jesus is understood as Divinity /Աստուածութիւն/ Asdvadzootiun that is now shown to the disciples on Mount Tabor. It is the Light of God, the Energy of God that never ceases to feed us and give us life. It is that Eternal Light, the ineffable splendor of the One Nature of God in three persons that illuminates these three Apostles in mind, soul, and spirit.

The Light at Christ's Transfiguration is without beginning or end, uncircumscribed in time and space. His appearance then is not just 'human' body but Divine Energy. And, He is proclaimed by the Father as His Son. Through Him the Holy Spirit graces the Apostles filling them with the strength, they will need.

Vartavar painting Transfiguration

Note the position and posture of the Apostles laying on the ground beneath Christ, and how their attitudes vary. In Matthew and Mark's description, we see two of them struck in awe by the resounding voice of the Father who from the cloud said, this is my beloved son, listen to him, and Luke also describing their startled behavior, as having awakened from slumber

See Peter on the left is kneeling, supported on his left hand and raising his right hand to protect himself from the power of the Light. He seems to be addressing Christ. John who is always placed in the center, awaking from slumber, is prostrated, arching his back to the Light, while James, most often on the right, shields himself from the Light that falls on him. They all seem overtaken by God of God, Light of Light and True God of True God. The halo engulfing Jesus is that Bright Cloud, revealing the transcendent sources of the Divine energies

The mighty Lord in the center stands on the summit of the mountain speaking to Moses, who is holding the Tablets of the Commandments, and Elijah, an old man, holding a book. Some commentators say that Moses represents the departed souls before Christ's coming and Elijah- taken up to heaven in 'chariots of fire'- is the symbol of renewed life to come in the Resurrection of Bodies and Souls.

The Transfiguration affirms the Hope of Resurrection, forgiveness, reconciliation and communion with God in Christ who will come again. We contemplate that promise in anticipation of His Glorious Second Coming in the glory of the future age and a new time opening the perspective of eternity and the gates of heaven.

What these Apostles witnessed on Mount Tabor changed their lives by being in God’s presence, seeing the Spirit of God the Father Bright and Shining in Christ. And in some illuminations, from a cloud of White Light, these men heard the Father speak. With CHRIST, the Face of God, they met the Father head on.

As Christians, think for a moment about this impressive Hierophany. Every day with Faith and Hope, we seek an encounter with God. If only we could see the Face of God.

Observing the tents of our Faith, seeking perfection in our human nature as best possible, and participating in the Divine Nature of Christ while living on this earth, we can be, fed and transfigured by God's Light discovering His living image through devout believers and in ourselves.

For by grace God's Holy Spirit reveals his power as it shines in all people, especially those who confess God Father Son and Holy Spirit, showing the Light of God and changing and transforming dark shadows on earth to Light in Life, as we journey on pathways toward His Kingdom and unto the Glory of Heaven.

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