Blessed Grapes and Hymns of Glory The Feast of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Churches
Contemplation of Christological events, like the Transfiguration, provides a wealth of liturgical poetry and hymnography in the Eastern Church
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at CWR on August 6, 2013.
August 6th commemorates Christ’s transfiguration in glory on Mount Tabor. The Transfiguration is one of twelve major feasts on the Eastern Christian liturgical calendar. A major feast is the equivalent of a solemnity on the Roman calendar. A glimpse of this feast through the hymns and traditions of the East gives a fresh perspective on God’s plan of salvation for us.
“My favorite part of this feast is singing the troparion,” says Robin Roxas of Morning Star Family Farm in Hartland, Wisconsin. Robin and his family of ten traveled an hour from their farm yesterday evening in order to celebrate the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of the Feast at their Greek Catholic parish in Milwaukee. Roxas commented on the tradition his family has of singing the troparion during family prayers at home. “My children love to sing this hymn,” Roxas told CWR. This feast is a special one for Eastern Christian farmers around the world because it is customary to bring the first fruits of the summer harvest to be blessed by the priest during the Divine Liturgy.
Each feast of the Lord serves to illuminate the rich gestalt of the Incarnate Mystery. The Eastern Christian hymnography for the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor, like all major festal hymnography, is full of references to the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Hymn references like this stichera, composed by Cosmas the monk, sung at Great Vespers is an example:
Before Your Crucifixion, O Lord, taking the disciples up onto a high mountain, You were transfigured before them… from love of mankind and in Your sovereign might, Your desire was to show them the splendor of the Resurrection. Grant that we too, in peace, may be counted worthy of this splendor, O God, for You are merciful and the lover of mankind.
Without the Transfiguration and the other events of Jesus’ life, it would be difficult to grasp the totality of the paschal mystery and its implication for our lives. The raising of Lazarus from the dead, for example, gives Christians hope that they will one day participate in Christ’s Resurrection. Contemplation of these Christological events has propagated a magnificent wealth of liturgical poetry and hymnography – a major source of theology for Eastern Christians.
Eastern Christians speak about the divine “economy”. This economy has nothing to do with money and everything to do with God’s plan of salvation which culminates in Christ. The following sessional hymn from Matins of the Transfiguration illustrates the purpose God had for the chief Apostles of the Lord and, by extension, all his co-heirs: that they be filled with life, love, and goodness:
As they gazed upon Your glory, O Master, they were struck with wonder at Your blinding brightness. You who have shone upon them with Your light, give light now to our souls… confirm me in Your love: for You are our supreme desire and the support of the faithful, O You who alone are the lover of mankind. (Irmos)
The Holy Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is about divine encounter: “And he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white” (Mk 9:2).” In Eastern iconography, Jesus is depicted against an oval shaped backdrop with rays emanating out of it called a “mandorla“, which represents the radiance of his uncreated Glory. During the matins service, the following words demonstrate that the glory which radiates from Christ is not a product of human nature but comes from God alone:
You have shown them…the hidden blinding light of Your nature and of Your divine beauty beneath the flesh; and they [understand] that Your glory could not be borne.
Yet at the same time Moses and Elijah were also transfigured in glory: “And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elijah: who appeared in glory…” (Matins Gospel- Luke 9:30-31a) But Moses and Elijah are not emanating their own glory; rather, they are participating in the glory of God by worshipping Him:
For when I shall appear shining brighter than the sun, you shall be filled with glory and cry out for joy: Let us sing unto our God, for He has been glorified. (Irmos of Matins)
Theosis, Forgiveness, and the Light of Mount Tabor
Luke’s Gospel reveals that Moses and Elijah spoke to Christ about his coming death: “[Moses and Elijah] spoke of his departure (Grk: exodov) which He should accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31)
The Exodus from Egypt was an allegorical type of forgiveness and deliverance from sin fulfilled by the Crucifixion of Our Lord. Moses therefore represents the repentance and forgiveness aspect of theosis. He is able to see the glory of God and worship Him. Moses’ vision of divine light and his response are a prefigurement of Christian worship:
Having crossed the water as though it were dry land, and escaped from the wickedness of Egypt, the children of Israel shouted aloud: ‘Let us sing unto our Deliverer and our God,’…Moses saw the glory of the Lord in the cloud and the pillar of fire and he shouted aloud: ‘Let us sing unto our Deliverer and our God’…You have appeared to Moses both on the Mountain of the Law and on Tabor: of old in darkness, but now in the unapproachable light of the Godhead. (Irmos)
On Tabor the disciples fall on their faces before God and deem themselves unworthy to look upon the splendor of righteousness. Nevertheless, it is God’s will that His disciples receive the gift of glory as well as forgiveness and this is why Eastern Christians pray for an infusion of divine light and thank Him for it in the troparion of the feast:
Through the prayers of the Mother of God, let Your eternal light shine also upon us sinners. O Giver of light, glory to You. (Troparion)
Theosis is the transformation of human flesh (the descendants of fallen Adam) through the Incarnation. Christ brings light and radiates glory through the repentant human heart by the mystery of baptism. Theosisis made possible only by Christ who altered His Divine form when he took on flesh:
You have put Adam on entirely, O Christ, and changed the nature grown dark in past times, You have filled it with glory and made it godlike by the alteration of Your form. (Irmos)
The glory of God visibly shining forth through Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is evidence of the divine nature of Christ and the participation in divine life of His human followers who are able to look upon God and live:
Being complete God, You have become complete man, bringing together manhood and the complete Godhead in Your Person which Moses and Elijah saw on Mount Tabor in the two natures. (Irmos)
God only showed to the disciples as much of His glory as they could hold. The full radiance of Divinity would be too much for any mortal. God only allows His disciples to see a portion of His glory, and for a brief amount of time, as a foretaste of Heaven:
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, showing Your disciples as much of Your glory as they could hold. (Troparion)
He gives this extraordinary gift because it lays the hearts of men bare that they might root out the evil lurking there and see the good which leads them into prayer and praise:
In a union without confusion, You have shown us on Mount Tabor the live coal of the Godhead that consumes sins while it enlightens souls, and You have caught up in ecstasy Moses and Elijah and the chief disciples. (Irmos)
The ‘live coal’ evokes Eucharistic images. This is the same coal that touched the lips of Isaiah, “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sins forgiven (6:7).” These words are prayed by the Eastern priest just before he partakes of communion.
The Blessing of Grapes and Contemplative Prayer
The Eucharistic liturgy fulfills the mystery of the Transfiguration and ties it into the paschal mystery. Just as the gifts of bread and wine are offered up and Christ comes down to dwell in them, so the hearts of all believers are lifted up and transfigured by the grace filled condescension of the Godhead at Holy Communion, with as much glory as each person can receive.
Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, it is customary to bring the first grapes of the summer harvest to be blessed on the feast of Holy Transfiguration. The grape is a symbol of transfiguration because it is crushed and fermented into wine, then transformed into the blood of Christ at the Eucharist. Likewise, sinful man is crushed and made new by water and the Holy Spirit in baptism before receiving Holy Communion which transforms the Christian along the path of theosis.
Moses and Elijah prefigured the life of intimate prayer on the holy mountains of Sinai and Horeb. On Mount Tabor the conduit of divine dialogue, soon to be opened entirely through baptism, was revealed to the Apostles:
Those with whom You have conversed of old in fiery vapor, in darkness and in lightest of winds, stood before You in the manner of servants, O Christ our Master, and talked with You. (Irmos)
The Transfiguration is a blessed and joyous invitation to participate in the Divine life through prayer. Just as Peter said it was good to be there on Mount Tabor and wanted to remain, so all Christians are called by Peter’s words to pursue the lofty heights of prayers. The Apostles were able to see the glory of God because they had left the cares of the world behind and followed the ascent of Christ. If faithful Christians are willing to follow the worthy example of the three Apostles with courage and firmness of purpose, they may also see the divine light and thus this exhortation is made in the Eastern Liturgy:
Awake you sluggards, do not lie for ever on the ground, and you thoughts that draw my soul towards the earth, arise and go up to the high slope of the divine ascent. Let us run to join Peter and the sons of Zebedee, and go with them to Mount Tabor, that with them we may see the glory of our God and hear the voice they heard from heaven; and they proclaimed that this voice is the Brightness of the Father. (Ikos)
The Transfiguration is a foreshadowing of the second coming, as is the Resurrection. The Transfiguration reveals in what manner Christ shall again appear while the Resurrection reveals the way in which the saints will be transformed. There is a conscientious effort in Eastern liturgical worship not to isolate the events of Our Lord’s life but to celebrate every Christological event as a totality, just as Christ is one Person. The whole of Christian worship and the liturgical cycle is greater than all of its parts. The Transfiguration, referred to by Middle Eastern Christians as simply, “the Feast of the Lord”, illustrates this point, and offers Christians another rich liturgical encounter with Jesus.
Christopher B. Warner
Christopher B. Warner, a former Marine Corps officer and veteran, is a graduate student of Orthodox theology at the Antiochian House of Studies. Christopher has a BA in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He has worshipped with the Eastern Christian community since 2001, and currently serves as a cantor for his parish of St. George in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Christopher and his wife, Katy, are both teachers at Trinity Academy.