One of my professors, Michelina Tenace (affectionately known as Tenacious M) mentioned in class the other day that the “final exam” that a monk must take to become an iconographer in the Eastern Christian tradition is to depict the Transfiguration of the Lord. The reason being that all the glory that must be depicted (or written, as they say of icons) comes from the light with which Christ shone on Mount Tabor.
The gold background of any icon is the light of glory, which radiates from the body of Christ and from the bodies of the saints who belong to Christ. In the Western tradition, whose images and statues are often more “realistic” than the Eastern icons, this glory is still visible in the halos that surround the head of Christ and the Saints, or in the gold that highlights the clothes of our Lord or His Blessed Mother.
A few years ago, a woman told me that she didn’t like a particular Crucifix because Jesus’ clothing had touches of gold in it. The golden element made the Crucifix seem less “realistic”, because Christ was a poor man and would not have worn such ornate clothing. But what the Transfiguration teaches us is precisely the “reality” behind, or rather in, the earthly life and destiny of Jesus Christ. St John understands this well, when he describes the Cross as Christ’s “glory”. It is the eternal love of God that is glorious, and this eternal love shines in everything that Christ did and suffered for us.
And so we read the Gospel account of the Transfiguration every year on the Second Sunday of Lent. This may seem odd to us that Lent would shine with a glory that “rightly” belongs to Easter. But we are able to “bear our share of hardship for the gospel” not because Lent is about our efforts by which we would prove ourselves to God or to others. We carry the Cross with Jesus during Lent “with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8).
It is this strength that accompanied Jesus throughout His whole life, ever since the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary. At certain moments in Christ’s life, this glorious strength flashed out, for our benefit; precisely after Christ is transfigured in today’s Gospel, He makes a prediction about the horrible death He will have to endure. The glimpse of Christ’s glory provides a firm place for us to grasp when the darkness and difficulties of life seem to overwhelm us. In fact, the spiritual tradition of the Church will describe this darkness as an abundance of light that blinds us, similar to when we walk out of a dark room into the bright sunshine.
The glorious light of Tabor, though, is not something that wants to remain outside of us, a strength that is purely an “example”, good for Jesus and encouraging for us. In fact, the light of Mount Tabor is not a “something” at all. The light of Mount Tabor is Someone, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, that is, the Holy Spirit.
The collect for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Roman Rite prays:
O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…
To be nourished by God’s word, to have our spiritual sight purified, to rejoice in beholding God’s glory–this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The light in which Christ is bathed on Mount Tabor does not come from outside of Him; rather, it bursts forth from within Him in whom God’s Spirit dwells “without measure” (John 3:34). This same light made it possible for the disciples Peter, James, and John to see Christ’s glorious Transfiguration. The Fathers of the Church–especially the Eastern Fathers, who celebrated the Transfiguration as a feast since the 4th century–are adamant that the light of Mount Tabor was not a physical light at all. Peter, James, and John are not just lucky because they saw something that we didn’t see. It is not a light that can be videotaped, or put into tents, like Peter wants to do.
There is a relationship, though, between the light that radiates outward from Jesus and the light that allows the disciples to see Christ’s light. The relationship is the Holy Spirit, which also works in those of us who belong to Jesus, who makes it possible to see Jesus and therefore to be transfigured like Him, into Him. Let’s listen to St. John and St Paul:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthian 3:18)
The Fathers of the Church and the whole Eastern Church speak about this reality as divinization, a word that even my spellcheck will not accept (it keeps wanting to turn it into “divination”). It is not a word we are familiar with in the West. Peccato, as they say in Italian: a sin, a shame that we do not know the word. Because it is the whole reason why God became man, why God created us in the first place. In the famous phrase: “God became man, so that men might become gods.” (St. Athansius, St. Augustine, and many others) That is Catholic theology, my friends.
Divinization takes place in the light of Mount Tabor, that is to say, in the Holy Spirit, who wants to dwell in us so as to profoundly change and transfigure us. This does not mean that we will skip over suffering and death, anymore than Christ avoided suffering and death after His Transfiguration. It means rather that like Abraham, “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Genesis 12:4). God does not just want to bless you and me; He wants to make you and me a blessing.
That is why the iconographer has to show that he can depict the Transfiguration before he becomes a “master”. He must understand that it is only in light of the Holy Spirit that anyone or anything can be holy. Yet, he must write icons–of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of the Saints–precisely because this is the goal of our human life, which the iconographer holds up to the world: “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesian 5:8).
The goal of human life is not just to be blessed, but to become a blessing…to become an icon.