We are here on this retreat because we believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. We gather today because we have faith in the words of St. Paul: ““The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9)” Where does this faith come from? We cannot attain it by our own powers of reason and knowledge, but only by the grace of the Holy Spirit: “I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be accursed.’ And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)”
What is real is that Jesus as Lord and Messiah is as important today as 2000 years ago. Today, in this room, we encounter him as real as for the apostles. Today, he is still transforming and making the world holy, as he told his disciples after the resurrection, “Behold, I am with you always. (Matthew 28:20)” He is present among us through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we greet one another, “Christ is among us!” “He is and will be!” In faith, we know that Christ is among us in the Divine Liturgy, and that we receive in Communion bread and wine that has become his body and precious blood. In this way, Jesus becomes a part of our physical life and in his blood we offer our whole lives to him, as we pray, “let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole lives to Christ our God.”
Yet there are many who doubt. It is not a matter of rational proofs, it’s what in our hearts. Faith comes from the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. If we do not want to hear Jesus’ message, we can find excuses for not believing. The lack of will comes first. It’s a problem even for believers, because sometimes we don’t want to hear the whole message of Jesus.
Yet there are witnesses to our Lord’s presence. This is real – Jesus lived and walked among us. We have evidence from eye-witnesses who wrote down what they saw. These are the apostles. St. John, called “the Theologian” was especially expressive of this point:
“What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life –
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us –
what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)”
Scoffers complain that the apostles were not objective witnesses, that they spoke from faith – but the truth is that if we see such a man and his works and his teachings – then it is only normal to believe. What the apostles saw – even when this was most difficult for them as Jews who believe in one transcendent God – that Jesus was God, who said, “I and the Father are one,” and who responded directly to Phillip, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” They saw and believed, and they give witness for our faith. The theme of this retreat is “Feasting and Fasting,” and we are now in what is called the “Apostles Fast,” which prepares us for the feast of the holy pre-eminent apostles Peter and Paul. It is an opportune time for us to appreciate and understand the gift the apostles gave to us, it is knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ – not simply factual knowledge, but a wisdom that seizes our whole being, that makes us witnesses (Greek, Martyrs) and disciples, that changes and transform our lives, if only we hear the words of Jesus in our hearts.
What brought the apostles to believe, and through their witness, strengthens our faith which is sustained only in the Holy Spirit. It is not simply the miracles. Jesus sometimes works miracles as a sign – for example, he heals the paralytic man. First he forgives him his sin, and when the people grumble that only God can forgive sins, he heals the man to reveal his power. However, most of the miracles were not for proofs of his divinity, for Jesus says, ““An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. (his resurrection) (Matthew 12:39)” Jesus’ miracles were done out of love and compassion for the people he met. This is what the Apostles saw – Jesus’ infinite love, a love that could only be divine, a love that transformed the people who received it, a love that has the power to change our lives. The love that St. John witnesses to: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)” His infinite love was shown on the Cross and in his resurrection, which we celebrate in the great feast of Pascha. This love changes and transforms our lives every day.
Even without miracles, the apostles saw the wisdom of God shine forth from Jesus. “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)” Even non-believers see the power of God in Jesus, when the officials send guards to arrest him, the guards say: ‘Never before has anyone spoken like this one.’ (John 7:46)”
What, then, do the apostles witness to? What do they tell us – those who were given the mission by Christ, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)” What do they tell us, we who receive their message and believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?”
Today we wish to speak not of words and teachings only, but of a revelation – a manifestation of the glory of Jesus, which we call a “theophany.” This comes from the Greek word “epiphania,” which means a “revelation,” an “appearance,” a “manifestation.” From the Greek word “epiphania,” the Christians made a new word, “Theophania,” a “revelation of God,” an “appearance of God,” a “manifestation of God.” This manifestation was not revealed to the Twelve, but instead to the prophet, forerunner and baptist John. It was written down in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We read the story in Matthew: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)” St. John does not describe the event, but he records John’s witness, ““I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ (John 1:32-33)”
What can we say about the Theophany? First, it’s context. Jesus comes to receive John’s baptism of repentance. Therefore, this “divine manifestation” comes in the process of repentance. It comes as we are trying to turn away from our sins. Modern Christians too often see the primary sin as sins against purity, sexual sins of human weakness. For St. John the Baptist, sin is social, it is injustice toward others. John enumerates sins for the crowds, the tax-collectors and soldiers: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ He said to them in reply, ‘Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He answered them, ‘Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And what is it that we should do?’ He told them, ‘Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3:10-14)” Later, Jesus tells us that at the Final Judgment, we will be judged on what we did not do for our neighbor: “‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ (Matthew 25:41-43)”
Second, we must see that in his baptism, Jesus took upon himself the consequences of our sins. This was out of love for his creation. St. John the Baptist tries to stop him from being baptized, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ (Matthew 3:14-15)” St. Paul is even more explicit, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)”
Third, his baptism was the revelation, the manifestation of the Holy Trinity. St. John tells us that “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him. (John 1:18)” Therefore, we do not “see” the Father, but we hear his voice,” we do not see Jesus in his divine nature, but we see God’s mercy and compassion through his human nature, through whom he has become for us, as he was to tell the Apostle Phillip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:6).” This is very important for us to understand the Church’s teaching on the making of icons. They are not idol-worship, but a window to God whom we cannot see while we still live. Indeed, God was to tell Moses on Mt. Sinai, “No one can see me and live,” so we only see God as much as we are able in our human nature, only through the doors of death. Finally, we do not “see” the Holy Spirit, but we see him in the symbolic form of a dove, for as dove manifested the peace and reconciliation God made with Noah after the Flood. In the Transfiguration, the Spirit appears as the cloud, the cloud which guided the people of Israel to the promised land, at Pentecost, the Spirit appears as tongues of fire, symbolizing the light of wisdom and understanding and the warmth of love. In our own baptisms the Spirit appears as chrism, the holy oil filled with many fragrances to represent the many gifts the Spirit gives. The reality of the Trinity does not compromise in any way the profound unity of the one and only God, the only Lord, something which unitarian religions have great difficulty in grasping. In fact, the Trinity makes the one-ness of God ever greater, for it tells us that God is common-unity, God is community, and we become god-like, we are deified when we live together as community. In his last teaching, Jesus tells his apostles, ““I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us … (John 17:20-21)” By coming together as a community of love, we become like God, “partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)”
Fourth, we see that the baptism of Jesus becomes a model for our Christian baptism. The Baptist rightly foretold, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)” Baptism becomes the way in which we are incorporated into Christ, as the risen Lord commanded, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)” Again, St. Paul tells us, there is “one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)” Our celebration of the feast of Theophany is not simply the telling of a story long ago, it is the commemoration of what is happening to us through our own baptism. We enter the life of the Trinity, we receive the Holy Spirit, as we sing after every Holy Communion, we become partakers of the divine nature by partaking of Holy Communion, the body and blood of our Lord. At Theophany, therefore, we celebrate what our whole lives have become, what they are becoming today and what they will be in the future. St. Nicholas Cabasilas speaks about our baptisms, “The life in Christ originates in this life and arises from it. It is perfected, however, in the life to come, when we shall have reached that final day.” (Life in Christ 1, § 1.)
Now, however, we must say something also about the Transfiguration. This feast is also a manifestation of our Lord’s divine nature, similar to the Theophany, but in some ways going even further. Let us hear the witness of the Gospel of St. Matthew: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 17:1-7)” In the Theophany, the body of Jesus was not changed, but here “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Moses and Elijah appear with him, because Moses saw the glory of God on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah saw the glory of God on Mount Horeb. Here the three apostle, Peter, James and John, see the glory of God on Mount Tabor. It seems we must climb a mountain, to transcend, to go beyond our ordinary lives, to see God. However, the experience transforms and changes our ordinary lives. At the Feast of the Transfiguration, we read the Ambon Prayer, “Master Jesus Christ our God, lead us upon the all-holy mountain of love, just as you led your chief disciples upon a lofty mountain.” In the Transfiguration, we again hear the voice of the Father, telling us the same thing as at Theophany, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” adding, “Listen to him!” The Holy Spirit envelopes Jesus in a cloud, symbolizing the mystery of the divine nature, but also symbolizing the cloud that led the people of Israel through the desert. Jesus would tell his disciples in his last instruction, “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. (John 16:13)”
The Old Testament stories tell us about how we relate to God. On Mount Sinai, Moses wanted to see God, but God let his glory pass before him. “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity. (Exodus 34:6)” God tells us how much he loves us. On Mount Horeb, Elijah experienced a violent wind, an earthquake, and a raging fire, but God was not in any of these manifestations. But then, after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah?(1 Kings 19:12-13)” This tells us that God does speak to us, but in a soft, quiet voice. Today there is so much noise in our lives that we cannot hear God. When we awake, the first thing we do is turn on music or the television, and there is no quiet the whole day. It makes it impossible to hear God. At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, as in the Old Testament, they see the glory of God, but now in our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the same glory the apostles see. But the message now is” “Listen to him.” How, indeed, do we listen to God? We certainly hear his words in the Gospels.
Like the Theophany, the Transfiguration is also connected to repentance. It comes in the middle of the Dormition Fast, leading to the feast of Mary’s falling-asleep, when she was taken up, body and soul, into eternal life. By tradition, the Transfiguration took place forty days before Jesus’ crucifixion. His glory was revealed to his apostles to sustain their spirit in the incomprehensible terror of his arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. The Transfiguration, witnesses by the apostles, and transmitted to us, also sustains our spirits in the troubles and pains of living a life of faith in this world.
To us, the event of the Transfiguration seems to be something that happened 2000 years ago, but in the Liturgy, our worship of God, who is eternally present, it is the commemoration of a reality that is always present, that we can say “God is with us.” The Western Church, of course, celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration – twice, actually, on August 6 and on the Second Sunday of Lent – 40 days before the crucifixion of Christ, according to the tradition. However, the Eastern Church places a special emphasis on the mystery of the Transfiguation. It is a physical sign of our deification, that in the body of Christ, divine glory enters into human life. This is not simply an esoteric doctrine – it has meaning for the way we live. There was a great Russian saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov. He lived from 1754 to 1833, the last half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. He became a hermit, and living in isolation, he was once visited by thieves, who beat him and left him for dead. However, he recovered, though he was hunched from this beating for the rest of his life. He was canonized in 1903 and his feast day is January 2. He is a saint that is ecumenically beloved. There were no pretensions about him, and he dressed in a simple peasant’s tunic. The book, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality by G. P. Fedotov , tells the story (pp. 266-279) of a visit to Fr. Seraphim by his friend, Nicholas Motovilov. Nicholas was concerned with the question, “How am I to know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?” Nicholas says, “My need is to understand this well!” Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God! Why do you not look on me?” I replied: “I cannot look, father, because lightning flashes from your eyes. Your face is brighter than the sun and my eyes ache in pain!” Father Seraphim said: “Fear not, my son; you too have become as bright as I. You too are now in the fulness of God’s Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me as I am.”
This story tells us that the Transfiguration is a constant reality in our lives. Perhaps we are not as spiritually sensitive as St. Seraphim of Sarov, that we can see clearly with the eyes of our body, the presence of God in the Holy Spirit, but it is a spiritual reality, nonetheless. We can say from the heart, “God is among us,” and if we are to gain anything from this retreat, it is the necessity of – only with God’s grace – work to clear all the obstacles from God’s presence from our lives. So St. Paul tells us, “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Ephesians 4:31-32)” And again, where he tells us what true faith really is, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)”
- If, at his baptism, fulfilled in his crucifixion, Jesus as Lord, took upon himself the consequences of our sins, why is it necessary for us to fast and do penance?
- How does the light of Christ, who said, “I am the light of the world, (John 8:12)” shine upon and change our everyday lives?
- In our Creed, we profess our faith in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” What do we mean by “apostolic?”
- How do the mysteries of the Theophany and the Transfiguration help us to see the image of God in every person he has created? How should it change the way we interact with them?
- At both the Theophany, the Baptism of Christ, and his transfiguration into glory on Mount Tabor, the Father’s voice said, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” How do we listen to the gospel of Christ?