Orthodox Christians are typically shocked when I tell them that my favorite feast is the Transfiguration of Christ. Most assume that Pascha should be my ultimate religious holiday. Certainly, the Resurrection of Christ is the feast of feasts, but in my broken humanness, I find that I connect more to the story of Transfiguration and the many meanings it holds for my daily life. The humanness of Peter, James, and John and their eagerness to find ways to connect with the sensorially overwhelming message of their beloved teacher in this transtemporal moment of encounter, call to me as someone who is perpetually seeking and hiding from the face of God.
This most recent feast of the Transfiguration was unlike any I had previously experienced in my nine years of being Orthodox, and not just because we as a collective are enduring a pandemic. Rather than attending the festal liturgy as I normally would, I was surrounded by boxes, movers, and complete chaos. My life as I knew it was, and still is, transforming. 2020 has been a year of massive upheaval for most of us; COVID-19 has not only devastated many of our families, friends, and colleagues, it has changed our ways of working, educating, and socializing. The global pandemic, in combination with rising social justice movements this summer, has pushed us as a nation, as a community, to become more aware, vulnerable, and activated for change.
Change seems to be the theme of 2020, at least in my life. In this late summer season, I find myself in a perpetual cycle of transformation that has brought not only a hectic cross-country move for employment, but also much-needed time for reflection about this decade of my life. For the last nine years I have been Orthodox. Married for six of those years; and the mother of a special needs child for the last five. I was also a doctoral student for the last six years, something that changed when I defended my dissertation this past May. These events have been joyous, filled with light, but they also brought with them forms of emotional grief that accompany most types of change and transformation. As I think back on all of these phases and shifts in my life—convert, wife, mother, advocate, student, educator, and (finally!) doctor—I look to the Feast of the Transfiguration not only as guide for reflecting mindfully and spiritually on my past, but as a roadmap for what lies ahead. Changes are always on the horizon.
Orthodox theology teaches us that the Transfiguration of Christ, that beautiful moment prior to his death, burial and resurrection, when Christ appears on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah, reveals to us our capacity for change, for transfiguration, for becoming like God. How humbling is the Transfiguration! It reminds us of our spiritual potential. At the same time, it can and should call us to reflect on the everyday changes and transformations that often overwhelm us. It urges us to find the divine light within every change, even when it might seem unrecognizable, even when it is occluded by sadness, pain, loss, worry and, yes, even joy.
For me, the Transfiguration is not only about seeing the divine light in each of us and striving individually towards theosis, it is also about drawing near to God and to each other in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Perhaps, I am too influenced by Sufjan Steven’s musical tribute to the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which he poetically petitions his listeners to draw near to Christ. Or perhaps not! As I look back not only on the past decade of personal, social, and global changes, but also the last few months of cultural upheaval in the United States, I am mindful that the Transfiguration, that divine icon of metamorphosis, offers us a vulnerable space of theological remembrance and social connectivity. It prompts us to pause and recognize the divine spark within each of us, even if we fail to do so on a regular basis in our everyday lives.
The narrative and image of the Transfiguration serve as a reminder that while the clouds of life sometimes obscure Christ from our senses, for often we fail to sense him in the day-to-day mundane aspects of our existence, he is with us, in us, and for us. Sometimes we do sense him, and we are overwhelmed by our failure to respond adequately to the King of glory who comes to us robed in various incarnations, some of which might seem unremarkable because of our dimmed perceptions of humanity. And then there are times when we are captured by his glory, bathed in divine joy and light, and seemingly overwhelmed by it. The troparion of the feast reads:
Thou wast transfigured on the mount. O Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!
This musical depiction of the feast comforts me. The glory of the Lord, the sheer magnitude of coming face-to-face with holiness and what we need to change within ourselves and the world can be overwhelming, but Christ reveals it bearable amounts. Orthodox theologian and patristics scholar Andreas Andreopoulos reminds in his book on the Transfiguration that this feast makes visible our own end and purpose in the world. It gives the heady, philosophical notion of deification a bit of practicality; it provides a guide for understanding what it means to participate in the divine energies of God as a human being. It calls to look at changes through the lens of metamorphosis and see them as part of the process of theosis, even when it is unbearable. This, of course, is often easier proclaimed than practiced.
For me, the beauty of the Transfiguration is its ability to help us process the ways in which we can participate daily in transformation—personal, social, cultural, and, most assuredly, spiritual. It is in the space of the Transfiguration that we are confronted by the divine capabilities of humanity. And it is in that cloud of glory that can also find a safe space to journey alongside Peter, James, and John as they grapple with the traumas, upheavals, worries, joys, and journeys of the Christian life. As we enter into a new liturgical year, into the fall season, and into the final months of 2020, may we, like disciples mentioned in the Canon of the Transfiguration, cry aloud to Christ, “Direct our paths in thy light!”
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is the 2020-2021 Recovering Truth Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, and Axia's Board secretary.