Sermon on the Transfiguration of the Lord
Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky, +1936), the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad
The prayers sung in church today explain to us, brothers, that the Lord revealed His divine Transfiguration with the specific goal of persuading His followers that they, too, are to adorn their inner image with virtues, and to shine also with external spiritual beauty. Within our souls lies the insatiable thirst of seeing the internal and external correspond. That is why before the arrival on Earth by the Son of God, the righteous were bewildered why they were fated to eternally exist in a humble state, with their poor, sorrowful appearance, while God allows sinners to adorn themselves in grandeur. The contemporaries of our Savior eagerly expected the day when He would cast off His humble exterior, free Himself of poverty and homelessness, and as a magnificent king, donning shining garments in regal surroundings, would ascend David’s throne, the place of His forefather, and trample underfoot His wicked enemies and the enemies of Israel.
But the Lord reveals to His impatient followers a different, spiritual beauty He possesses, ever-presently, but which is hidden from human eyes in daily life. He ascends with three of His disciples to a mountain, and when His spirit turns in prayer to the Father, His face commences to shine like the Sun, and His clothing become white as snow. Moses and Elias appear with Him from beyond the grave, and a heavenly cloud surrounds them and the disciples, who behold the scene in pious horror. This arrival of an unearthly, heavenly splendour brought the Apostles to inexpressible bliss, and Peter exclaimed, forgetting himself from joy: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” He ceased at once to yearn for royal splendour or a position of leadership, which the Savior had rejected; he understood how much more magnificent is His Divine sanctity than the banal adornments of this world, how pitiful were the regrets the disciples had over their Teacher’s external poverty and meekness. He in fact had an overabundance of unearthly, eternal, heavenly beauty and celestial glory.
Remember, O Christian, this holy event from the life of your Teacher! Find consolation in your sorrows with hope how someday He will adorn with equal glory those who followed His commandments. Do not forsake that inner beauty, which is accumulated here through works of love and piety, in exchange for the finicky beauty of earthly wealth and worldly greatness, achieved through apostasy from Gospel law, through the darkening of one’s inner spiritual beauty. Do not envy those who today bask in the beauty of their homes, their clothing, their sated, vain bodies, who enjoy the servitude of their underlings, or the vacuous adoration of their admirers. Recall the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, do not forget that all these earthly splendours will be the inheritance of the worms of the earth, while the humble image of the righteous, bowed by labor, aged early in life from sufferings, burdened by the sorrow of condescension and even mockery by the wicked, this image of the righteous person, will shine with eternal beauty, incomparable with anything on earth, as was written: “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
In fact, if you wish for proof of the truth of this promise even in world, you will not be disappointed, for this miraculous transfiguration promised beyond the grave, as was the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor, is to some small degree evident in people who abandon a sinful, wicked and wayward spiritual life for the holy and God-pleasing, especially in those who have preserved a life of virtue since their youth. Look at these wonderful icons of the saints throughout our holy church. See these faces of elders, ravaged by fasting, reflecting old sorrows, marred by wounds? Yet look at the beauty they radiate! We see blessed Divine peace shining in their faces, exuding love, hope, declaring complete victory over earthly cares. Are these the faces of adherents to all that is earthly, of those burdened by abundance, filled with pride, defaced by passion or hatred, deformed by fear for their well-being, darkened with envy or jealousy, bearing the mark of sinful passions?
The holy saints lived in times past, and there were fewer of them than of sinners. But look around you today, look at your neighbours, and at yourself. Have you known people who have replaced their sinful habits or empty lifestyle for a life of constant piety, the struggle against passion, for charity and chastity? If you have, then you will confirm my words, that these people have been transformed, that there is something in their eyes, in their faces, in the tone of their voice, that shines forth spiritual light, spiritual life, which is incomparably more attractive than the physical beauty of sinners, and more effective than the prepared speeches and words of flattery by the sons of this world. Remember these changes in the faces of those whom you know and in your own face, and try to wish this spiritual beauty, this unearthly light more than any earthly beauty. Betray the latter for the former, and not the reverse as you have likely done so far, and give yourself over to the podvig of Christian works. You will then gradually acquire in your own visage the reflection of His Divine glory revealed on Mt Tabor. The podvig of internal transformation or transfiguration is deemed a labor in Christ, for without this, spirituality is impossible. “He that abideth in me… the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me… is cast into the fire, and he is burned.” Truly, in our day of little faith, many speak of a moral life without Christ, without prayer, but these words are not manifested in deed.
Moral inspiration in unbelievers, based on vague poetical sensibilities of youth, gleaned from books on moral instruction, is unstable and short-lived, like a plant torn from its roots. For the first several moments, the plant is fresh, like before, but as the day goes by, it turns into a useless mass. Such are the initial impulses of good intentions in the unbelieving person, which eventually turn into disillusionment or prideful artifice, hypocritical vainglory. Such a person forcibly dons the appearance of philanthropy, while harbouring wicked envy inside, or dull despair, like Cain, or Saul, or Herod. All believers and unbelievers know this from personal experience of their youth, because they have experienced the moral feebleness of human nature deprived of help from above. That is why older people either turn to faith, rejecting the impossible efforts for natural virtue, or, refusing to believe, reject even the attempt at virtue, seeing how vain it is without faith.
And so there is no spiritual beauty in the heart that does not have Christ. But how can the heart which believes in Christ obtain this beauty? Brothers, may the Christ transfigured on Mt Tabor teach us. His visage shone during prayer, during His discussion on prophesies, during His pondering of the coming sufferings in Jerusalem. This is the path towards ascending to our own spiritual beauty. We must prayerfully beseech Gods’ help, we must fill our minds with the Divine word, revealed to us in Holy Scripture and all the teachings of the Church; we must, finally, boldly decide to endure sorrows, which are inevitable on the path to ascending to Divine glory.
Let us, brethren, strive for this glory, not by relying on our own powers, but by praying and immersing ourselves in Divine teaching, let us be ready to accept sorrows for Christ according to His commandments, and He will enable us to participate in His eternal glory in heaven; and we, just as Peter on Mt Tabor, will forget our sorrows and deprivations and will eternally exclaim in spiritual ecstasy: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Amen.
Delivered during Liturgy at Simferopol Cathedral.
First published in Tavricheskije Eparkhijalnije Vedomosti, 1898, No. 16.
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