Monday, August 07, 2006

Transfiguration: Eastern and Western Rite Lectionaries

Your humble narrator never shies away from admitting when he was wrong. Fr. Matthew Thurman posted a welcome correction on my last post. I've changed it to reflect this. I appreciate the correction. (You can read my response to his comment for more.)

The original intention of my last post was to explore the subtle differences between the Byzantine lectionary and that of the West. Both Eastern and Western Rite Orthodox select St. Peter's epistle, but where the Byzantines read St. Mark chapter 9, the Western Rite reads St. Matthew chapter 17.

The two accounts are more similar even than those of St. Mark and St. Luke. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark place the Transfiguration "six days" after the previous event. Neither says the apostles were "heavy with sleep" -- something I find important in understanding the apostles before the Resurrection. (Not that we did not know this tendency, but that we see it on yet another occasion.)

The differences between St. Mark and St. Matthew, though, are also interesting. Both mention the changing of Christ's clothes as whiter than snow. St. Mark records that His clothes became "so white as no fuller on earth could white them." This, seemingly, to indicate it was a divine intervention.

However, it is only in St. Matthew, now read in the Western Rite tradition, that one gets another piece of the puzzle, when the former tax collector wrote: "And His face did shine as the sun." In the lives of saints and mystics in the Orthodox world, we read of their faces shining as though fire were radiating from them. One of the post-Schism theological disputes between East and West involved such light, with St. Gregory Palamas discussing the role of the Uncreated Light in the mystical life and as part of our theosis. This Uncreated Light shown forth in the holy saints, especially St. Seraphim of Sarov. So, too, did Moses' face shine like the sun upon descending Mt. Sinai. But here on Mt. Tabor, we see not a reflection but a glimpse of the divine glory, such as the Apostles could bear it. I find it interesting the Gospel basis for this pillar of Byzantine hagiography is now read only in the Western Rite on this date.

The final difference is also worth discussing: St. Mark says the Apostles reacted to the Transfiguration with fear, St. Peter spitting out "let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias" since he "wist not what to say, for they were sore afraid." In St. Matthew, after the cloud enveloped them and the voice of God intoned, "This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased; hear ye him," the apostles "fell on their face and were sore afraid." Jesus Himself had to comfort them, touching them and saying, "Arise, and be not afraid."

Were one to read these minor differences, one could note the presence of Christ's "comfortable words" in the second account: "Arise, and be not afraid." This is the flying seraph cleansing the lips of the Prophet Isaiah in heaven, the Captain of the Lord's Host telling Joshua to loose his shoe, for he was standing on holy ground. The apostles were in fear, either of the revelation of Christ's eternal Sonship or of His divine glory itself, turning away in haste like a mole who has suddenly entered a well-lit room. Here again we hear Christ say, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you."

When we're faced with what humanity should be -- a transfigured humanity blindingly imbued with the fire of divinity -- we turn away from the brilliance for our darkness' sake. We cannot believe we, too, are called to become by grace what Christ is by nature. We sense our inherent unworthiness -- "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof," etc. -- and we turn away from God in shame, confusion, and above all: habit. Again Christ embraces us, touches us tenderly, and and tells us not to fear the Antidote. (Truly, Sunlight is the best disinfectant.) The Byantine Rite makes explicit that Christ is the means of sanctification and the destination, as (some? most?) versions of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom have the priest quote Isaiah after the people commune: "Behold, this has touched your lips and shall take away your iniquities and cleanse your sins."

Our divine transfiguration is more than the Antidote to sin; it is the purpose for which we were born. Perhaps no other Gospel demonstrates the exalted original nature of mankind, the aversion fallen humanity has to itself and its Author, and the overflowing mercy and tender compassion of Christ -- in condescending to show His apostles His glory to strengthen their faith during His Passion and in telling them not to be afraid of what He had revealed -- this than this.

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