This article is written in a more 'formal' style than the other articles on our site. It is a chapter in a lengthy study of the symbolism of the skéné, entitled: "The Skéné — A Universal Symbol of the Divine Presence: Perspectives on the Form and Function of a Symbol." We have added eleven icons to illustrate what is being said in the essay.
[REGARDING FOOTNOTES: Please note that due to the nature of the Internet, where there are not separate pages, but one continuous flowing page, we have had to move our 30 footnotes to the end of this article. Although some footnotes are simply citations of a source, many are important, detailed expansions of ideas or information mentioned before the footnote, some of which are vital to understanding the rest of the essay. Therefore, you are greatly encouraged to read the footnotes, especially the ones that have a descriptive comment following the numbers. To aid your ease of navigating back and forth between the text and the footnotes, we have added hyperlinks to each of the footnote numbers to take you to the footnote itself, and after the footnote to return you back to where the footnote comes in the body of the essay.]
The Transfiguration of Christ is a rather neglected (especially in the Western Church) and often, little understood event in the life of Christ, and a major feast in the life of the Church. Indeed, the more one examines the Transfiguration, the more its complexity is revealed. Yet, much may be gained by pursuing its complexity, and by seeking to better decipher the meaning of so significant an event, because it is basic to the theology of the Incarnation and Resurrection, to the theology of icons, and to the theology of Christian spirituality. To that end, this study will consider a few aspects of the Old Testament Presence in this New Testament event.
First the event. The New Testament presents three almost identical accounts of the Transfiguration in each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; and Luke 9:28-36). They tell us that Jesus went up onto a mountain (traditionally, Mount Tabor), with Peter, John and James, and in their presence He was transfigured, where His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling white as light itself. The three apostles saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elias (Elijah), whereupon Peter proposed: "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles (skéné), (l) one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elias." At this point, a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them (or "cast a shadow over them") and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests (or,‘in whom I am well-pleased’); listen to Him." (Please read footnote #1 now, about the meaning of the word skéné, which is fundamental to an understanding of the rest of this article.)
In this study of the meaning of the Transfiguration, we will deal with several issues: (1) why did Peter suggest making three tabernacles (skénai) and what is the significance of the Greek word, skéné; and, (2) why was it Elias and Moses who appeared with Christ? In dealing with these two issues, we will be led to a consideration of the Shekhinah (2) and of the significance of the cloud from which God spoke. Essentially, the answers to these questions are rooted in the Old Testament. (Please read footnote #2 now, about the meaning of the word Shekhinah, which is fundamental to an understanding of the rest of this article.)
Let us first consider St. Peter’s response to witnessing Christ’s Transfiguration. Why should Peter's response be to build a skéné, and what type of skéné might he have had in mind? Most likely he did not intend any type of tent in which a person might literally dwell. But could he have meant three grass and twig huts such as are used at the Feast of Tabernacles? Perhaps his was a natural response of wishing to commemorate a theophany by creating some type of memorial associated linguistically, and therefore, symbolically, with the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem where God’s Holy Presence, His Shekhinah, dwelt. It seems to be a universal human experience throughout history that people have wished to build some sort of memorial chapel or shrine to commemorate a sacred event—a theophany or a miracle.
A second basic question about the accounts of the Transfiguration is, of all the Old Testament prophets and saints, why was it Elias and Moses who appeared with Christ? What is the significance of the appearance of these two prophets, and might they be involved in some way with the experience of the Shekhinah? Could the answers to these two questions also explain St. Peter's impulse to create three skénai to commemorate the Shekhinah? We suggest that indeed, there is an important relationship, as shall be explained.
In considering possible answers to these questions, let us first outline some customary interpretations. Reflecting a Protestant perspective, The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible states that "The Transfiguration is the paradise and the despair of commentators;" (3) that the event is very enigmatic, and conflicting interpretations exist. (For Orthodox, the exact opposite is true: the Transfiguration is a joy for commentators; it is not enigmatic, and neither are there conflicting interpretations. In fact, the meaning is made very clear in the very liturgical texts for the feast, and in many spiritual writers.)
Some Protestant interpreters accept the synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the Transfiguration as historically factual. Others discount any objective historicity and argue for a totally symbolic treatment. Still others consider it as a post-resurrection event that was transposed to an earlier place in the Gospels. The Interpreters Dictionary proposes that it "was a visionary moment that revealed to the disciples Jesus’ true nature (symbolized by the light) and his future glorious state after death." (4) The commentator continues, saying that the presence of Moses and Elias are to be understood as verification that Hebrew law and prophecy supported Jesus and His mission.
The Interpreters Bible, in the commentary on Luke’s account, stresses the close relationship between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, stating that "the earthly life of Jesus could not be seen truly except when it was looked at from the standpoint of the Resurrection." (5) Furthermore, after the Resurrection, the disciples’ perception and understanding of Jesus’ historical life was transfigured, and they saw Him as invested with heavenly light and power. The Protestant commentator of The Interpreters Bible also views the Transfiguration as Christ’s spiritual experience of praying before His Passion, where he gained strength to face His coming ordeal, and where He experienced a vision of Moses and Elias (law and prophecy) which vindicated and validated His mission and purpose.
The Interpreters Bible exegesis of Luke 9:34-35 briefly makes what we consider to be a most significant point, that the Shekhinah (manifested as a cloud) was expected to reappear in the messianic period, according to 2 Maccabees 2:8, (6) which states that "the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses ..." The commentator also states that Moses was the prototype of the Messiah, according to Malachi 4:5, and that they both seem to be the two witnesses of the Messiah in Revelation 11:3-12.
In The Interpreters Bible commentary on Exodus 34:29-35, it is stated that "when Moses talked with God, the skin of his face shown. The Septuagint translation says it was ‘glorified.’ The light of the Shekhinah or Divine Presence was communicated to him. This account is the antitype for the account of the Transfiguration in the New Testament." (7) We will return shortly to a more extensive discussion of the role of the Shekhinah in the Transfiguration.
Again, we ask, why was it Elias and Moses who appeared with Christ? A common interpretation in the Orthodox Church is that Moses represents the Law and Elias represents the prophets. (8) An additional explanation is that Moses represents the dead, while Elias symbolizes the living, because he did not die, but was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (icon to the right). Icons of the Transfiguration sometimes show this by depicting Moses being brought by an angel to Mount Tabor from a grave, and Elias being brought in a chariot or cloud in the upper left and right corners. (See the Transfiguration icon at the top.) The theology implied here is that Christ is Lord of both the living and the dead, present and future. Such an eschatological character is implied by the presence of Elias, because, as St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) heralded Christ’s first coming "in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke 1:17), so likewise, Elias is the herald for Christ’s second coming in glory." (9) (See this footnote for further discussion about St. Elias, and another icon of him.)
St. Basil the Great comments that the Transfiguration is an anticipation of Christ’s glorious second coming, (10) which is the thrust of the reference to the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-18, (11) (See this footnote for the text of this passage.) and thus one of the early interpretations. Vladimir Lossky is one of the few contemporary authors, who, in explaining why Elias and Moses are present, mentions an additional reason—that it is because they both had a "secret vision of God." (12) Lossky states that he is following St. John Chrysostom in his explanation—one of the formulators of the patristic tradition of the Orthodox Church. However, in a short essay, Lossky could only barely mention this parallel in a few words.
We would like to develop this last idea more fully in order to gain a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Transfiguration, and of the role of the skéné as a symbol to commemorate places where God has manifested Himself to man.
The Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor (or Mount Hermon as some traditions say), is a theophany, and in fact, it is the only time before His Resurrection that Christ was manifested in His full divine Glory. (13) (Glory is very important as a major characteristic of the manifestation of the Shekhinah.) Both Moses and Elias were worthy and appropriate Old Testament saints to behold and share in Christ’s theophany on the mountain top, because in their own lifetimes they both had experienced a theophany of God’s holiness and glory on another mountain—Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:1-6; 33:18-34:9 and I Kings 19:8-14). (14)
Both Moses and Elias could encounter the manifestation of God while still in the body because they themselves had become so transfigured by holiness, that they could actually stand within the divine aura of God’s holiness itself, and not be consumed. Thus, in most icons of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elias stand touching the outer edge of Christ’s glory, while the Uncreated Light bathes the two prophets on Mount Tabor, as it had done on Mt. Sinai previously. (See the icon to the left and the one at the top of this article.) (15) (See this footnote for further explanation about the Uncreated Light.)
There are two major theophanies to Moses on Mt. Sinai, in addition to the rather regular encounters with the Shekhinah in the Tabernacle. The first time, prior to the Exodus, God appeared to Moses in the form of a flame of fire coming from the middle of a bush, and revealed to Moses His Name (and thereby His Nature) as Yahweh (Exodus 3:lf.), usually translated as "I Am Who I Am," or "I Am What I Am," or from the Septuagint — "I Am the One Who Is" (egó eìmí ho Ón). (16) Moses experienced countless manifestations of God on Mt. Sinai and in the Tabernacle. Whenever Moses entered the Tabernacle of Meeting, the Shekhinah, in the form of a pillar of cloud, stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. And "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:9-11). But Moses requested an even greater degree of the manifestation of God, when he wished to see the glory of the Lord (Exodus 33:18f.). In response to Moses plea, the Lord replied:
I will let all my glory pass in front of you, and I will pronounce before you the name of YHWH ... You cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live ... Here is a place beside me. You must stand on the rock, and when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me, but my face is not to be seen (Exodus 33:19-23).
And further on the theophany continues:
And Yahweh descended in the form of a cloud and Moses stood with Him there. He called upon the name of Yahweh. Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, "Yahweh, Yahweh, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness ..." (Exodus 34:5-6, Jerusalem Bible ). (This is part of the second of the three readings in Orthodox Great Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration.)
After this theophany God gave to Moses the second Tablets of the Law.
God also revealed Himself to St. Elias on Mt. Sinai/Mt. Choreb (I/III Kings 19:1-14, especially vs. 8-14). According to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (De Vitae Moysis), (17) written in the late fourth century, Elias is hidden in the same cleft in the rock where God had hidden Moses, (a fact that seems extremely significant and pertinent to understanding why it is Moses and Elias who appear with Christ at the Transfiguration, but which seems not to be mentioned today). God tells Elias that He will pass by as Elias stands before Him. And there was a rushing wind, and earthquake, and fire, but the Lord was not in these, but in "the voice of a gentle breeze" (King James: "in the still, small voice"). (This is part of the third of the three readings in Orthodox Great Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration.)
Both Moses and Elias responded to the manifestation of God’s glory by wrapping their faces in their cloaks (Exodus 3:6 and I Kings 19:13). Likewise, the three apostles on Mt. Tabor also are shown in icons covering their faces (with their hands), because no one can bear to gaze upon the glory of the Lord. (18) (See this footnote for an extended explanation about early icons of the Transfiguration and observance of the Feast in the Western/Latin Church.)
That the primary reason why Elias and Moses appear with Christ at the Transfiguration is due to their own prior experience of a theophany is further supported by the fact that it is accounts of three of these theophanies that are read for the three Old Testament readings in Great Vespers for the feast of the Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. (19) (Please read this important, extended footnote now for further information about Vespers and Matins in the Early Church, especially for the Transfiguration Feast, and about observance of the feast in East and West.)
Now that we have suggested why Moses and Elias appeared with Christ at the Transfiguration, let us proceed to suggest what relationship exists between the Transfiguration and the Shekhinah. After Christ was transfigured in glory, when His face shown like the sun and His garments were more brilliant than the sun, God spoke out of a bright cloud that covered the three apostles with shadow.(20) We suggest that this reference to God speaking from a cloud is a reference to the Shekhinah, because one of the two ways in which the Shekhinah was experienced in the Old Testament was as a pillar of cloud, such as led the Israelites by day in the wilderness, and resided in the Holy of Holies. (The other manifestation was in the form of fire, as when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and as the visible form of God’s Presence in the wilderness that led the Hebrews by night.) At the Theophany that occurred at Christ’s Baptism, God the Father also spoke out of a cloud (icon, above left).
And at Christ's Ascension He ascended in a cloud (icon, above center). Moreover, it is a common convention in Christian iconography, inherited from its Jewish antecedents, to illustrate that an event or action occurred "by the hand of God," by depicting a semi-circular cloud in the heavens with a hand in or protruding, as, for example, in icons of St. George slaying the dragon (icon, above right).
Also, authentic icons of the Nativity of Christ (icon to the right) depict a mountain [almost] touching a cloud Shekhinah, reflecting the realization that heaven and earth are reconciled by God’s Incarnation. That the Shekhinah is manifested on earth in Christ is indicated by rays of light emanating from the Shekhinah and illuminating the darkness of the cave (the world), and sometimes even touching Christ, who lies in a manger/sarcophagus at the mouth of a cave. (21)
In addition to his encounters with God on Mt. Sinai, Moses also encountered Him in the Tabernacle. Moses always pitched the Tent/Tabernacle of Witness/Meeting (skéné martyríou) outside the camp while sojourning in the wilderness, and whenever Moses entered the skéné martyríou, the people could see a pillar of cloud descend and stand at the entrance of the Tabernacle, while Moses talked with God (Exodus 33:9-10). Moreover, we must recall (as was mentioned in Footnote #2) that the Hebrew root of the word Shekhinah is sakan, which means to "pitch a tent," and thus, by its very etymology, the word is "suggestive of the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness where God’s Glory abode." (22)
There are a variety of different manifestations of the Divine Presence that constitute the Shekhinah. They are: the invisible Presence that dwelt between the Cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies; the visible pillar of cloud and fire; the burning bush; the cloud out of which God spoke at the Theophany (Baptism) and Transfiguration, and the cloud of the Ascension, etc.; plus the possibility that the Uncreated Light of Mt. Tabor may also be a manifestation of the Shekhinah. What is the relationship between these different manifestations?
The rather extensive and very excellent essay on the Shekhinah in the Encyclopedia Judaica defines the Shekhinah as "the numinous immanence of God in the world." (23) The consequence of that Divine Presence is that a place, an object, an individual, or a whole people are sanctified; that the Presence constitutes a "revelation of the holy in the midst of the profane." (24)
In addition to the appearance in the form of a cloud, according to the just mentioned essay on the Shekhinah, there is another prominent image associated with the Shekhinah—that of light, radiance and glory. (25) Let us attempt to apply this most elucidating concept.
Obviously, fire is a very concentrated form of light. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after conversing with the Lord, his face was so brilliant and radiant that the people could not bear to look at him. On Mt. Tabor, Christ shone with such a radiance and glory brighter than the sun, that the apostles could not bear to gaze directly at the sight. In the theophanies to Moses and Elias discussed above, where the Glory of the Lord passed by, the visible (to some) Divine Glory may well be understood as being one aspect of one type of manifestation of the Shekhinah. There are countless references to "glory" in the Bible, as well as throughout hymnography, and in prayers—such as the Glory that filled the Temple, or the Glory of the Lord that shone when the angels proclaimed "Christ is born!", plus all the references of ascribing glory to the Lord and to the Holy Trinity.
Perhaps the encounter with God’s Glory, which apparently not everyone can see, is a manifestation of the Shekhinah, that is closely related to the vision of the Uncreated Light. (26) In icons of the Transfiguration (see the icons above — at the top and between footnotes #14 and #15) and the Resurrection (icon to the left) the huge aura surrounding Christ is called a "glory." Could there possibly be degrees of the manifestation of the Shekhinah, which vary according to the spiritual level of the perceiver and his ability to see and understand and tolerate the vision? Repeatedly in the texts for the Feast of the Transfiguration (in the Orthodox Church) there is the statement that the apostles saw Christ's Glory "insofar as they could bear it." (27) (Please read this footnote for a description of how these words of the hymns of the Feast are reflected in its icon.)
Might there be an underlying ordering principle which could unify the complexity of the experiences of the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah? I propose that perhaps the cloud, fire, and created light may be understood as grosser, more corporeal manifestations, closer to the material existence of the world, and that the Glory of the Lord witnessed by Moses and Elias on Mt. Sinai, and again on Mt. Tabor when the Glory of the Uncreated Light surrounded Christ as He was transfigured, is a more rarified, less corporeal form of the Shekhinah.
In attempting to understand the nature of the Shekhinah, we find that it is integrally connected with the meaning of the skéné. Furthermore, as we commented in Footnote #2, mishkan, Shekhinah, and skéné are related etymologically by means of the common "s k n," and the linguistic involvement with the "tent." But, I contend, they are related linguistically precisely because their natures are related: they each reveal the Divine Nature and Presence. The mishkan/skéné provide the place wherein the Shekhinah may dwell and be among mankind on earth.
The New Testament declares that Christ Himself is to be regarded as the divine skéné — as the Temple or Tabernacle of God — within whom the Shekhinah dwelt among mankind on earth, as indicated in Revelation 21:3 — "Behold, the Tabernacle (skéné) of God is with men, and He shall dwell (tabernacle or skénósei) with them" (AV). The author of Hebrews presents a similar understanding of Christ’s nature. Hebrews 8:1-2 says: "We have such a High Priest who sat at the right of the throne of the majesty in the heavens; a minister of the Holy Things, and of the true Tabernacle (skéné) which the Lord pitched, and not man." The writer is making an analogy between the high priest who is a minister of the Holy Things in the earthly tabernacle, and Christ, the High Priest, who is a minister of the Holy Things in the True Tabernacle in heaven. Continuing this theme in 9:11, the author also states that Christ is the High Priest of the greater and more perfect tabernacle (skéné) not made by hand, and not of this creation.
That there is indeed such a close and significant interconnection between the skéné martyríou—the Tent of Meeting or Witness—and the Shekhinah Who dwelt there, and Christ as the skéné within Whom the Shekhinah dwelt (as is revealed in the Transfiguration), is made clear in the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, where he says: "....and the Word became flesh and tabernacled (eskénósen) among us (or "pitched His tent among us"), and we saw His Glory...." (John 1:28). (28) (Please read this footnote for further comments about how this vital phrase is translated into English.) In other words, Christ's body is a skéné that dwelt on earth, through Whom the Shekhinah was made known. In his essay on the "Shekhinah" in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Burtchaell states that John 1:14 is a clear reference to the Tent of Meeting." (29) In that skéné / Tent of Meeting, the Glory of the Lord was made visibly manifest and experienced under the name of Shekhinah. The New Testament maintains that Jesus Himself is a skéné, a Tabernacle, in Whom the Glory of the Shekhinah is likewise visibly made manifest.
Did Peter have in mind the involved incarnational theology of John’s Gospel, the Apocalypse and Hebrews when he impulsively blurted out — "Let us make three skénai: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elias" (Mark 9:5)? It is most unlikely, since at that time Peter did not yet understand Christ’s Nature, nor his mission, not to mention the theology that would only evolve later on. However, Peter was speaking as a devout Jew, who probably instinctively associated the skéné form (some type of tabernacle/memorial) with a manifestation of the Divine Presence as experienced by Moses, and made concrete in the Tabernacle of Meeting/Witness in the wilderness. Since Peter was too poor to build a stone monument, perhaps he really did think of building three huts, such as are built at the Feast of Tabernacles. Yet, as strange as it first sounded when we mentioned it at the beginning of this study, this would be appropriate, since the feast commemorates the forty years wandering in the wilderness, when the Tabernacle was not a permanent structure, but a movable tent. (30) (See this footnote for a further comment about the relationship between the Transfiguration Feast and the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.)
However, at the Transfiguration, when God spoke out of the Shekhinah/cloud (perhaps a lower vibration of the Uncreated Light), Peter realized that he was totally missing the point to think about grass and twig huts. Does one construct a puny man-made skéné, when the divine skéné Himself in all His Glory is made manifest before one’s very eyes?
In conclusion, we sought to demonstrate in this study how prominent is the Old Testament presence in this New Testament event of the Transfiguration: the presence of the Shekhinah; the presence of Elias and Moses; the presence of the Septuagint translators in their choice of skéné for rendering mishkan, and the consequent impact of that decision on New Testament theology; and the presence of the Old Testament experience that a skéné/mishkan is where the Glory of the Shekhinah is made manifest.
(1) Skéné is a Greek word, whose oldest and primary meaning is "tent." Another ancient use of the word is to designate the wooden or stone stage, or stage building, and "scenery" back-drop where actors performed in the ancient Greek theater. (Our words scene/scenery remind us of this early meaning of skéné.) Later meanings include: booth, tabernacle, dwelling-place, temple, and canopy-like covers. These later meanings seem to be a result of the Septuagint translators’ choice of the Greek word, skéné, to render three different Hebrew words when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek during the third-second centuries B.C. The first of those three Hebrew words is ‘ohel, the characteristic term for tent, and the only one that we would normally expect to be rendered as skéné in Greek. The second Hebrew word is sukkah, which means "booth." This is the word used in the Feast of Booths (or, sometimes called the Feast of Tabernacles), where "booths" refers to the grass and twig huts constructed annually to commemorate the forty years wandering in the wilderness by Moses and the Hebrew people, when the Tabernacle was a tent, and the people lived in tents. The third Hebrew word translated as skéné is mishkan. This is the most interesting translation, because the Hebrew word means "tabernacle" or "dwelling-place," connoting a permanent dwelling, whereas a tent connotes an impermanent structure. In Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the new Testament. Vol. 7 (Ed. by Gerhard Friedrich and Gerhard Eittel, Trans. G.W. Bromiley, Eerdman Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964), the author proposes that the reason that the Septuagint translators chose skéné as the natural, inevitable word-equivalent of mishkan is that they both contain the same three consonants, s k n, in the same sequence. Consequently, the meaning and use of the word skéné in the New Testament is shaped and molded by its antecedents in the Septuagint.
Furthermore, we propose that the skéné, and various visual forms associated with it (tabernacle, temple, canopy, dome, iconostasis, shell and niche, triumphal arch and portal) is a universal symbol of the conflict and reconciliation of opposites, and is used to commemorate the Divine Presence, Truth and Wisdom, and Divine Order, which manifests itself by achieving the victory of good, life, order, and creation over evil, death, chaos, and destruction. Moreover, whenever someone has wished to commemorate a theophany (a manifestation of God), or the activity or presence of the Divine, some skéné form is to be found. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(2) The Hebrew word, Shekhinah (sekina), which became a substitute for the Holy Name of Yahweh, is an important term for understanding the biblical conception of the nature of God. Shekhinah signifies all the awesome, mystical, Power and Holiness of God's Presence, especially as localized in the Holy of Holies, first in Moses’ Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The word is derived, interestingly, from the Hebrew root, sakan, meaning "to pitch a tent," which is the same root from which mishkan (the most common Hebrew word used to refer to the Tabernacle of Moses) is also derived. Furthermore, Shekhinah has the same three consonants, s k n, as does mishkan and skéné (the Greek word usually chosen to Translate mishkan).
For further discussion of the Shekhinah, see the articles in: The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. S, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1962; The Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, Macmillan Co., New York, 1972; The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol XI, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1916. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(3) Abingdon Press, New York, 1962, Vol. IV, p. 686. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(4) Ibid., p. 687. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(5) Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York, 1951, Vol. VIII, p. 173. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(6) Ibid., p. 75. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(7) Vol. I, p. 1091. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(8) Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons. Boston Book and Art Shop, Boston, 1969; and Konrad Onasch, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, 1969. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
The theophany to St. Elias on Mt. Choreb (Sinai) is understood by the Fathers as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration, which in turn, refers to Christ's return at the end and fulfillment of time, when the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled, and the natural order of the fallen cosmos will be altered by God and restored to its original order. St. Elias is viewed as the prototype and prophet of the second coming, because for Elias the natural order was changed by his love for God: a rapacious bird of prey — the raven — brought food for Elias (icon to the left); fire from heaven consumed water-soaked wood; Elias did not die, but was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot (see icon in body of the article, between footnotes #5 and 6); a dead son was brought back to life; waters parted when struck by his cloak; and most especially, Elias encountered God Himself in a theophany on Mt. Sinai. That the "very laws of nature are changed by the will of God, is in itself a prophetic prefiguration of the coming of that Kingdom in power" (p. 145). [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(10) St. Basil the Great's "Homily on Psalm 44, V." Quoted by Lossky in his essay on the Transfiguration, ibid., p. 212. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(11) According to the Jerusalem Bible translation, Peter says: "It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ; we had seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honored and glorified by God the Father, when the sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor.’ We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain." [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(12) op. cit., p. 212. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(13) The Icons of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection portray Christ with a "glory" around Him. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(14) Mt. Sinai is also known as Mt. Choreb in the Eloist tradition. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(15) The "Uncreated Light" or the "light of Mount Tabor" refers to the mystical light of God’s visible Presence, such as surrounded Christ in His Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. To achieve the vision of the Uncreated Light was regarded by the Eastern Christian school of mysticism called "Hesychasm" to be a result of achieving a very high state of spirituality. The theological exposition of the nature of the Uncreated Light includes the distinction between God’s Energies and His Essence: the Uncreated Light was a vision of God’s Energies, but not of His Essence, which is unapproachable and unknowable by mortal man. (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1969, Chapter 3.) [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(16) Thus "ho ón" is the Greek translation of Yahweh, and it is this form that is customarily found within the cross of Christ’s nimbus in icons, thus indicating the theological view that Christ shares one Essence with God the Father — Yahweh. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(17) As discussed in: Robert Payne, The Holy Fire: The Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1957, Chapter 6 – "St. Gregory of Nyssa;" and Danielou and Musurillo, "From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 1979. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(18) In this discussion we have been referring only to icons of the Transfiguration, because little else exists, particularly from the early centuries. The feast of the Transfiguration and its theology is basic to the theology of the icon, and hence, holds a prominent position in Eastern Christian theology, spirituality, and liturgical life. Contrariwise, few portrayals of the Transfiguration exist in western art, for the feast enters little into Latin Western Christian consciousness. In fact, as mentioned in the next footnote, the feast's observance was not universal in the West until 1457, and then, its observance was for political, not theological reasons. (In Western practice the Gospel for the second Sunday in Lent has long been an account of the Transfiguration.) Yet this neglect of the feast is entirely consistent with the West's rejection of icons and their accompanying theology. The theology of the icon was given systematic formulation largely during the eighth-ninth centuries’ iconoclastic controversy, and was endorsed formally by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. The decisions of this council were rejected by Charlemagne for several reasons. A strong iconoclastic tendency has remained prevalent in Western Christianity, and received vigorous expression in the sixteenth century and later.
There are only three extant early representations of the Transfiguration. The oldest dates from the fifth century Baptistry in Albenga, on the Ligurian coast, in northwest Italy. It is a symbolic portrayal, showing three concentric circles, which are like inundating waves of glory, emanating from a giant Chi-Rho (XP).
The second is from the time of Emperor Justinian and the Monophysite controversy. It is an apse mosaic from 549 in Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, in Ravenna, Italy. This stylized mosaic portrays Christ in glory, with Moses and Elias (depicted from the waist up only), surrounded by clouds, with the hand of God in the midst of the clouds. The three Apostles, Ss. Peter, John and James, are represented by three sheep.
The third dates from about 600, and is at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. This also is an apse mosaic, and it portrays the Transfiguration according to the traditional iconographic canon: Christ is in a glory, flanked by Moses and Elias; the three Apostles are on the ground in different positions; and the Uncreated Light radiates from Christ towards the apostles. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(19) Although it is not known exactly when all the different propers for Vespers and Matins for feast days were composed, by mid-fourth century Vigils (Vespers and Matins) were already well established. In 364 at the Council of Laodocia it was decided that the established order for the different daily services must be observed, including Vespers and Matins, in order to maintain order in the churches. We know from the writings of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, and from others of the fourth century, that daily Vespers was well attended. Having evening services which people could attend after work was already customary in the first century. The Christian practice of praising God seven times a day was inherited from the Jewish custom, based on the Psalms, and itself existed in Christian circles from the first century also. Most of the voluminous hymnography for the cycles of feasts and Sundays were composed between the fourth and eighth centuries. However, the biblical dominical feasts, of course, were established at an early date. (See D.J. Grout, A History of Western Music, Norton & Co., New York, 1960, Chapter one; Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford, 1949; H.J.W. Tillyard, Byzantine Music and Hymnography, London, 1923; and the essay "Sacred Music" in Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Thought and Art, The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Mass., 1968.)
Since it was a great pre-occupation of the second and third century theologians to comb the Old Testament for prototypes of New Testament occurrences and symbols, it seems to be a logical hypothesis to suggest that the prototypes of the Old Testament theophanies of the glory of God experienced by Moses and Elias would early have been associated with the New Testament theophanies of the glory of God in Christ’s Transfiguration. Furthermore, it seems logical, since Bible readings formed an integral part of the Christian liturgical life from the beginning, that these readings most likely would have been included in the liturgical observances of the feast from a very early date—long before the hymnography had been established. (St. John of Damascus composed the Octoechos and many other canons for Matins in the eighth century.)
It is not known exactly when the Transfiguration was first observed. Cross indicates (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, London, 1958, p. 1371) that the feast originated in the Eastern Church, and had become widely adopted before 1000, but in the West observance of the feast started at a much later date, and its general observance was not until 1457, when the pope ordered its observance to commemorate the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on the feast day, August 6, 1456. I would suspect that in the East the observance of the Transfiguration became even more important and gained greater significance after the victory over iconoclasm in 843, since, as already mentioned, the theology of the Transfiguration is essential to the theology of the icon. Also, since it is a biblical feast, its observance most likely originated in Jerusalem at an early date, and probably would have included a procession-pilgrimage to Mt. Tabor, a hypothesis supported by the evidence that St. Helena built a church on Mt. Tabor in 326. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(20) Kittel suggests in his Theological Dictionary (op. cit., vol. 7, p. 349f.) that the Greek word for shade or shadow (skiá /skié) probably is derived from the same Indo-European root as skéné (e.g. a tent gives shade). [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(21) Also there is a fifth century mosaic at Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome, which depicts the Shekhinah as a cloud surrounding Moses and his companions, with the hand of God at the top in a cloud. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(22) Burtchaell, essay on the "Shekhinah" in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., vol. S, p. 169. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(23) op. cit., vol. 14, pp. 1349-1354; quote is on p. 1349. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(24) Ibid., p. 1350. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(25) Ibid., p. 1350. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(26) In Medieval Jewish thought philosophers attempted to understand the Shekhinah as created light, but perhaps that is a lower, more corporeal manifestation, and the vision of the Uncreated Light is a higher vibrational level of the same phenomenon. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(27) For example, this phrase occurs in the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast. To show this gradation of spiritual receptivity in icons of the Transfiguration, St. James is usually portrayed thrown to the ground, frequently on his back, with his hand covering his face; St. John is also thrown to the ground, face down, with his hand covering only the lower-part of his face; and St. Peter, on his knees, is looking towards Christ, but shielding his eyes with his up-raised hand. The three rays of light that emanate from Christ’s Glory may be understood as the agent of the energy that strikes the three apostles to the ground. (Might those three rays also be understood as a visualization of the cloud/Shekhinah that cast a shadow over them, and might these both really be aspects of the same Reality?) Anyway, at the Transfiguration, the apostles did not fully perceive the meaning of what they encountered; it wasn't until the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that they fully understood. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(28) Most translations (King James, RSV, New English Bible, The Jerusalem Bible, Phillips Translation) render the verse either as He "dwelt among us," or "lived among us." However, a footnote for the verse in The Jerusalem Bible gives "pitched his tent among us" as an alternative translation, and in the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Alfred Marshall, ed., Samuel Bagster and Sons, Ltd., London, 1960) the literal English translation actually adheres to the Greek, and the verse is rendered "and tabernacled among us." [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(29) op. cit., p. 169. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]
(30) We suggest that the Transfiguration is the Christian form of the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles, not only due to the common use of the word skéné, but also because both are late summer harvest festivals where grapes and other summer fruits are blessed (in Eastern Christian practice), and most importantly, because both commemorate the manifestation of the Glory of the Divine Presence in an earthly Tabernacle. [Click here to return to your place in the article.]