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A belated Transfiguration post

August 8, 2010

August 6 in the Orthodox Church is the Feast of the Transfiguration, on which we commemorate Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The Transfiguration–Christ’s appearing as glorified to his disciples– is not some miracle impinging upon mundane reality; rather, it is a revelation of what is true all the time had we the eyes to see. One of the hymns of the feast states that Christ “reveal[s] [his] glory to [his] disciples as far as they could bear it.” The glory is present in Christ all the time, and through Christ suffuses the new creation, which is to say the created world in the state God intended for it from all eternity. Hence what follows is that if we purify our vision, we see God’s presence in all things; we see Christ’s glory in our neighbor.

In the same way, in the Orthodox Church, the transformation of the elements in the Eucharist is not some kind of miracle confected on the altar; it is instead simultaneously the revelation and the restoration of what was and is always there; of the transcendent presence in all creation. Christ’s Incarnation is not a violent eruption–0r any eruption at all– into the “normal” world; it is instead simultaneously what the world is meant to be from all eternity, and a restoration of this truth, this goal. Hence also in some translations of the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, used on Sundays in Lent, the epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts on the altar) says “and reveal these to be the body of thy Christ, Amen.”

It is in these details of incarnational theology that I think we find the strongest disagreement between modern science and the premodern. There is no world of mere or inert matter; “mere” matter is instead an epiphenomenon of mystery, or of the divine. The same set of truths is behind the Hopi dancing for rain and blessings, and the small cornmeal bags that the pueblo Indian tribes carry, and sprinkle in front of those Catholic statues and put in pottery dishes by Catholic altars in churches across northern New Mexico.

For anyone interested in pursuing this line of thought in its Orthodox Christian form (which reveals what is truly intrinsic to Christianity; for so much has been lost to formalism, legalism, moralism), Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s essay titled “Body and Matter in Spiritual Life,” to which here’s a link. As Bloom says,

this capacity of the world to be in God and to have God within itself, this capacity of the matter of this world, leaving aside our soul and our spirit, is the very condition of the Incarnation on the one hand, and of our belief in the sacraments on the other hand. In the Incarnation, God who is without any common measure with what he has created, becomes intrinsic to his creation, puts on human flesh, which is a summing up of all those things which are, which exist in this created world. He assumes all the substance of the world, and this substance, not only in his own personal historical body, but in the whole world, is mysteriously, unfathomably connected with him, the personal God; connected personally, in a new relationship. And when, after the Resurrection, Christ ascends into heaven, he takes, in this mysterious divine act, the whole substance of our world into the very depth of the divine reality. God present in the world, part not only of its history but of its substance, and the world present in God.

In this spirit, fruit–apples in Russia and figs in the Middle East are blessed at the Feast in churches.

Happy belated feast day.

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