The Light of Christ and the Transfiguration

My attention was drawn to the event of the Transfiguration during my college years. It was then that I first read a book on St. Seraphim of Sarov, who himself was transfigured in a famous incident in his conversation with Motivilov. There, on a snowy winter’s day, the saint shown with a brilliant light, and Motivilov felt effused with warmth and joy. It caught my attention in the most obvious way. I thought, “I wish I could see something like that!” That desire was encouraged as I began to read and discovered the Orthodox teaching on the light of the transfiguration as being the “Divine Energies,” nothing other than the uncreated light of God. The teaching holds that we can see and participate in the Divine Energies, but not the Divine Essence. I took note of that and continued my research.

In hindsight, I think I wanted to see two things. First, I wanted to “see” something that reassured me of the existence of God. “If I could see such a light,” I reasoned, “I would no longer doubt.” Second, I wanted the experience itself, to somehow be effused with that light. This, I think, is as honest as I can be about my thoughts at the time. I am probably not alone in such thinking.

The doctrine of the Divine Energies and the Uncreated Light of the Transfiguration, received a dogmatic definition in the Palamite Councils of the 14th century. The Church affirmed the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas that the experience of seeing the light of Christ, sometimes vouchsafed in prayer, was, in fact, an experience of God in His Divine Energies.

Many years have passed since my early college reading and research. It has taken most of those years to understand in a helpful way the doctrine of the Divine Energies. To a great extent, my understanding was “blinded by the light.” By that, I mean that I was focused on the experience of Transfiguration and St. Gregory’s defense of the monks to such an extent that I let it encompass the entire scope of the patristic teaching on the energies.

There is a teaching on the energies that is far more prosaic even practical to be found in the early fathers . That teaching can be understood by simply looking at the meaning of the word, “energy” or “energeia.” In Greek “energeia” simply means “doings” or “actions.” The Divine Energies thus means the divine actions, everything that God does. What does God do? He creates; He sustains; He holds all things in his goodness; He moves all things and draws all things towards union with Him. What we must understand is that this holding in goodness, this moving, this drawing, this uniting, this sustaining, this creating, is in fact God Himself as the Divine Energies. And understanding this we must see that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

But instead of understanding and contemplating this, for years I longed for an experience of Divine Light. As such, the idea was a distraction. The Transfiguration was something of a distraction for the disciples as well. St. Peter spoke of building three tabernacles on the mountain to mark or commemorate that wonderful moment. When Christ then spoke of His coming crucifixion, Peter rebuked Him! In doing so, he revealed that he still understood nothing of Christ’s work. Every action of Christ (including the Transfiguration) was a movement towards the Cross and the work (“energy”) of undoing death by death.

This remains a key in contemplating the Divine Energies (everywhere present and filling all things). The doings and actions of God are cruciform in nature. We proclaim that “in wisdom You have made them all,” while being told that Christ crucified is the “Wisdom and Power of God” (1Cor. 1:23-24). St. Maximus tells us that whoever understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.

St. Paul was deeply baptized into this mystery. (He cried out, “That I might know Him: the communion of His suffering and the power of His resurrection!” – Phil. 3:10). The sound of creation, sustained by the cruciform Divine Energies, was described by St. Paul as “groaning like a woman in childbirth.” The suffering creation, made manifest to us in every moment, suffers with Christ and groans with Christ.

It is interesting to me that in considering Peter, James, and John’s experience of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on Mount Tabor, it is the light that became of interest to me. And, in reflection, I see that I somehow treated the light as distinct from Christ Himself. Instead, we are told that Christ is the Light of the world and that this Light is life.

See how St. Dionysius speaks of the Divine Energies:

[God] in His providence is present to all things and becomes all things in all for the preservation of them all, while yet remaining in Himself nor ever going forth from His own proper Identity in that one ceaseless act wherein His life consists; and thus with undeviating power He gives Himself for the Deification of those that turn to Him. (The Divine Names, IX.5)

It is simply the case that the disciples on the mount of transfiguration saw as light what we all constantly see as Divine Providence. And just as they failed to recognize what they saw, so we also fail to understand and recognize what it is we ourselves see.

Christ stood speaking with Elijah and Moses, a saint who was assumed into heaven alive in a chariot of fire, and a saint who was bodily assumed into heaven after death (according to tradition). Parenthetically, this conversation utterly refutes those who would deny the communion of saints and our conversations with them. We follow the example of Christ. These saints understood the mystery of the Cross. We are told that their conversation with Christ was concerning His “exodus” (the Crucifixion). They spoke in union with the mystery of the light itself.

To celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration is, I think, to celebrate the mystery of the Cross at work in and through all things. The whole of creation is a shimmering garment that groans and gives voice to the Divine Energies that sustain us all – that “one ceaseless act wherein His life consists.”

The light of Christ illumines all.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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9 responses to “The Light of Christ and the Transfiguration”

  1. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this practical explanation of the Theophany of Christ.
    “Every action of Christ (including the Transfiguration) was a movement towards the Cross and the work (“energy”) of undoing death by death.”

  2. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Thank you Father, as always cogent.

    Apart from the beautifully explained theology, which will help deepen our understanding of the Eucharist, my takeaway from the article: Embrace the cross(es) in your life and try and life your life as fully in Christ as you can.

  3. Jordan Avatar

    Does this Divine work that you are speaking of cease when all things are brought to their fulfillment? Or is eternity a continued labor of a kind (though perhaps perfectly united with rest)? I hope that question makes sense. The West has tended to sharply divide contemplation and action. But if our participation with God is a participation in his energy, then no such division can remain even through eternity. Or perhaps resting is the way we participate in God’s energy.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our existence is sustained at every moment by the Divine Energies. Nothing in creation has self-existence. Only God is self-existent. Thus, through all eternity, and always, all that we are and do is sustained in that manner. It is His gift.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The post brings to mind my favorite hymn, The Bridegroom Hymn: “I behold the Bridal Chamber, richly adorned for my savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O giver of Light and save me! ”

    When I first heard the hymn I thought it said “giver of Life”. The actual words open up so much more.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Glory to God! Amen.

  7. Anna Avatar

    You mentioned how Christ spoke of his coming crucifixion and this brought to mind how Motovilov after he had this experience with St Seraphim ended up in a painful spiritual struggle for many years before finding peace. We see this in the lives of many, many saints too, how an initial experience of God’s uncreated light is not an entrance into paradise, but a deeper calling into dying to oneself.

  8. neal Avatar

    The rock art in the deserts is mostly a spiral with the cross.
    They say that is always what is happening.
    Mostly alway visible at certain times and seasons. Proto Churches and such.
    They even scribe underground for harder times.

  9. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen! I love this approaching feast, (old calendar for me), because after reading a little of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I have been reflecting that the certainty of the saints, he among them, is from the direct experiences they have had, of being surrounded by an illumination of this sort, God’s grace descending and they becoming physically aware of it. My ‘take’ is that it is not because of asceticism that this occurs, but unexpectedly and wholly from the grace of God. It is their inspiration.

    I haven’t had, nor can expect, such a divine gift, but I have had an instance of something very like which happened before I knew myself Orthodox – when I attended the Sunday evening church service before Lent, Forgiveness Sunday. It was my first experience of kneeling down before the others and before the icons, and I can never forget the overwhelming feeling of tenderness and safety and joy that infused the entirety of my being. It wasn’t a radiant light, but a warm and comforting darkness, and that stays with me. I am with the two apostles, losing my sandles, finding safety in darkness!

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