The Icon of the Transfiguration

I like Eastern Orthodox icons, which should be obvious to any of my regular readers, as I pepper icons rather liberally across the pages of this blog. But it seems a little crass to say I like icons. They are an essential element of worship in the Eastern church, and we evangelicals, I think, do our Orthodox brothers and sisters a disservice when we find the objects of their veneration neat, or cool. Nevertheless, like them I do. But I also like to think I’ve progressed a step beyond seeing them as commodities to slake my consumerist thirst, so many trinkets to put on the shelf next to my Precious Moments figurines. While I don’t venerate them, icons are replete with divine meaning; they are visual theology. I was first drawn to them through my fascination with the episode of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the Gospels. In studying Eastern spirituality for a class at Regent College, I came across the phrase “the Divine and Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor” and was struck by the economy of language, the felicity with which it captured the image of Jesus in the Transfiguration narratives.

Soon after, I learned that the Transfiguration, and the icons depicting it, is central to Eastern spirituality and theology (the Orthodox don’t differentiate between these two) and provides the quintessential paradigm for mystical encounter with the divine, and ultimately for theosis.

All this to say, this afternoon, I was at a local used bookstore and picked up a copy of The Uncreated Light: An Iconographical Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church by iconographer Solrunn Nes. Aside from the fact that I find the topic fascinating, and I can’t wait to dive in, another thing that caught my eye was a foreword by theologian David Bentley Hart. It’s only three pages long, but it alone is worth the price of admission. He eloquently puts into words a little of what makes the icon significant:

The Transfiguration image comprises within itself the whole story of creation, incarnation, and salvation in a particular way, with a special harmony of elements, and with a singular intensity. It allows us, in one fixed instant of visionary clarity, to see and to reflect upon the entire mystery of the God-man and of the divinization of our humanity in Him. The light that radiates from the figure of Christ is the eternal glory of His godhead shining through – and entirely pervading – His flesh. It is the visible beauty of the glory that entered the world to tabernacle among us in the Person of the eternal Son: the same glory that passed through the history of Israel, that transfigured the face of Moses, that dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, that rested upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, that overshadowed Mary when the angel of God appeared to her, and that has at various times throughout the history of the Church revealed itself to and in the saints.

The icon also, however, offers us a glimpse of the eschatological horizon of salvation; for the same light that the three disciples were permitted to see break forth from the body of Christ will, in the fullness of time, enter into and transform all of creation, with that glory that the Son had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5), and that the whole of creation awaits with groans of longing and travail (Rom. 8:19-23). Then, to use an image favored by a host of Orthodox spiritual writers, the entire universe will be like the burning bush seen by Moses: radiant with the fire of God’s holiness, but not consumed. And the Christian who prayerfully turns his gaze to the Transfiguration icon, and holds it there, should see himself taken up into the incarnate God, and refashioned after the ancient beauty of the divine image. For, just as it is Christ’s humanity that is transfigured in the light of his divinity, without thereby ceasing to be human, so too our human nature is called to an intimate union with the divine nature; we are created, that we may be deified in Christ. And so the icon is at once a revelation of God made man, and of all of us made god in Him. In it, we see how the kenosis of the eternal Son – His self-outpouring in the poverty and frailty of infancy, manhood, weariness, sorrow, suffering and death – is also simultaneously our plerosis – the filling of our nature with the imperishable splendor of divine beauty and limitless life, the light of rebirth and of resurrection.

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6 comments so far

  1. lucashannon on

    Jeff,
    That book sounds fantastic- I love used book store finds! Does he have a chapter on Precious Moments in the book?
    Lucas
    I’ve been to the world headquarters you know… many times… I probably shouldn’t have said that…

    • CHEZOOS on

      hey jeff how ya going

      • CHEZZOSHDHDF on

        A CHEZOOS I REALLY LIKE UR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT CAN WE BE FREINDS, U R MY INSPRO, BABY I LOVE T HE SONG BABY BY JUSTIN BEIBER I THINK IT WAS MADE 4 U

  2. Joe Skillen on

    Hey Jeff

    I really enjoyed your post. I read somewhere that the Eastern Church emphasizes the Incarnation as Western Evangelicals emphasize Calvary. I think that a higher view of the Incarnation would do wonders for us in the Western world. Perhaps Marvelous Light would begin to shake our communities and people would call upon the Name of the Lord!

    Cheers,

    Joe Skillen

  3. jeffreimer on

    Lucas,

    I checked the index, and no mention of Precious Moments. But that might make a good disseration topic for you: “Precious Moments as Iconography: A Rapprochment between Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.” I’m sure you’ll find tons of parallels. You can thank me later.

    Joe,

    Thanks for your kind words! That’s an interesting observation. And I agree with you. I think we could all learn a lot from the Eastern emphasis on the Incarnation.

  4. lucashannon on

    I have been growing in my appreciation and understanding of the Eastern church and their use of icons. Recently I have had a special feeling towards the transfiguration so I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!
    -s


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