Blessed Grapes and Hymns of Glory: The Feast of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Churches

Transfiguration of the Lord icon
by Monk Michael of Mt. Athos, 1989
August 6th commemorates Christ’s transfiguration in glory on Mount Tabor. The Transfiguration is one of twelve major feasts on the Eastern Christian liturgical calendar. A major feast is the equivalent of a solemnity on the Roman calendar. A glimpse of this feast through the hymns and traditions of the East gives a fresh perspective on God’s plan of salvation for us.

“My favorite part of this feast is singing the troparion,” says Robin Roxas of Morning Star Family Farm in Hartland, Wisconsin. Robin and his family of ten traveled an hour from their farm this evening in order to celebrate the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of the Feast at their Greek Catholic parish in Milwaukee. Roxas commented on the tradition his family has of singing the troparion during family prayers at home. “My children love to sing this hymn,” Roxas told CWR. This feast is a special one for Eastern Christian farmers around the world because it is customary to bring the first fruits of the summer harvest to be blessed by the priest during the Divine Liturgy.

Each feast of the Lord serves to illuminate the rich gestalt of the Incarnate Mystery. The Eastern Christian hymnography for the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor, like all major festal hymnography, is full of references to the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Hymn references like this stichera, composed by Cosmas the monk, sung at Great Vespers is an example:

Before Your Crucifixion, O Lord, taking the disciples up onto a high mountain, You were transfigured before them… from love of mankind and in Your sovereign might, Your desire was to show them the splendor of the Resurrection. Grant that we too, in peace, may be counted worthy of this splendor, O God, for You are merciful and the lover of mankind.

Without the Transfiguration and the other events of Jesus’ life, it would be difficult to grasp the totality of the paschal mystery and its implication for our lives.  The raising of Lazarus from the dead, for example, gives Christians hope that they will one day participate in Christ’s Resurrection.  Contemplation of these Christological events has propagated a magnificent wealth of liturgical poetry and hymnography – a major source of theology for Eastern Christians.

Eastern Christians speak about the divine ‘economy’. This economy has nothing to do with money – it has to do with God’s plan of salvation which culminates in Christ. The following sessional hymn from Matins of the Transfiguration illustrates the purpose God had for the chief Apostles of the Lord and, by extension, all his co-heirs - that they be filled with life, love, and goodness:

As they gazed upon Your glory, O Master, they were struck with wonder at Your blinding brightness. You who have shone upon them with Your light, give light now to our souls… confirm me in Your love: for You are our supreme desire and the support of the faithful, O You who alone are the lover of mankind. (Irmos)

The Holy Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is about divine encounter: “And he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white” (Mk 9:2).” In Eastern iconography, Jesus is depicted against an oval shaped backdrop with rays emanating out of it called a "mandorla", which represents the radiance of his uncreated Glory.   During the matins service, the following words demonstrate that the glory which radiates from Christ is not a product of human nature but comes from God alone:

You have shown them…the hidden blinding light of Your nature and of Your divine beauty beneath the flesh; and they [understand] that Your glory could not be borne.

Yet at the same time Moses and Elijah were also transfigured in glory: “And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elijah: who appeared in glory…” (Matins Gospel- Luke 9:30-31a) But Moses and Elijah are not emanating their own glory; rather, they are participating in the glory of God by worshipping Him:

For when I shall appear shining brighter than the sun, you shall be filled with glory and cry out for joy: Let us sing unto our God, for He has been glorified. (Irmos of Matins)...