Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Transfiguration: finding meaning in icons

Transfiguration, a Romanian copy of an icon in Stavronikita Monastery in Mount Athos

Patrick Comerford

Introduction: The Biblical story

The Transfiguration is described in the three Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36). In addition, there may be allusions to the Transfiguration in John 1: 14 and in II Peter 1: 1-18, where Peter describes himself as an eyewitness “of his sovereign majesty.”

Of course, there is an obvious question: Why is there no Transfiguration narrative in Saint John’s Gospel?

But then, there is no Eucharistic institution narrative in the Fourth Gospel either.

Perhaps we could say that the Fourth Gospel is shot through with the Transfiguration and the light of the Transfiguration, from beginning to end, just as it is shot through with Eucharistic narratives from beginning to end.

But should we describe the Transfiguration as a miracle? If we do, then it is the only Gospel miracle that happens to Christ himself. On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the Transfiguration as “the greatest miracle,” because it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.

None of the accounts identifies the “high mountain” by name. The earliest identification of the mountain as Mount Tabor was by Jerome in the late fourth century.

But does it matter where the location is? Consider the place of Mountains in the salvation story and in revelation:

● Moses meets God in the cloud and the burning bush on Mount Sinai, and there receives the tablets of the Covenant (Exodus 25 to 31);
● Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18);
● Elijah climbs Mount Sinai and finds God not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice in the cleft of the Mountain (I Kings 19: 12);
● The Sermon, which is the “manifesto” of the new covenant, is the Sermon on the Mount;
● The Mount of Olives is a key location in the Passion narrative;
● Christ is crucified on Mount Calvary;
● John receives his Revelation in the cave at the top of the mountain on Patmos.

As for the cloud, as three Synoptic Gospels describe the cloud’s descent in terms of overshadowing (επισκιαζειν, episkiazein), which in the Greek is a pun on the word tents (σκηνάς skenas), but is also the same word used to describe the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1: 35).

In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud leads the people through the wilderness by day, just as the pillar of fire leads them by night. Moses entered the cloud on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24: 18), the Shekinah cloud is the localised manifestation of the presence of God (Exodus 19: 9; 33: 9; 34: 5; 40: 34; II Maccabees 2: 8).

The cloud takes Christ up into heaven at the Ascension (Acts 1: 9-10).

Saint Paul talks about the living and the dead being caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord (I Thessalonians 4: 17).

The principle characters:

Christ is the focus of the Transfiguration, but who are the other principle characters in this story?

1, The Trinity: In Orthodox theology, the Transfiguration is not only a feast in honour of Christ, but a feast of the Holy Trinity, for all three Persons of the Trinity are present at that moment:

● God the Father speaks from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17: 5).
● God the Son is transfigured;
● God the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a cloud.

The Transfiguration (Kirillo-Belozersk), anonymous, ca 1497 ... the Transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany”

In this sense, the Transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Trinity appears in a similar pattern).

2, Moses and Elijah: At the Transfiguration, Christ appears with Moses and Elijah, the two pre-eminent figures of Judaism, standing alongside him. Saint John Chrysostom explains their presence in three ways:

● They represent the Law and the Prophets – Moses received the Law from God, and Elijah was a great prophet.
● They both experienced visions of God – Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Carmel.
● They represent the living and the dead – Elijah, the living, because he was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, and Moses, the dead, because he did experience death.

Moses and Elijah show that the Law and the Prophets point to the coming of Christ, and their recognition of and conversation with Christ symbolise how he fulfils “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5: 17-19). Moses and Elijah also stand for the living and dead, for Moses died and his burial place is known, while Elijah was taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God’s salvation.

It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah (see Malachi 4), and the three interpret Christ’s response as a reference to John the Baptist (Matthew 17: 13).

3, The Disciples: Peter, James and John were with Christ on the mountain top.

Why these three disciples?

Do you remember how this might relate to Moses and Elijah? Moses ascended the mountain with three trusted companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, to confirm the covenant (Exodus 24: 1), and God’s glory covered the mountain in a cloud for six days (Exodus 25 to 31).

In some ways, Peter, James and John serve as an inner circle or a “kitchen cabinet” in the Gospels.

They are at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1, Mark 9: 2; Luke 9: 28), but also at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 9: 2; Luke 6: 51), at the top of the Mount of Olives when Christ is about to enter Jerusalem (Mark 13: 3), they help to prepare for the Passover (Luke 22: 8), and they are in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 37).

They are the only disciples to have been given nickname by Jesus: Simon became the Rock, James and John were the sons of thunder (Luke 5: 10). Jerome likes to refer to Peter as the rock on which the Church is built, James as the first of the apostles to die a martyr’s death, John as the beloved disciple.

They are a trusted group who also serve to represent us at each moment in the story of salvation.

The meaning of the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration (Spaso Preobrazhensky Monastery, Yaroslavl, ca 1516) ... The Transfiguration is the fulfilment of all the Theophanies, a fulfilment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ

The Transfiguration of Christ in itself is the fulfilment of all of the Theophanies and manifestations of God, a fulfilment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ. We could say the Transfiguration is the culmination of Christ’s public life, just as his Baptism is its starting point, and his Ascension its end. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey, in his small book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, wrote: “The Transfiguration stands as a gateway to the saving events of the Gospel.”

The Transfiguration reveals Christ’s identity as the Son of God. In the Gospel, after the voice speaks, Elijah and Moses have disappeared, and Christ and the three head down the mountain. The three ask themselves what he means by “risen from the dead” (Mark 9: 9-10). When they ask Jesus about Elijah, he responds: “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come …” (Mark 9: 12-13). He tells them to keep these things a secret until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Yet, in keeping with the Messianic secret, he tells the three not to tell others what they have seen until he has risen on the third day after his death.

Saint Paul uses the Greek word for Transfiguration, metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις), as found in the Synoptic Gospels when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18). Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.

Celebrating the Transfiguration:

Peter’s reference to the booths could imply that the Transfiguration took place during the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, when Biblical Jews were camping out in the fields for the grape harvest. This Feast also recalled the wanderings in the wilderness recorded in the Book Exodus.

In early Church tradition, the Transfiguration is connected with the approaching death and resurrection of Christ, and so was said to have taken place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

There is historical evidence that the feast of the Transfiguration belonged first to the pre-Easter season of the Church the Transfiguration was first celebrated on one of the Sundays of Lent. A sermon on the Transfiguration was preached in Lent by John Chrysostom while he was a priest in Antioch in 390. Saint Gregory Palamas, the great teacher of the Transfiguration, is commemorated during Lent.

We know from iconographic evidence that the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on Mount Sinai from the mid-fifth century, and the feast may have reached Constantinople in the late seventh century.

From 1474 until at least 1969, it was observed in the Roman Catholic Church on the Second Sunday in Lent. In some modern calendars, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican calendars, the Transfiguration is now commemorated on the last Sunday in the Season of Epiphany – the Sunday immediately before Ash Wednesday.

However, traditionally, the Feast of the Transfiguration is observed in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox calendars on 6 August. It may have been moved there because 6 August is 40 days before 14 September, the Feast of the Holy Cross, so keeping the tradition that the Transfiguration took place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

What was the Anglican attitude to the Feast of the Transfiguration?

It disappeared from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and when it reappeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer it was only in the calendar without any other provisions.

In the Book of Common Prayer 2004, the Church of Ireland is provided with Collects and Post-Communion prayers for the Feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August, and there is an alternative provision to mark the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent.

Too often in the Orthodox world, the celebrations of the Feast of the Transfiguration are overshadowed by those of the Dormition on 15 August. Yet, the summer celebration of the feast lends itself very well to the theme of Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration (Theophanes of Crete, Stavronikitas Monastery, Mount Athos) ... the Transfiguration is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church

In the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration is considered a major feast, and is counted among the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. This is also the second of the “Three Feasts of the Saviour in August.” These are:

● The Procession of the Cross (1 August);
● The Transfiguration (6 August);
● The “Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands” (16 August).

Orthodox celebrations of the Transfiguration are preceded by a one-day Forefeast, including Great Vespers and an All-Night Vigil on the eve of the Feast. The day itself celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, preceded by the Matins service.

On the day of the Transfiguration, grapes are traditionally brought to church to be blessed after the Divine Liturgy – although, if grapes are not available in the area, apples or some other fruit may be brought. This begins the “Blessing of the First Fruits” for the year. The blessing of grapes and other fruits and vegetables is a beautiful sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will be transformed by the glory of Christ.

The Afterfeast lasts for eight days, ending on the day before the Forefeast of the Dormition. In the Orthodox Church, the Transfiguration falls during the Dormition Fast, but the fast is relaxed and the consumption of fish, wine and oil is allowed on this day.

But the Transfiguration also has associations with ordination: from the time of Pope Leo the Great (died 460), the Transfiguration was the Gospel reading set for Ember Saturday, the day before ordinations took place.

Icons of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is a popular name for Orthodox churches and monasteries, and – as one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church – it is also a popular subject for icons, and it is said to be the scene on which trainee icon-writers traditionally cut their teeth.

Let me introduce six examples, and then offer an introductory explanation:

1, The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Sinai:

The sixth century Transfiguration mosaic in the katholikon in Mount Sinai may be the earliest surviving representation of the Transfiguration in iconography

The Transfiguration is among the oldest feasts of the Christian East and was depicted on the mosaic in the apse of the main church (Katholikon) in Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai as early as 565.

This mosaic is a notable early interpretation of the Transfiguration in Byzantine iconography, and has been central to the development of later iconography.

Christ, with black hair and beard, is in an oval of “glory” between Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. Below, the three awed disciples are seen in different poses. The soffit of the triumphal arch has medallions with busts of the twelve Apostles, but the three Apostles who are witnesses to the Transfiguration are replaced in those medallions by Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered with another series of 15 medallions with busts of the Prophets.

This monumental composition from the late 6th century is a true masterpiece of Byzantine art. The subject is treated with intense light and profound spirituality, and in a most expressive and transcendental manner the maker of this mosaic succeeds in representing the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, as formulated in 451 AD by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.

The spandrels of the arch are occupied by two flying angles and the centre by the Amnos (Lamb). The Virgin Mary is depicted in a bust on the south side and Saint John the Baptist on the north.

The Transfiguration, from Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai, mid-12th century, part of an iconostasis in Constantinople

This superb mosaic was the work of master mosaic workers who probably came from Constantinople.

Because of the sanctity and spirituality of the site and the famous mosaic of the Transfiguration, the Katholikon became known as the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Saviour.

2, The icon of Theophanes the Greek (1403):

The Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, attributed to Theophanes the Greek

Theophanes the Greek (Θεοφάνης, ca 1340 – ca 1410) was one of the greatest iconographers in Muscovite Russia, and was noted as the teacher and mentor of the great Andrei Rublev. This icon of the Transfiguration was probably written in the year 1403.

Theophanes was born in Constantinople ca 1340. He moved to Novgorod in 1370, and from there to Moscow in 1395. His style is unsurpassed in the expression he achieves by almost mono-coloured painting. His contemporaries said he appeared to be “painting with a broom,” referring to the bold, broad execution in some of his finest frescoes, which are unique in the larger Byzantine tradition. Theophanes was described by his contemporaries in Moscow as being “learned in philosophy,” a reflection on his broad education and erudition.

A hint of his education and erudition is found in his icon of the Transfiguration, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The arresting geometry and brilliance of the figure of Christ in this icon is balanced against the ordered disarray of the earthbound Apostles, who are strewn about like rag dolls in the uncreated Light of Mount Tabor. The balance of mathematical harmony in line and shape, with the masterful use of an earth-tone palette and precious gold leaf, evoke a spirituality that is immensely powerful and speaks to the painter’s genius.

The Transfiguration, by Theophanes the Greek, late 14th century, in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Unlike many icons in the earlier Greek style, this icon has no golden background that sweeps all the figures into eternity. While every part of the plane is occupied, the main focus is on the Transfigured Christ and on the disciples who are overawed by the splendour of his glory. The gold-backed Christ figure, gleaming in white, draws together the perspectives on eternity and history, draws together the past, represented by Moses and Elijah, the present, represented by the three disciples, and the future, with the understanding in the Transfiguration of who the disciples – indeed who we – are who we are called to be.

The rays of glory that radiate from Christ, who is elevated, seem to relate the apostles to Christ by means of a triangular composition: Christ is above at the highest point and the apostles are below. And so, as you look at this icon, your eye is taken straight to the central figure of Christ, bathed in white, with Moses and Elijah on either side, each in deep yellow and brown and Moses holding a tablet.

Christ is holding a scroll, symbolic of his authority and of the fact that he is the Living Word of God. Because of the compositional focus and the colour, Christ is the central focal point of the icon. While Moses and Elijah are level with him, they are not presented in a way that would divert our attention from Christ.

Christ’s raiment is a bright whitish colour that radiates in several directions almost like a star. Behind him is a silvery-blue circle permeated with golden shafts of light that probably represents both the cloud and his glory.

The colour scheme of the icon helps to express the nature of the Transfiguration: although the overall background colours are shades of orange, yellow, and black, the light emitted from Christ is casting a blue-green hue over the apostles who are witnesses of it.

The three apostles, Peter, James and John, like Moses and Elijah, are in tallow and brown. They are terror-struck by what is going on, displaying their amazement and reactions to the mightiness of Christ’s glory. But they are not cut off from the action, for each of them is at the receiving end of a blue ray emanating from Christ.

There are two smaller scenes in this icon that did not appear in earlier icons of the Transfiguration, but have influenced every icon of the Transfiguration ever since. These two, almost identical and parallel scenes, can be seen on the left and the right sides of the icon.

Almost midway between Christ and the apostles are two caves in which four figures stand, observing the scene. These scenes represent the ascent and descent of the mount by Christ and the apostles, and are examples of the multiple temporalities that can exist in icons. As if to both exaggerate and to minimise the distance between the two zones, these are much smaller scenes. Yet, Christ stands out as the leader: he leads them up the mountain, but he also leads them down.

In the upper left and right corners are two identical scenes of angels, perhaps in clouds. This multiplication of witnesses emphasises the importance of the Transfiguration and its spiritual meaning. This icon, with its bold, dramatic style and strong sense of movement is an excellent example of Theophane the Greek’s “tense, expressive, and mystical style of painting, an extreme form of Paleologian art.”

The icon of the Transfiguration by Theophanes is worth comparing with two other representations of this theme produced in the century or so that followed.

3, The Transfiguration icon by Andrei Rublev:

The Transfiguration, by Andrei Rublev

The second icon is the work of Andrei Rublev, the disciple of Theophanes the Greek. This icon was written in 1405 for the Liturgical Feast Row in the iconostasis (icon screen) of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin in Moscow.

As in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, or the Holy Trinity, Rublev discards everything superficial, leaving only the six essential figures, beautifully composed into two groups of three and connected only by the rays of light emanating from the mandorla of Christ.

The Transfiguration, by Andrei Rublev, ca 1405, The Kremlin, Moscow

The group at the top reminds us of Rublev’s greatest masterpiece by the gentle curvature of the bodies of Elijah and Moses, enveloping, as it were, the central figure of Christ.

The soft colours, dominated by the ochre of the background, stand in direct contrast to the bright work from Novgorod, and to the rich palette of Theophanes.

4, The Novgorod icon of the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration, Novgorod, probably written in the late 15th or early 16th century

This icon of the Transfiguration was possibly written in the icon workshops in the northern Russian town of Novgorod in the late 15th or early 16th century. The manner of painting and the surviving inscriptions indicate a date in the 16th century.

Probably for speed of execution, the master copied the figures of the prophets and apostles from standard images, and only details reveal their individual natures – a few variations in facial feature, the colour of the robes.

Yet, this icon surprises the viewer with its monumental composition and brightness of colours. At the same time, it shows unmistakable signs of Muscovite influences in the elongated proportions of the figures.

5, Cretan icon, ca 1550:

The Transfiguration of Christ, ca 1550, an unknown Cretan icon writer, now in the Ikonen-Museum, Recklinghausen

The same iconography can be seen in the Transfiguration of Christ, ca 1550, by an unknown Cretan icon writer, and now in the Ikonen-Museum in Recklinghausen.

We can see the same arrangement on this icon. The transfigured Christ stands in an aureole between the prophets Moses and Elijah, while the three apostles, Peter, John and James, throw themselves to the ground in fear, dazzled by the supernatural light.

Christ stands on a sharp rocky outcrop in a radiant white garment, giving the blessing with his right hand and holding a closed scroll in his left. He is surrounded by an oval aureole of light, in which is inscribed a rectangle with inwardly curving sides, from which rays emanate towards Elijah and Moses, each standing on his own mountain summit in an attitude of veneration. Three further rays strike the three disciples, who have thrown themselves to the ground in prayer.

To this basic scheme two other events have been added, one preceding, the other following the Transfiguration. On the left, Christ is climbing the mountain with the three disciples, on the right we see their descent.

The anonymous write of this icon was a contemporary of Theophanes the Cretan, an icon-writer of the Cretan school, who wrote three important icons of the Transfiguration in Mount Athos, one in Stavronikita Monastery (ca 1546) and two earlier ones in Pantokrator Monastery (ca 1535-1545). His elegant Palaeologan iconographical format provides a bridge between the traditions of the 15th century Cretan school and 16th century art

In these works, Theophanes places Christ in a round aureole or mandorla. His Athonite icons are modelled on a miniature then in a monastery near Thessaloniki. The Stavronikita icon is chiefly characterised by a balanced, symmetrical arrangement of the figures and the details of the landscape. In the principal icon in Pantokrator, Theophanes includes the innovation introduced by Theophanes the Greek 130 years earlier in Moscow, showing Christ leading the three disciples up the mountain and down again.

6, A Finnish icon

The Transfiguration, by Jyrki Pouta, a teacher from Vaajakoski

The Transfiguration is one of the 12 icons which Jyrki Pouta, a Finnish teacher from Vaajakoski, written for the Orthodox Church of Resurrection. He was given a free hand, but paid respect to both the Gospel traditions, and Orthodox tradition in writing this icon.

In his icon, the face of Christ shines like the sun and his clothes are snow white as light of an innocent person, the garments of heavenly beings. The presence of light and dark cloud often signifies the Divine Presence, which also surrounded Mount Sinai when God gave the holy law to Moses.

In the icon, light radiates from Christ to those closest to God: Elijah, Moses and the three disciples. Elijah stands to the left of Christ, representing the Prophets and the living, because he was bodily assumed into heaven.

The expectations and mission of Elijah are fulfilled in the mission of John the Baptist.

Moses is placed on the right of Christ, representing the Law and the dead, for Moses died on Mount Nebo.

Pouta’s decision to show Moses as a young man is exceptional, for in other icons he looks old. He led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but only glimpsed the Promised Land, never getting there.

Both Moses and Elijah saw God’s glory on the Mountain and both announced the suffering of Christ. Moses, Elijah and Christ stand on three mounts.

The three Greek letters on Christ’s halo form the shape of the cross.

The central position of Christ, the fact that he is the largest size, and the blue outline emphasise that he belongs to heaven, that he is part of the creator, and that he is coming again. Blue is also the colour of water (baptism).

The oval shape symbolises God’s kingdom, which is about to open its door to whole world. In Orthodox iconography, the colour red also tells us that Christ was born from the Virgin Mary, became flesh and ascended from earth to heaven.

The Gospel narratives tell us that the disciples, startled by the brightness, turned their heads away, although Peter – as the icons show – saw Christ. He is traditionally coloured with green and locates on the bottom left. The position of his hands is a reminder of prayer.

Explaining the icon of the Transfiguration as metamorphosis

The icon explained:

The figure of Christ is always the central figure in icons of the Transfiguration, and is usually placed within a circular mandorla

1, In the icon of the Transfiguration, Christ is always the central figure appearing in a dominant position, usually within a circular mandorla, although sometimes in an oval or almond-shaped mandorla. He is clearly at the visual and theological centre of the icon. He is dressed in white robes. His right hand is raised in blessing, and his left hand contains a scroll.

The mandorla with its brilliant colours of white, gold, and blue represent the divine glory and light. The halo around the head of Christ is inscribed with the Greek words O ON, meaning “The One Who is.”

Although his body may not look any different from how we should imagine it, Christ’s clothing is dazzling white. Remember how Saint Paul tells us: “As many of you as are baptised by Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3: 27).

In the icon by Theophanes the Greek, Christ is at the centre of a circular mandorla at the summit, with rays going down to the three disciples at the foot of the mountain. On the other hand, Moses and Elijah are outside the circle, and there are no rays reaching out to them.

In icons where the rays reach Moses and Elijah, they are being drawn into the scene, into the event. But in icons where the rays reach out only to the three disciples, then the disciples, and the viewers too, the worshippers, are being drawn into this new disclosure of salvation.

The mandorla is interpreted in Orthodox theology as the divine energies that suffuse Christ and, through him, the whole of creation.

When the mandorla is circular, it expresses the accessible glory of God. Circularity is more inclusive, and leads us into Christ. Another good example of a circular mandorla is found in a well-known 16th century icon of the Transfiguration in the Monastery of the Pantocrator on Mount Athos.

On the other hand, an oval-shaped mandorla, as in the Sinai mosaic, expresses the luminance of God and delineates in a more exclusive way. If the rays are drawn mathematically from an oval mandorla, the icon writer is making a statement about Christ as the Lord not only of time but also of space too.

An innovation in the icon by Theophanes is the two huge, vector-like shapes behind Christ, expressing the two-fold character of the event – it is about both ascent and descent.

The Prophet Elijah appears on Christ’s right-hand side

2, The Prophet Elijah appears on Christ’s right-hand side.

Moses, holding the Ten Commandments, is on Christ’s left-hand side

3, Moses is holding the Ten Commandments and is on Christ’s left-hand side.

Elijah and Moses stand at the top of separate mountain peaks to the left and right of Christ. They are bowing toward Christ, with their right hands raised in a gesture of intercession towards him.

If the event took place on one mountain top, such as Mount Tabor, why do you think are these two on separate mountain tops?

Peter, James and John react to the vision

4, The three Apostles who accompanied Christ to the mountain, Peter, John, and James, are below Christ, and react to the vision of his Transfiguration.

The garments of the Apostles in state of disarray, indicating the dramatic impact of the vision on them

5, The garments of the Apostles are in state of disarray, indicating the dramatic impact the vision has on them.

The posture of three apostles in the icon shows their response to the Transfiguration. John in the centre has fallen prostrate. He is often shown having fallen head over heels supporting himself with his right hand and covering his face with the other. Peter is rising up from a kneeling position and raises his right hand toward Christ as he speaks, expressing his desire to build the three booths, tabernacles or tents.

The Apostle James falls to the ground or falls over backwards

6, The Apostle James reacts to the vision by falling to the ground or falling over backwards, attempting to cover his eyes with his hands to prevent him from seeing more.

If the apostles’ eyes are closed or shielded, remember how Luke in his account says they were weighed down with sleep (Luke 9: 30-32) … and how these three later could not stay awake in Gethsemane.

The two smaller scenes, introduced by Theophanes the Greek in the Tretyakov icon in Moscow, show that the Transfiguration is about both ascent and descent. To see the transfigured Christ, we have to leave behind the familiar, but we also have to come back down to earth again. There can be no staying permanently in an unnaturally extended religious comfort zone.

Indeed, in the two smaller scenes in the Tretyakov icon, Christ is paying more attention to the disciples on the way down than he is on their way up.

A modern icon of the Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov ... in Orthodox icons of the Transfiguration, we have drama and a moment full of movement

In Orthodox iconography of the Transfiguration, we have no static scene, but drama and a moment full of movement. The icon serves as a narrative to open our eyes and hearts to a different, more allusive way of looking at the Gospel: here are live, happening events, real human beings, and challenges to the past, present and future.

In the icon by Theophanes the Greek, and many other icons of the Transfiguration, the three disciples look as though they still have to undergo their climb of the mountain. There is still a considerable distance between them and Christ. And so the icon does not tell of a world already reconciled; it lives with the tensions of an unreconciled world, it beckons and it challenges.

The icon directs our attention toward the event of the Transfiguration and specifically to the glory of God as revealed in Christ.

This event came at a critical point in Christ’s ministry, just as he was setting out on his journey to Jerusalem. He would soon experience the humiliation, suffering, and death of the Cross. However, the glorious light of the resurrection was revealed to strengthen his disciples for the trials that they would soon experience.

Why was the Transfiguration so eagerly adopted as Feast and as a theme in iconography in the Byzantine and Orthodox Church?

The Transfiguration by Aidan Hart ... in the Transfiguration, both the humanity and divinity of Christ are manifested to us

The Transfiguration has immense Christological importance, for both the humanity and divinity of Christ are manifested to the disciples, and so to us. This was developed as a theological thought in a sermon on the Transfiguration once said to have been written by Saint Ephrem the Syrian (ca 306-373), but now thought to have been written by a latter writer. Nevertheless, you can see how the Transfiguration helped at that time to underpin the teachings on the divine and human natures of Christ, encapsulated in the Creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon.

The Transfiguration also points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God

The feast of the Transfiguration also points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation will be transfigured and filled with light. The vision of Christ in his glory and the experience of the divine light are at the very heart of both Orthodox mysticism and Orthodox eschatology. The “uncreated light” is a hallmark theme in Orthodox spirituality, especially in the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas and the school of the thought that is hesychasm, which draws constantly on the themes of the Transfiguration.

Saint Gregory Palamas distinguishes between the essence of God, which is beyond human apprehension, and the energies of God, which are the ways in which we can experience and know God. According to him, the light of the Transfiguration “is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.” Rather, Christ’s disciples experienced a transformation of their senses so that “they beheld the Ineffable Light where and to the extent that the Spirit granted it to them.”

This was, therefore, not only a prefiguration of the eternal blessedness to which all Christians look forward, but also of the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.

In Orthodox theology, since Patristic times, the three booths or tents that the three disciples want to erect represent three stages of salvation:

● Virtue, which is the active life of ascetic struggle, and which is represented by Elijah.
● Spiritual knowledge, which requires right discernment in natural contemplation or contemplation of the natural order, which was disclosed by Moses.
● Theology, which means contemplation of God, which requires the consummate perfection of wisdom, and which was revealed by Christ.

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word in the Gospel accounts for Transfiguration is metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις), and gives us access to deeper and more theological meaning, a deeper truth, than the word derived from the Latin transfiguratio, which can be translated by “to be changed into another from.” But the Greek metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις) means “to progress from one state of being to another.” Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. The metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what orthodox writers call deification.

As the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech once said: “Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.”

The Transfiguration ... a fresco in an Orthodox church in the US


Apolytikion or Troparion (Tone 7):

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
showing your Disciples your glory,
as far as they could bear it.
At the prayers of the Mother of God
make your everlasting light
shine also on us sinners.
Giver of Light, glory to you.

Kontakion (Tone 7):

You were transfigured on the mountain,
and your disciples beheld your glory,
O Christ our God, as far as they were able;
that when they see you crucified
they might know that your suffering was voluntary,
and might proclaim to the world
that you are truly
the brightness of the Father.


Father in heaven,
whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured
before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain,
and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish in Jerusalem:
Give us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross in this world,
that in the world to come we may see him as he is;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 317.

Post Communion Prayer

Holy God,
we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
May we who are partakers at this table
reflect his life in word and deed,
that all the world may know his power to change and save.
This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 317.

Resources and reading:

Andreopoulos, Andreas, Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, 2005).
Baggley, John, Doors of perception: icons and their spiritual significance (London: Mowbray, 1987).
Bulgakov, Sergei, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2008).
Cunningham, Mary B., and Theokritoff, Elizabeth (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Karakatsanis, Athanasios A (ed), Treasures of Mount Athos (Thessaloniki: Holy Community of Mount Athos, 1997).
Lash, (Archimandrite) Ephrem, An Orthodox Prayer Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Nes, Solrunn, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Ouspensky, Leonid, Theology of the Icon, 2 vols (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1992).
Ramsey, Michael, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, 1949/1967).
Stevenson, Kenneth, Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007).
Ware, (Bishop) Kallistos, The Orthodox Way (Oxford: Mowbray, 1979).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This paper was prepared for the “Transfiguration Integrative Seminar” with part-time MTh and NSM students on 9 April 2011, and includes material used in an earlier seminar with full-time MTh students on 6 April 2010.

Two Gospel readings for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday ... the Triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem

Patrick Comerford


There is a complicated set of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, Palm Sunday, 17 April 2011.

For the Principal Service, the provided readings for the Liturgy of the Palms are: Matthew 21: 1-11; and Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29. And for the Liturgy of the Passion, the readings are: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; and Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66, or Matthew 27: 11-54.

For our Bible study this morning, I have chosen to look briefly at the Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Palms, and the shorter Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Passion.

Matthew 21: 1-11

1 Καὶ ὅτε ἤγγισαν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ ἦλθον εἰς Βηθφαγὴ εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν, τότε Ἰησοῦς ἀπέστειλεν δύο μαθητὰς 2 λέγων αὐτοῖς, Πορεύεσθε εἰς τὴν κώμην τὴν κατέναντι ὑμῶν, καὶ εὐθέως εὑρήσετε ὄνον δεδεμένην καὶ πῶλον μετ' αὐτῆς: λύσαντες ἀγάγετέ μοι. 3 καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ τι, ἐρεῖτε ὅτι Ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν χρείαν ἔχει: εὐθὺς δὲ ἀποστελεῖ αὐτούς. 4 Τοῦτο δὲ γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

5 Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών,
Ἰδοὺ ὁ βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι,
πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον,
καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου.

6 πορευθέντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ καὶ ποιήσαντες καθὼς συνέταξεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς 7 ἤγαγον τὴν ὄνον καὶ τὸν πῶλον, καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπ' αὐτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια, καὶ ἐπεκάθισεν ἐπάνω αὐτῶν. 8 ὁ δὲ πλεῖστος ὄχλος ἔστρωσαν ἑαυτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, ἄλλοι δὲ ἔκοπτον κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων καὶ ἐστρώννυον ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ. 9 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι οἱ προάγοντες αὐτὸν καὶ οἱ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἔκραζον λέγοντες,

Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ:
Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου:
Ὡσαννὰ ἐν τοῖς ὑψίστοις.

10 καὶ εἰσελθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα ἐσείσθη πᾶσα ἡ πόλις λέγουσα, Τίς ἐστιν οὗτος; 11 οἱ δὲ ὄχλοι ἔλεγον, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ προφήτης Ἰησοῦς ὁ ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲθ τῆς Γαλιλαίας.


When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Matthew 21: 1-11 – reading the text

We have entered the last week with Christ in the days before his Crucifixion. The parallel passages for this reading are: Mark 11: 1-10; Luke 19: 28-38; and John 12: 12-18.

In Saint Matthew’s account, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to great solemnity. This event is portrayed here as the entry of the king into his capital. This is the coming of God’s Son to his disobedient people, and, as with the Transfiguration – which we shall be considering in this afternoon’s seminar – we have here a preview of Christ’s coming again in glory at the end of the world.

What happens to this king? We shall find this in our second reading (Matthew 27: 11-54), the Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the passion tomorrow week.

Christ choses the way in which he enters Jerusalem that day. There is a sense of mystery about the way he arranges the details. But in all he does, he is obeying is Father’s commands and fulfilling his Father’s wishes.

Compare Saint Matthew’s description of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with the description in the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Saint Matthew’s purpose is to sound the note of majesty and kingship before the Passion narrative begins, but also to look forward to Christ’s second coming.

Verse 1:

Bethphage, like Bethany, is a village to the east of Jerusalem.

The Mount of Olives is associated in the Old Testament with Messianic hopes (see Zechariah 14: 4), and later in the Gospel this is we hear of the coming of Christ at the end of the world (see Matthew 24: 3).

Verse 3:

How do you think the owner responded? Was he a secret disciple of Jesus?

Verse 5:

Matthew here combines two Old Testament prophecies. The passages in the Hebrew Scriptures being referred to here are: Isaiah 62: 11, and Zechariah 9: 9. However, the Hebrew texts refer to one animal, not two.

Verse 7:

The reference to two animals here may have arisen due to a misunderstanding of the poetic form of expression in Zechariah 9: 9.

Verse 8:

These are tokens of honour (see II Kings 9: 13). But branches are also mentioned in the accounts of the rededication of the Temple at the Feast of the Tabernacles in the year 165 BC (see I Maccabees 13: 51; II Maccabees 10: 7).

Verse 9:

See Psalm 118: 26. The word Hosanna was originally a Hebrew invocation addressed to God, meaning: “O Save,” or “O, Help.” Later, it came to be used as a liturgical acclamation, or a cry of greeting.

Matthew adds the phrase “to the Son of David,” emphasising Christ’s kingship at the moment he enters the royal city.

The phrase “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” is also from Psalm 118 (verse 26). ‘The one who comes’ or ‘he who comes’ may have been used as a title for the Messianic king.

Verse 10:

Compare the phrase ‘the whole city was in turmoil’ with an earlier passage in this Gospel: ‘When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with them.”

There is a link between the Journey of the Magi and the Christ’s journey into Jerusalem, between Epiphany and Holy Week, that is captured poetically by TS Eliot in his Journey of the Magi:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Verse 11:

The identification reflects an unchanged attitude towards Christ. He is still a prophet in their eyes, less than he actually is, and he is still slightly outside the boundaries of society, coming from Nazareth in Galilee.

The Crucifixion

Matthew 27: 11-54 – reading the text

11 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος: καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, Σὺ λέγεις. 12 καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο. 13 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν; 14 καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

15 Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον. 16 εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον [Ἰησοῦν] Βαραββᾶν. 17 συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, [Ἰησοῦν τὸν] Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; 18 ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν. 19 Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ' ὄναρ δι' αὐτόν. 20 Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν. 21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν. 22 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω. 23 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω. 24 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τούτου: ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε. 25 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς πᾶς ὁ λαὸς εἶπεν, Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ ἐφ' ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν. 26 τότε ἀπέλυσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Βαραββᾶν, τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν φραγελλώσας παρέδωκεν ἵνα σταυρωθῇ.

27 Τότε οἱ στρατιῶται τοῦ ἡγεμόνος παραλαβόντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον συνήγαγον ἐπ' αὐτὸν ὅλην τὴν σπεῖραν. 28 καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ, 29 καὶ πλέξαντες στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν ἐπέθηκαν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ κάλαμον ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, καὶ γονυπετήσαντες ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Χαῖρε, βασιλεῦ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, 30 καὶ ἐμπτύσαντες εἰς αὐτὸν ἔλαβον τὸν κάλαμον καὶ ἔτυπτον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. 31 καὶ ὅτε ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ, ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὴν χλαμύδα καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀπήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σταυρῶσαι.

32 Ἐξερχόμενοι δὲ εὗρον ἄνθρωπον Κυρηναῖον ὀνόματι Σίμωνα: τοῦτον ἠγγάρευσαν ἵνα ἄρῃ τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ. 33 Καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τόπον λεγόμενον Γολγοθᾶ, ὅ ἐστιν Κρανίου Τόπος λεγόμενος, 34 ἔδωκαν αὐτῷ πιεῖν οἶνον μετὰ χολῆς μεμιγμένον: καὶ γευσάμενος οὐκ ἠθέλησεν πιεῖν. 35 σταυρώσαντες δὲ αὐτὸν διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ βάλλοντες κλῆρον, 36 καὶ καθήμενοι ἐτήρουν αὐτὸν ἐκεῖ. 37 καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπάνω τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ τὴν αἰτίαν αὐτοῦ γεγραμμένην: Οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεῦς τῶν Ἰουδαίων. 38 Τότε σταυροῦνται σὺν αὐτῷ δύο λῃσταί, εἷς ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ εὐωνύμων. 39 Οἱ δὲ παραπορευόμενοι ἐβλασφήμουν αὐτὸν κινοῦντες τὰς κεφαλὰς αὐτῶν 40 καὶ λέγοντες, Ὁ καταλύων τὸν ναὸν καὶ ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις οἰκοδομῶν, σῶσον σεαυτόν, εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, [καὶ] κατάβηθι ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ. 41 ὁμοίως καὶ οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς ἐμπαίζοντες μετὰ τῶν γραμματέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων ἔλεγον, 42 Ἄλλους ἔσωσεν, ἑαυτὸν οὐ δύναται σῶσαι: βασιλεὺς Ἰσραήλ ἐστιν, καταβάτω νῦν ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ καὶ πιστεύσομεν ἐπ' αὐτόν. 43 πέποιθεν ἐπὶ τὸν θεόν, ῥυσάσθω νῦν εἰ θέλει αὐτόν: εἶπεν γὰρ ὅτι Θεοῦ εἰμι υἱός. 44 τὸ δ' αὐτὸ καὶ οἱ λῃσταὶ οἱ συσταυρωθέντες σὺν αὐτῷ ὠνείδιζον αὐτόν.

45 Ἀπὸ δὲ ἕκτης ὥρας σκότος ἐγένετο ἐπὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ἕως ὥρας ἐνάτης. 46 περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων, Ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ' ἔστιν, Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες; 47 τινὲς δὲ τῶν ἐκεῖ ἑστηκότων ἀκούσαντες ἔλεγον ὅτι Ἠλίαν φωνεῖ οὗτος. 48 καὶ εὐθέως δραμὼν εἷς ἐξ αὐτῶν καὶ λαβὼν σπόγγον πλήσας τε ὄξους καὶ περιθεὶς καλάμῳ ἐπότιζεν αὐτόν. 49 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ ἔλεγον, Ἄφες ἴδωμεν εἰ ἔρχεται Ἠλίας σώσων αὐτόν. 50 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν κράξας φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ἀφῆκεν τὸ πνεῦμα. 51 Καὶ ἰδοὺ τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ ἐσχίσθη ἀπ' ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω εἰς δύο, καὶ ἡ γῆ ἐσείσθη, καὶ αἱ πέτραι ἐσχίσθησαν, 52 καὶ τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν, 53 καὶ ἐξελθόντες ἐκ τῶν μνημείων μετὰ τὴν ἔγερσιν αὐτοῦ εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν καὶ ἐνεφανίσθησαν πολλοῖς. 54 Ὁ δὲ ἑκατόνταρχος καὶ οἱ μετ' αὐτοῦ τηροῦντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἰδόντες τὸν σεισμὸν καὶ τὰ γενόμενα ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, λέγοντες, Ἀληθῶς θεοῦ υἱὸς ἦν οὗτος.


Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’ Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified!’ Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

Matthew 27: 11-54 – reading the text

Verses 11-14 – Jesus before Pilate

See Mark 15: 2-5; Luke 23: 2-5; John 18: 29-19: 16.

Verse 11:

The phrase ‘King of the Jews’ is one that could only have been used by a Gentile, for the Jews of the time did not described themselves as such – they were the Hebrews or the Israelites.

Verse 14:

See Luke 23: 9; Matthew 26: 62; Mark 14: 60; I Timothy 6: 13.

Verses 15-26 – the crowd choses Barabbas

See Mark 15: 6-15; Luke 23: 18-25; John 18: 38-40; John 19: 4-16.

Verse 15

Apart from the Gospels, there is no external evidence for this custom.

Verse 17:

Some Greek, Syriac and other manuscript versions of this Gospel tell us that the full name of Barabbas was Jesus Barabbas. The crowd is given a choice – the robber Jesus or the royal Jesus.

Verse 19:

See Luke 23: 4.

Verse 21:

See Acts 3: 13-14. Pilate’s second question is an addition by Matthew.

Verse 24:

See Deuteronomy 21: 6-9; Psalm 26: 6. In washing his hands, Pilate is using a Jewish symbolic action to express the innocence of Jesus.

Verse 25:

See Acts 5: 28; Joshua 2: 19.

Verse 26:

Scourging with a multi-thonged whip was a regular Roman practice prior to execution.

Verses 27-44: The Crucifixion

Verses 27-31:

See Mark 15: 16-20; John 19: 1-3.

Verse 27:

The cohort at full strength numbered about 500 or 600 men, or one-tenth of a legion. The praetorium was the Roman prosecutor’s official residence in Jerusalem.

An icon of Christ the Bridegroom

Verse 29:

At the time, the emperor was shown on coins wearing a crown that was radiant with spikes or shards of light or glory. Here Jesus is not only being inflicted with pain but is also being mocked. The reed is a mocking representation of a royal sceptre, the salutation ‘Hail, King ..’ a mocking representation of the imperial ‘Ave Caesar …

Verses 32-44 – Jesus is crucified

See Mark 15: 21-32; Luke 23: 26, 33-43; John 19: 17-24.

Verse 32:

‘As they went out …’ or ‘As they were marching out …’ is literally ‘as they came out.’ The crucifixion is to take place outside Jerusalem, outside the city walls.

The procession includes Christ, two other prisoners, a centurion, and a few soldiers. Simon, and the others, were probably known to the early Christians who first read the Gospel.

Verse 33:

Golgotha may have been a hill shaped like a skull, or it may have been an unclean place used for executions. There was legend that Adam’s skull had been buried there.

Verse 34:

See Psalm 69. Gall may refer to anay bitter liquid, or possibly the myrrh of Mark 15: 23.

Verse 35:

‘They divided his clothes.’ Soldiers had a right to the last remaining possessions of an executed criminal, including his clothes. But Matthew also presents this a prophetic fulfilment of Psalm 22: 18.

Verse 37:

Compare the words here with the divine acclamation at his Baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Matthew 3: 17).

It was customary to indicate the offence of the punished prisoner. Since the Romans recognised the ruling Herodian monarchs as legitimate kings, the implication here appears to be that Jesus was a pretender and a revolutionary.

Verse 38:

See Isaiah 53: 12.

Verse 39:

See Psalm 22: 7-8; Psalm 109: 25.

Verse 40:

See Matthew 26: 61; John 2: 19; Acts 6: 14.

“If you are the Son of God …” is a repetition of the devil’s words during the temptation in the wilderness (see Matthew 4: 3, 6).

Verses 42-43:

These taunts stress the religious aspects of the words and works of Jesus.

The reference to Israel in verse 42, rather than ‘the Jews’ in the inscription on the cross (see verse 37), is a reference to the religious community rather than the political society.

For verse 43, see Psalm 22: 8.

Verses 45-54 – the death of Jesus

For parallels, see: Mark 15: 33-41; Luke 23: 44-49; John 19: 28-37.

Verse 46:

‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ These words are a direct quotation from Psalm 22: 1.

Mark gives us ‘Eloi, Eloi,’ which is the Aramaic; Matthew gives us ‘Eli, Eli,’ which is the Hebrew, and which leads to the misunderstanding referred to in the next verse.

Verse 47:

The name Elijah is similar in sound to the word ‘Eli.’ Elijah was expected to usher in the final period (see Malachi 4: 5-6; Matthew 27: 49), and according to Old Testament accounts Elijah did not die but was taken up alive to heaven (see II Kings 2: 9-12).

Verse 48:

See also Psalm 69: 21; Matthew 27: 34.

The motive in offering the sour wine or vinegar may have been to revive Jesus, and in so doing to prolong his ordeal.

Verse 50:

The RSV’s ‘yielded up his spirit’ is more proactive than the NRSV’s passive ‘breathed his last,’ which is also found in Mark (Mark 15: 39).

Verse 51:

See also: Exodus 26: 31-35; Matthew 28: 2; Mark 15: 38; Hebrews 9: 8; Hebrews 10: 19.

There were two curtains in the Holy of Holies, an outer curtain and an inner curtain. What appears to be referred to here is the second, inner curtain, that closed off the Holies of Holies (Hebrews 9: 3), the innermost sanctuary in the temple, which represented God’s presence among his people. The rending of the curtain symbolises the unhindered access to God that has been achieved by the death of Christ (see Hebrews 10: 19-20).

Verse 54

Our account ends with the acclamation of faith: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ It might have more appropriate resonances if the NRV translation had been rendered: ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ – and answering the question at the end of our first Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Palms that was never fully answered: ‘Who is this?’ (Matthew 21: 10).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh and NSM students on 9 April 2011.