26 July 2011

Finding answers in the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon attributed to Theophanes the Greek ... Metropolitan Kallistos spoke this morning of the Transfiguration as an answer to secularism

Patrick Comerford

There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia said this morning.

Metropolitan Kallistos was the second speaker this morning at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. He was speaking in Sidney Sussex College on the topic: “Our Orthodox Answer to Secularism I: The Transfiguration of Christ.”

He recalled that when the American writer Gertrude Stein was dying, she asked: “What is the answer?” She paused, laughed, and then asked: “What is the question?” And so she died.

Metropolitan Kallistos said he was concerned more with the answer to secularism than he was with questions about secularism.

He outlined three possible Christian responses to secularism.

He identified the first response as “Pietism.” Faced with aggressive, unsympathetic secularism, there are those who would build a wall around their Christian faith and life, and limit it to a narrow area that they regard as religious, excluding everything else as having no value.

Pietism does not get involved in broader, philosophical, cultural and artistic movements of our time, undertakes no risks, remains within a chosen “sanctuary,” and sets a deep chasm between the Church and the World. This is opting out of the challenge of secularism, and not attempting an answer, he said, adding that he finds this among many English converts to Orthodoxy – “they become Church mice.”

At the opposite extreme, secular Christianity was an option that found popular expression at the end of the 20th century, and he said it distorted what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trying to achieve. The slogans of this response included, “Christianity come of age,” or “live in the world as if there was no God.”

Secular Christianity finds no challenge in secularism, and embraces it on its own terms. But this is a fallen world, and there is a need for repentance and metánoia (μετάνοια) and a radical change of mind. Secular Christians have left out that need for a change of mind, he said.

He then offered a third option between these two extremes, summed up in the word “Transfiguration.”

He spoke of the need for an ascetic transformation of the secular world and ourselves in it if Christ’s unceasing presence is to be made manifest. We are to see the world to come, the future kingdom, which is not another world entirely different, but this world as it is called to truly be. But there needs to be repentance and metánoia (μετάνοια) and a radical change of mind, there needs to be ascetic transformation, he said

Referring to Revelation 21: 5, where Christ tells the Seer of Partmos: “Behold, I make all things new” – not: “Behold, I make all new things.”

Christ rose from the dead not in a new body but in the self-same body in which he suffered and died. His body is transformed, so that he is not immediately recognised on the road to Emmaus, and he is able to pass through locked doors. He is there in the same body, but it has become different, a spiritual body, which does not mean dematerialised. He eats in front of the disciples, he is not a ghost, his body is filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s saying “Behold, I make all things new” applies to himself.

We do not seek a new and different world, but seek to Christianise and transfigure this one. The Transfiguration provides a guideline for confronting the secular world.

He retold a story from Leo Tolstoy, Three Questions. The central figure is set a task of answering three questions:

What is the most important moment? The most important moment is now, the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet.

Who is the most important person? This person who is before you in this very instant.

What is the most important task? This task which you are engaged in here and now.

The light which shone from Christ on the mountaintop is not a physical and created light, but an eternal and uncreated light, a divine light, the light of the Godhead, the light of the Holy Trinity.

The Early Fathers of the Church saw the preparation for Christ in Judaism. But they also found a preparation for Christ in Hellenism. He suggested this offers a model for our approach to secularism today.

The experience on Mount Tabor confirms Peter’s confession of faith which reveals Christ as the Son of the Living God. Yet Christ remains fully human as ever he was, as fully human as you or I, and his humanity is not abolished. But the Godhead shines through his body and from it.

In Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. But at other points in his life, the glory is hidden beneath the veil of his flesh. What we see in Christ on Mount Tabor is human nature, our human nature, taken up into God and filled with the light of God. “So this should be our attitude to the secular world,” he said.

But, he asked, how can it be taken up with Christ and filled with glory?

The Transfiguration is a disclosure not only of what God is but of what we are. The New Adam shows us human nature as it was before the fall. Transfiguration looks back to the beginning, but also looks forward to the end, to the final glory of Christ’s second coming, because through the incarnation Christ raised human nature to a new level, opening new possibilities. The incarnation is a new beginning for the human race, and in the Transfiguration we see not only our human nature at the beginning, but as it can be in and through Christ at the end.

Secular Christianity rests satisfied with our human nature as it is now. But he wants us to look to our potentialities, as seen in the Transfiguration of Christ.

What does the Transfiguration tell us about the world? The light of the Transfiguration embraces all created things, nothing is irredeemably secular, all created things can be bathed in the light of the Transfiguration. “That is our answer to secularism.”

The Transfiguration is a pre-figuration of the transfiguration of the cosmos, he said. “That is what we have to say to secularism.”

But with the Transfiguration comes the invitation to bear the cross with Christ. Peter, James and John were on Mount Tabor and in Gethsemane. We must understand the Passion of Christ and the Transfiguration in the light of each other, for they are not two separate mysteries, but aspects of the one single mystery. Mount Tabor and Mount Calvary go together; and glory and suffering go together.

If we are to undertake the task of transfiguration, we cannot leave our cross behind. If we are to bring the secular, fallen world into the glory of Christ, that has to be through self-emptying kenosis, cross-bearing and suffering. There is no answer to secularism that does not take account of the Cross, as well taking account of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.

In the question and answer time that followed, there was an interesting discussion about the Eucharist as the Transfiguration of the created order, as the offering of human culture to God, and as the feeding of God’s people with the Transfigured-Resurrected Christ.

Metropolitan Kallistos continues his discussion later this evening after Vespers with a second lecture: “Our Orthodox Answer to Secularism II: ‘Pray without Ceasing’.”

Metropolitan Kallistos, who is a regular speaker at the summer school, is the Metropolitan Bishop of Diokleia and an Assistant Bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain in the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Until 2001, he was the Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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