In Horto Fragranti: On the Feast of the Transfiguration

Today, August 6, the western church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The eastern church will celebrate the same feast in thirteen days. In much of the east, including Georgia, custom dictates that growers of grapes and other fruits and vegetables present their harvest to be blessed on Transfiguration Day. Most of these grapes, which depending on their geography reach peak ripeness in August, will be turned into wine.

What does this custom, dating back to late antiquity, have to do with the transfiguration of Christ described by the synoptic gospels?

We must first look to the origins of the Feast, that day on Mount Tabor when Jesus took Peter, James, and John to pray with him. True to form, the disciples dozed off. Then Jesus transformed. He became radiant, and Moses and Elijah also appeared. These three luminaries discussed the imminent path to death the Christ would take in Jerusalem. The disciples awoke and were astonished at the sight before them, and Peter, not in control of his own tongue, suggested that they build three tents to house these glorious beings. But a bright cloud like that on Sinai enveloped the mountain, and the voice of God came down from Heaven declaring Jesus his son and chosen one, commanding the disciples to listen to him. Then Moses and Elijah disappeared. On the way back down the mountain, Jesus instructed his disciples not to speak of what they saw until the resurrection.

Tradition indicates that the transfiguration occurred on and was the fulfillment of the Jewish Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Peter’s suggestive statement that the disciples could build tents (booths or tabernacles, skēnē in Greek) to house their glorious visitors supports this. The Feast of Booths was to be celebrated, according to Leviticus, in memory of Israel’s wanderings after being led out of Egypt. Jews would spend seven days (which approximately coincided with the agricultural harvest) living in tents, and it is probable Christ and his disciples were doing just that on Tabor. At the end of the seven days, the temple in Jerusalem would be ritually “illuminated” with great lamps to symbolize the presence of God with his people.

As the fulfillment of the Feast of Booths, the episode of transfiguration was a revelation. Christ stood on Tabor, the great lawgiver of Israel on one side and the greatest of the prophets on the other, the summation of the old covenant. Both Moses and Elijah had visions of God on Mount Sinai and Mount Carmel respectively; now they met God again, and discussed the fulfillment of God’s plan for the redemption of the cosmos that they had prefigured. God entered into his creation and illuminated it; the body of Christ was the very tabernacle of God.

As Maximus the Confessor has pointed out, nothing was actually changed in Christ, who was equally divine before and after, but the disciples were changed, suddenly able to see the indwelling glory with their outward eyes. They did not, of course, understand what they saw; they were not yet capable of grasping the plan of Jesus to die and rise again, and Peter would still deny him in his despair.

Nevertheless, it was a sign to them, and to all readers of the synoptic gospels, that Christ was the incarnation of the glory of God. John Behr has suggested that the Gospel of John does not include the transfiguration because it is unnecessary: the Jesus described by John has already been revealed as the cosmic Logos and immanent God. Unlike the synoptics, the Gospel of John speaks theologically from the point of view of the divine plan. But the disciples did not know this in medias res. On Mount Tabor, Christ showed himself to be the true tabernacle of God, soon to go voluntarily to his own death. In Christ, God has forever tabernacled with his people. The transfiguration was a “little epiphany” that encapsulated the the glorious work of Christ in the world. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt (eskēnōsen, ‘tabernacled’) among us” (John 1:14).

Georgians celebrate the grape harvest

So what does this have to do with the blessing of grapes?

Think about the implications of what was made clear in the transfiguration. At that time, Peter, James, and John had only been witness to Jesus’s humanity. They thought of him as a man, even if they also believed him (with varying degrees of confidence) to be prophet, messiah, and Son of God. On Mount Tabor they were confronted with something alien, the glorious otherness of God, that drove their presence of mind from them.

Yet when the glory was concealed again, there was Jesus still, a Jewish man in real flesh and blood. The transfiguration showed them that this was not all Jesus was, but he was this nevertheless. In Christ, divine and human were united. The redemptive and transforming work of the incarnation was begun, and this work would not restrict itself to the victorious God-man. For Christ did not come just to redeem the matter of his own human body, or that of other humans, but to redeem the whole creation, spirit and matter, and bring it back into himself. This is what transfiguration showed: the hope of divinization.

For Christians to offer God the fruit of the earth they have been given to cultivate is to embrace this promise and this hope. Divinization extends beyond our private sanctification; divinization is about the restoration of the whole cosmos, which is being worked in us and through us. And the source of these transforming energies is the incarnate Christ, by whom all things were made in the first place. All creation has been blessed by the indwelling of Christ, as exemplified by the Eucharist, the highest symbol of Christ’s mystical presence. For eastern Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is an opportunity to act as priests of a creation being redeemed by God. So we cultivate the world and offer it back to God, as it is and will be united to God in the new age.

Vine imagery has justly been associated in Christian tradition with the Church. Christ speaks of himself as the vine tended by God, in which all believers participate (John 15:1-8). We who remain in Christ thus participate in the redemptive work of God; we die with Christ and are raised with him. With Christ is much fruit; apart from him is only death. The literal fruits of the vine offered on Transfiguration Day thus symbolize the spiritual fruits than come with uniting to Christ. We the Church are the vineyard of Christ, bringing forth his fruits by the life-giving activity of the Holy Spirit.

The vine is also associated by eastern Christians with the Virgin Mother, who often in early church writings corresponds to the Church. Georgians believe that their land has been specially given by God to the protection of Mary the Theotokos. Mary has been linked in Georgian hymnography with the vineyard since medieval times. She is described as such in the most famous Georgian hymn of all, “Thou Art a Vineyard,” as a blossoming vineyard whom God will bless and adorn. As Ephrem the Syrian wrote, Mary is the perfect vine which bore the fruit of Christ. This fruit is received by all Christians in the Eucharist wine.

So we have two themes present on the Feast of the Transfiguration. The first is that of the revelation of the Divine Christ who dwells with his people and illuminates the world. The second is that of the harvest, when the fruitfulness of the earth is blessed. This naturally follows from the first theme. For the transfiguration promises that we, too, will be transfigured with the whole earth. We, too, will be transparent to the uncreated light of God, as we have already been filled and baptized with his Spirit. All creation, which now groans, will be united to God through the incarnation of Christ in eternity, and will be the perfect temple intended by God.

God dwells among us and in us, producing fruit that we are to offer back to him. Let us remember that today and every day.

Georgian Gospel manuscript with the transfiguration depicted

 


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