Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:
Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:
God from God, light from light, very God from very God.
As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,
It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.
Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91
And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):
He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.
Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98
As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.
This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the BCP was from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. When St Peter witnesses the miracle, here is his response to Jesus:
When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken
This is the biblical response to meeting the divine. When God the Father spoke on the mount of Transfiguration, St Peter went from, ‘Let’s build tents,’ to falling on his face terrified (Mt 17:6).
At the moment of his throne-room vision, the prophet Isaiah declared:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5 ESV)
When Ezekiel has his super-intense vision of the divine:
So when I saw it, I fell on my face (Ez 1:28 NKJV)
Moses was told by God that he would not be able to look on God’s face and live, so God hid him in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand as God passed by. Moses only saw the divine back. Later, when Moses descended from the mountain, even his own reflected glory was too much, and the people veiled his glowing face.
When St John had mighty things revealed to him by an angel, he, too, fell on his face (Rev. 22:8).
Angels and people who have been close to God are more than we can handle, so far as the Bible shows us. God Himself … well. He’s a different story.
And yet we figure that making the worship of the Most Holy Trinity a combination of rock concert and stand-up comedy routine will help us encounter the Most High God.
The Bible, on the other hand, says:
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)
And so the tradition feels that incense and icons, Gothic architecture and polyphony, stained glass and the ringing of bells, the prostration of human bodies on the floor, are the way to best encounter the Most High God. God is mystery, and true mystery is not a puzzle to be solved but an immensity to be embraced and entered into.
Earlier today I submitted an article to a journal using hagiography to dispute the idea that in the Byzantine world Christ was distant from worshippers, the unapproachable God, the Pantokrator on high. Because I’m a lumper, I could not help bringing in, alongside many references to Late Antique ascetic literature East and West, a couple of references to sixth-century art.
When people think of Christ Pantokrator, the image from many Eastern Christian domes springs to mind, such as this eleventh-century one from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens (my photo):
Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:
I didn’t mention these in the article, but for many people they convey distance and inaccessibility of the divine Person.
A Justinianic mosaic that I did mention and which can be seen to communicate a similar idea of unapproachable glory and Light is the icon of the Transfiguration from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai:
The thing is, when I read monastic literature of the fifth and sixth centuries, I do not find an inaccessible Christ. Although there is evidence of the growing cult of the saints (see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints — and I’ve read a good review of Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?), the piety of the vast majority of early Byzantine ascetic/mystic/monastic texts is Christocentric, and Christ is not far or unapproachable to His followers.
Thus, the preferred Christ Pantokrator is sixth-century, not eleventh or thirteenth. Like the Transfiguration, it comes from St Catherine’s, Sinai:
This is one of the most famous icons in the world; it is the first of the Pantokrator type, from what I recall, and one of the oldest Eastern Mediterranean images of Christ to survive. Christ Pantokrator appears here with one half of his face gentle, one half stern. He is the perfect Desert abba, if you think of it.
The oldest Coptic icon may also be sixth-century and currently resides in the Louvre (I’ve seen it!). It is a different vision of Christ from any of the above — Christ and Apa Mena (my photo):
Christ is Pantokrator. All-powerful. For He is the Second Person of the Trinity.
Christ can also be our Friend. For such is how He described Himself to His Disciples.
O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son wonderfully transfigured: Mercifully grant unto us such a vision of his divine majesty, that we, being purified and strengthened by thy grace, may be transformed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
-The Book of Common Prayer