It is a dangerous thing to be presumptuous. The people who were addressing the Saviour today with a silly question – about the seven brothers, and whose wife the woman was going to be in the Resurrection – these people were in fact tempting God. This is a very dangerous thing to do. The Lord also shows them mercy. He is prepared not to admonish, but instead patiently, patiently to say as it were: Look, wake up, and smell the coffee. When you come to the matter of what happens after death, there’s no more marrying or being given in marriage, everyone lives like angels. The Lord was not saying that they are angels, because human beings never change their nature – even in heaven we are still human beings – but we are like angels. There is no more concern about being married or anything like that. However, that does not mean that the bond of love is dissolved for any reason. It all becomes a mystery understood by God, Himself, alone: what exactly is the relation between this woman, and all the seven brothers that were married to her in the course of her life. Obviously, there is some bond of love.
By the way, just so that you know, despite Hollywood behaviour, or misbehaviour, Christians cannot be married seven times. The absolute, maximum possible number of times for a person to be married under any circumstances is three, no more than three, and even that is by stretching compassion. More than one is not looked on with favour in the Orthodox Church. Anything more than one is a toleration because of our weakness. It is blessed by God, but it’s not the ideal. The ideal for Orthodox Christians is one marriage –just one. Understand that. Because of our weakness, and for certain other reasons, we tolerate more than one marriage in the course of a person’s life. That does not mean that the Orthodox Church is somehow encouraging this trend or is following in the footsteps of Hollywood.
The Lord is trying to make a point here. He is saying that His love for us is stable, and is patient. He loves us. He wants us to be like Him. To be like Him means that our lives need to be transfigured. Today we are celebrating the end of the feast of the Transfiguration, when the Saviour is transfigured on the mountain before His Disciples, and Apostles – Peter, James, and John. He is glowing with a radiance beyond our ability to describe. The words in the English translation are insufficient because the meaning of the word “radiance” here is so bright, so intense, and so great. If you look at the icon of the Transfiguration, you see the Disciples falling down on the ground in awe, and amazement because the light, and the radiance of God are so great. The radiance of His love is so intense that they could not bear it. Even though they feel that they cannot bear the radiance of God because it is so bright, and so intense, at the same time the Apostle Peter says: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you will, let us build three booths here – one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elias” (Matthew 17:4). Even so, it is not allowed by the Lord because this moment is a taste of the resurrection that is to come. However, we can understand something about what this moment of transfiguration was like. Yes, it was awesome; yes it was overwhelming; yes, it made the Apostles want to fall down on the ground because it was such an intense experience.
What was the foundation of this experience? It made the Apostle say, as it were: It’s hard to bear. I don’t think I can bear it at all, but I want it forever. That’s essentially what the Apostle Peter said. What was it? It was the Lord’s love. It was the peace, and joy that come from the presence of the Lord’s love. That’s why they wanted to perpetuate that moment forever. For you, and for me, there are times in our life when we have a taste of what it feels like when the Lord pours out His love on us. Sometimes when we are praying during the Divine Liturgy, for example, the Lord’s peace, and joy are so present, and so intense that the Liturgy could go on for five or six hours, and we wouldn’t care, because it is so beautiful. There are moments like that in our lives when the Lord reveals to us His love which is so life-giving that it makes one moment be prolonged and prolonged and prolonged. There have been times in my life when I have been serving in churches in one place or another, where the service has been going on for four or five hours (occasionally Pascha has been like this), but somehow people are all focussed together by some miracle. Their hearts are in harmony on that particular day. The devil is not distracting them too badly, and they are together in the Lord. The sense of the Lord’s presence makes those four or five hours feel like one hour, but not much more. When it is finished, people say that it would have been good just to stay here, and hold on to this moment forever, just as the Apostle Peter desired to do at the Transfiguration. The Lord gives us moments like this to encourage us, and to remind us that He is with us, and that He loves us.
The Apostle Paul said that in Jesus Christ it is always Yes (cf. 2 Cor. 1:19). Everything is Yes in Jesus Christ, and everything is true in Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ, Himself, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life as He says (cf. John 14:6). It’s not like what the people in North America are trying to say nowadays (and it’s all wrong), that there are many truths. There are not many truths. There is only one Truth, and in Jesus Christ is found all truth. We have to remember that there is not a variety of truths. There is one Truth. Everything that is true finds its truth, and its rightness in Jesus Christ. If anything is true, it is because it is in Jesus Christ. That is how we must understand truth as Orthodox Christians. Everything is in Jesus Christ. Everything comes from Him, and everything points to Him. He who loves us, and brought us into being, gives us these moments I have been describing, like the moment of the Transfiguration. The Lord in these moments gives us courage, and strength to go on, and to persevere at times when we feel that it’s really hard, and heavy, and when we don’t necessarily feel the presence of the Lord close to us. He is close to us. We just have to have faith in Him.
The Lord knows that difficult moments will come to us. He gives these Mount Tabor moments to us so that we will have the courage, knowing that the difficulties will pass, and we will feel the sense of His love again. The moment of Transfiguration happened close to the time of the Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. The Lord gave this experience of the Transfiguration to the Apostles so that they could eventually understand His Resurrection. Even when He did rise from the dead, they were a bit slow to catch on. He had to remind them in various ways through the Grace of the Holy Spirit to make the connexion. He gives us these moments for the same purpose – to remind us that these are tastes of heaven. These moments are tastes of the sweetness, joy, peace, and love of heaven, of being in His presence, and of the timelessness of being in His presence.
In conclusion, I would like to tell you about the feast of the Transfiguration which is celebrated every year on Mount Tabor in Palestine. I think it is important to hear about God’s love for us as a word of encouragement. I heard this story first from a bishop who used to serve in Palestine as a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate. He served the feast of the Transfiguration every year on Mount Tabor where the Transfiguration itself happened. I have also heard the same story from many other people who have lived at one time in Palestine, and who have been at the Divine Liturgy of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor. They all say the same thing. In Palestine at that time of year, it is hot, dry, and it never rains. The sky is clear blue, and 45 degrees is the normal temperature in that part of the world. In the evening, on the day of the Transfiguration, year after year, the top of Mount Tabor always has a circle of small clouds around it. Because the Catholics have control of the main building on top of the mountain, the Orthodox have to serve in the middle of the night. They serve Vespers, Matins, and the Divine Liturgy, which takes a good six hours. They go up to the top of the mountain with all their baskets of fruit which they leave outside of the church. Unusual, isn’t it?
Here’s why. While they are in church in the middle of the night, singing God’s praises, and celebrating the Divine Liturgy, all the twelve or thirteen clouds merge, and become one single cloud on the top of Mount Tabor. The humidity from this cloud makes all the fruit wet. I don’t think that there is an Orthodox believer who would deny that God blesses the fruit, Himself. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy (unlike everywhere else in the world, where we have the blessing of the fruit with Holy Water), on Mount Tabor, they don’t have that service because God does it, Himself. In the morning the cloud dissipates.
The Lord has given us this, also, and the fact that people around the world know about it, as an encouragement to us. He loves us, and He is with us in concrete ways. However, it is for you, and for me here in difficult North America to open the eyes of our heart, and let the Lord show Himself to us. We must allow ourselves to see, and hear, and smell, and taste the Lord’s presence with us. He is very close. Sometimes He even allows us to smell His presence. I know of many people who have sometimes smelt the sweetest, and most beautiful aroma of incense in their homes, and even in their cars. It is the presence of God that is meant to encourage them, telling them: I am with you. I love you. Be with me. Be faithful. I am with you.
That is why it is important for us to remember today on this feast-day, and also here in this temple, which almost came falling down, that this community is again being called to witness to Christ’s love in N. But the Lord is saying: I am with you. There is a reason for this building being restored. It’s a sign of my love here, where I have loved people who have served me here for a hundred years, and where I have served you for over a hundred years. Other people are going to continue to serve here – we have no idea who – but hearts have been moved. The Lord will do with it as He wills. Offer this temple to Him in love, as we have to do with our lives. Trusting Him, let us glorify Him: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
You might also like:
On the Transfiguration by Fr. Andrew Phillips
TRANSFIGURATION by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh