Less bark, more wag

Blessed Feast of Transfiguration to you.

I’m aware that not all Christians commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor. That’s regrettable — another sign of the Reformation or its progeny throwing out baby, not just bathwater.

Christ’s transfiguration was shortly before his crucifixion. Some of the Orthodox Apostica verses at Vespers for the Feast:

He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is,”
was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples.
In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind
arrayed in the original beauty of the Image.
Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace,
He made them partakers of the gladness,
foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.

David, the ancestor of God,
foresaw in the Spirit the sojourn with mankind of the only-begotten Son in
the flesh,
and from afar, called the creation together to rejoice with him,
prophetically lifting up his voice to cry:
“Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Your name!”
For You went up to this mountain with Your Disciples and were
transfigured, O Christ,
making the image that had grown dark in Adam to shine once again like
and transforming it into the glory and splendor of Your own Divinity.
Therefore we cry aloud to You:
“O Lord and Creator of all things, glory to You!”

When the chosen Apostles beheld upon the mountain of the
the overwhelming flood of Your light, O unoriginate Christ,
and Your unapproachable Divinity,
they were caught up in a divine trance.
The cloud of light shone around them on every side.
They heard the voice of the Father
confirming the mystery of Your incarnation,
that even after taking flesh, You remain the only-begotten Son
and the Savior of the world!

Today on Mount Tabor, O Lord,
You have shown the glory of Your divine form
to Your chosen Disciples, Peter, James and John.
For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed like the light
and at Your face that shone more than the sun.
Unable to endure the vision of Your brightness that none can bear,
they fell to the earth, powerless to gaze at the sight,
for they heard a voice that bore witness from above:
“This is My beloved Son
Who has come into the world to save mankind!”

Then the Troparion and Kontakion (i.e., more hymns, different place and function):

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your Disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos!
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

On the mountain You were transfigured, O Christ God,
and Your Disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
so that when they would behold You crucified,
they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
and would proclaim to the world
that You are truly the Radiance of the Father.

The Old Testament readings for Vespers are typological, echoing that hymnody:

  1. Exodus 24:12-18 (e.g., “The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel.”)
  2. Exodus 33:11-23; 34:4-6 (e.g., “And the Lord descended in a cloud, and Moses stood there before Him and called out in the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before his face, and called out, “The Lord God, compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, greatly-merciful, and true.” And Moses, making haste, stooped down to the earth and worshipped the Lord.”)
  3. I Kings 19:3-9, 11-13, 15-16 (e.g., “and after the fire a voice of a gentle breeze, and the Lord was there. And it came to pass when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle and went out and stood before the cave.”)

UPDATE: Maybe some readers don’t know the basic story of the transfiguration. Here’s the Gospel reading for Liturgy this morning.

* * * * *

I’m continuing to help plan my Evangelical boarding school’s 50th class reunion, and anticipating curiosity about my “conversion” to Orthodox Christianity.

“I write to see what I think” is quite true of this blog, which explains why I’ve not checked viewership in months. (Okay, I did just now. I think that’s up a little.) My darkest thoughts or premonitions go elsewhere, half-baked, but here I discipline myself to be grammatical and things and stuff.

So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to tell my conversion story truthfully, but with less “less bark, more wag.” My current iteration is that it reflects my “life verse.” My life verse(s) led me to a different place than theirs led them. This has the advantage of being true, or as true as I can get in a highly, highly distilled telling of a complex and life-changing decision made well into middle age.

If you didn’t grow up Evangelical (and maybe if you did, but not in my little Jerusalem), you may not know what a “life verse” is. We were encouraged (note the passive voice — I don’t recall whether it came from our teachers or from pious peer pressure) to pick an inspiring verse in anticipation that it would guide our whole lives. (Yes, that does sound pretty precious, but it’s still evocative; bear with me.)

One of my classmates chose the bracing verse II Timothy 1:7 (“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”) He is confident, has accomplished much in life, and still is viewed as a leader.

His is the only life verse besides my own that I can remember. My life verse was Genesis 27:11, “Behold, my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am an smooth man.”

Just kidding.

I think I had some trouble finding a life verse. I believe I settled on, and my classmates probably have inscribed by my signature in their ’65-’66 yearbooks, “Ephesians 3:17-19 (Living Bible)” — a prayer that “Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts” and “May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love.” 

But I was also fascinated with Romans 12:2, about transformation by the renewing of our “minds,” which stands in (lamely) for the substantially untranslatable Greek nous; and with Hebrews 6:1-2, which refers to “repentance from dead works … faith toward God … the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” as “the elementary principles of Christ.”

Elementary!? Why, that was virtually all we knew! Many sermons ended in an “altar call” of repentance and faith toward God, our personal “come to Jesus moment.” Some of us even got born again and again and again.

Baptism was a piece of cake (it was a kind of liturgical dance, with water, to express your testimony). Laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment surely were upper level courses, right? Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) didn’t think so.

I just couldn’t imagine what more there could be beyond these “elementary” things, but I wanted it, and I wanted that transformed life by a renewed mind, which I took to mean scarfing up doctrine until it stuck in the heart, not just the head.

Ephesians 3:17-19, Romans 12:2 and Hebrews 6:1-2 stand out now as icons of my longing for the fulness of the Christian faith and for true worship (just look at those Transfiguration hymns above!), which I’ve found in the Orthodox Church, and for which I had to learn, as Tom Howard put it, that “Evangelical is not Enough.” Not nearly enough.

Had I honestly been able to say that what I wanted above all — my “life verse” desire — was to live in a “spirit of … power and of love and of a sound mind,” I might still be Evangelical today. But my desires — for love, depth, roots, nourishment, transformation, progress beyond the elementary toward perfection, for meat, not milk — endured, and probably drew me more powerfully into Orthodoxy than any doctrinal arguments or stories about Evangelicals who had gone down that route before me.

In a “whatever works for you” world, that “wags,” doesn’t it?

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.