The Catholic liturgy has been and continues to be an indispensable source by which the Church passes on, preserves, and expresses the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith. One particularly significant liturgy is the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated on August 6. Unfortunately, too often Latin Rite Catholics give it little attention. Learning from the liturgy of the Transfiguration, this essay will explain its notable significance in the life of a Catholic.
Look to the East to Recover a Buried Treasure
Many Latin Catholics only hear about the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent. The focus of the Lenten liturgy is on the promised victory won by Christ after what would be a terrifying, unimaginable agony followed by a brutal, barbaric death on a Roman cross. The feast of August 6, however, offers the faithful a different emphasis on Christ’s transfiguration—an emphasis that is often overlooked, unfamiliar, or underappreciated. Such an emphasis speaks to the theme of theosis—also known as divinization or deification.
In fact, the Feast of the Transfiguration did not find its way into the Roman liturgical calendar until the 1400s.[i] Meanwhile, the Greek Church, the Antiochian Church, and the Armenian Church have kept the Feast of the Transfiguration and its relationship to divinization with great solemnity since at least the fourth and fifth centuries. For the Eastern Churches, the Transfiguration is one of the Twelve Great Feasts and contains its own vigil service. Furthermore, divinization has shaped and formed the Eastern Church’s ecclesiastical, liturgical, sacramental, mystical, devotional, and canonical life. In essence, to the Eastern Church, salvation is understood in terms of divinization.
While the East can learn from the West, the West can also learn from the East. Divinization is one of those buried treasures that the East offers to the West. In their “Decree on Ecumenism” (Unitatis Redintegratio), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council instructed: “In the study of revealed truth East and West have used different methods and approaches in understanding and confessing divine things. It is hardly surprising, then, if sometimes one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other or has expressed them better. In such cases, these various theological formulations are often to be considered complementary rather than conflicting”[ii] About 30 years later, in his apostolic letter, “The Light of the East” (Orientale Lumen), Pope John Paul II wrote: “we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church” and “the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it.…”[iii]
One particular mystery that the Second Vatican Council Fathers and St. John Paul II identified as better grasped in the East is divinization, or participation in the Trinitarian life.[iv] The expression is rooted in the Second Epistle of St. Peter: “[God] has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). One might recall the well-known icon of the Trinity depicted by Andrei Rublev. The icon depicts three persons seated around a table, representing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A vacant fourth place is depicted. The Trinity of Persons invites those looking at the icon to commune with them—i.e., to become a sharer in their divine life, to become divinized. Another English word used is “deification.” It is the combination of two Latin words—Deus, meaning “God,” and facere, “to make.” Literally, therefore, the word means “to be made god.” In other words, as St. John Paul recalls in The Light of the East, “the creature is transfigured, and God’s kingdom inaugurated.”[v]
Hence, the Feast of the Transfiguration reveals something much more than hope and encouragement after the Passion and Death are completed, as it does on the Second Sunday of Lent. The event of the Transfiguration manifests the divinization of human nature.
The Liturgy of the Transfiguration Speaks to Divinization
In the Collect in the Roman Liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Church prays:
“O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration of your Only Begotten Son confirmed the mysteries of faith by the witness of the Fathers and wonderfully prefigured our full adoption to sonship, grant we pray, to your servants, that listening to the voice of your beloved Son, we may merit to become co-heirs with him.”
Two passages of this collect address deification or divinization. The first one is, “and wonderfully prefigured our full adoption to sonship,” and, the second one, “we may merit to become co-heirs with him.”
As with any collect in the Roman Rite, the prayer begins with a statement followed by a petition. The statement asserts that the Son prefigures what the human person will receive by adoption: divine sonship. The petition subsequently asks that the faithful inherit divine sonship. Therein lies the genuine joy of the Gospel—the Good News! While oftentimes Christians in the West explain salvation principally as forgiveness of sins and redemption as being rescued from damnation (both of which are true), the Good News is something far more riveting. The English word “salvation” derives from the Latin word salus, which means healing. The act of healing is restored communion between God and the human person. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, as the new Adam, did more than restore the original communion that Adam enjoyed. The Lord divinized human nature. In the Collect of the Transfiguration, the Church, therefore, prays to God the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit, that her children, the baptized faithful, may become divinized.
How can the Church make such a bold assertion? If Christ took to himself our human nature and by his Resurrection and Ascension glorified that same human nature, then we too will experience a similar glorification. Scripture, indeed, teaches that Jesus the Christ was like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:5). To say otherwise is to deny elements of Catholic doctrine revealed in Sacred Scripture and solidified during the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils. If it were true that Jesus of Nazareth was not like us in all things, then our human nature would have been neither redeemed nor glorified. The human person, therefore, has the potential to experience the very glory that the Lord now enjoys, a glory beyond even what the angelic nature can experience.[vi] The human person is able to experience divinity. The name for it is theosis. It begins at baptism and is a continued transformation or transfiguration into an icon or image of Christ throughout one’s entire life.
Divinization Explained by St. Paul
According to St. Paul, such a transformation or transfiguration literally means to put on the “mind (nous) of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16: “But we have the mind of Christ.”). The mind (nous) means more than what a modern-day Westerner defines as the brain. It is not a reference to the intellect; it is more than a discursive exercise; it is not simply thinking differently. The mind (nous) as used by St. Paul refers to the “heart” or the “the very core” of one’s being. To “put on the mind of Christ” means literally to live, to think, to feel, to sense, to see, to hear, and to perceive as Christ does. To “put on the nous of Christ” means to share genuinely and actually in the very life of the glorified and resplendent Christ. Hence the radical statement by St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).
Learning from St. Paul, therefore, we understand that the reason for the Divine Incarnation was that the human person might become a child of God: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir” (Galatians 4:4-7).
In the incarnate Jesus, one sees first the great God and Savior, and second one sees what and who the human person has been called to become—a child and heir of God the Father. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17). Therein lies the supreme, awesome, and wonderful dignity of the human person: each and every human being has the potential to participate in the actual life of the Most Holy Trinity—to become what St. Peter described as partakers of divine nature and what St. Paul describes as children and therefore heirs of God.
Divinization and the Early Church Fathers
Lest one think that such an understanding is reading too much into the Apostolic teachings of either St. Peter or St. Paul, the tradition states otherwise. St. Irenaeus was a bishop of a Western See, Lyon—located in what is now France—but the saint and bishop came from the East. Irenaeus had known and heard St. Polycarp, the last living connection with the Apostolic line, as a disciple of St. John. In the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote: Jesus Christ our Lord, “because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is.”[vii] In another of his works, Irenaeus wrote: “For this the Word of God became man, and the Son of God, Son of man, that man, mingled with the Word and thus receiving adoption, might become a son of God.”[viii] In the fourth century, St. Athanasius, who hailed from the Eastern Church of Alexandria, was the champion of the Catholic Faith and the architect of the Nicene Creed. He taught that the Word of God “assumed humanity that we might become God.”[ix] Likewise, St. Augustine, a most important and pivotal Latin Father, wrote extensively on divinization. In his Sermo 23B, Augustine teaches: “We carry mortality about with us, we endure infirmity, we look forward to divinity. For God wishes not only to vivify, but also to deify us….” In the same sermon, he instructs, “We mustn’t find it incredible, brothers and sisters, that human beings become gods, that is, that those who were human beings become gods.”[x] One more Latin Father most worthy of acknowledgment is the fifth century Pope, St. Leo the Great. Statements on deification abound in his sermons. In Sermon 77, for example, St. Leo expounds on the words of Christ: “I [Christ] have united you with Myself and become Son of Man so that you might have power to be sons of God.”[xi] Daring statements, indeed, from these four great Fathers of the Church: but what do they mean?
“To become God”—i.e., deification—does not mean that the human person is able to become one in essence with God. Nonetheless, Christ Jesus has two natures—one divine and one human. While he was always divine, at the Incarnation, the Word took to himself a human nature. At the Ascension, when the Lord took his seat at the “right hand of the Father,” human nature began to participate in divinity. The participation is by grace, however, and not by nature: hence the expression “adopted sons.” Indeed, the saints (which each of the baptized is meant to be) have the ability to experience and do divine things in this world.
The event of the Transfiguration illustrates the reality of Christ’s divinity and the potential of ours (cf. Luke 9:28-36). In his gospel, Luke recounts that Christ had been in prayer, which is a human act rather than a divine act. Moments later, the very body of Christ appeared resplendent, which is a divine act rather than a human act. What occurs is a holy exchange[xii]—the human act opens the door for a divine act; the human is transfigured into something divine. Nonetheless, Christ never set aside his humanity; it happened in, with, and through his humanity.
The Transfiguration reveals that divine power is able to penetrate human nature and make it capable to experience and do the supernatural—that which is above one’s natural abilities. As “Son of Man,” Christ is of one nature with us; as “Son of God,” Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. Thus, “If we confess [Christ’s] full and perfect theosis, it behooves us also to hope for the same degree of theosis for the saints in the age to come.”[xiii]
The event of the Transfiguration celebrated during the quiet months of the summer offers to the faithful a not-so-quiet revelation. Salvation is the event of divination—i.e., becoming an icon of Christ who reveals perfectly both God and man. The Roman Collect for the Feast is not hyperbole. It expresses the reality and purpose of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery: that the baptized become true children of God, co-heirs and inheritors of everything that belongs to Christ as the Son of God. Through divinization, the children of God are made perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). By our becoming divinized, the children of God receive the divine light to perceive more clearly the truth about God, self, one’s neighbor, and creation. Lies, falsehoods, misperceptions are uncovered, while reality is made clear. By our becoming divinized, the light of God scatters the darkness that clouds our ability to know and understand rightly. By becoming divinized, the baptized become persons of authentic communion.
Christ alone ends all division, strife, violence, and every form of death. In similar fashion, so does the divinized person. The divinized one radiates joy, peace, and merciful love—not so much through human effort, but because such a person is an icon of Christ, and thereby radiates his joy, his peace and his mercy. It is as St. John writes: “We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2-3).
[i] See The Liturgical Year on August 6 by Prosper Guéranger; also Year of Grace on August 6, by Pius Parsch.
[ii] Unitatis Redintegratio, 17.
[iii] Orientale Lumen, 1.
[iv] Unitatis Redintegratio, 15; Orientale Lumen, 6.
[v] Orientale Lumen, 6.
[vi] In the Office of Readings on the day before the Ascension, the Church reads from a homily by Pope St. Leo the Great. At the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, St. Leo says, “that blessed company [of apostles] had a great and inexpressible cause for joy when it saw man’s nature rising above the dignity of the whole heavenly creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels.”
[vii] Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers, edited by Carol Harrison, Robert M. Grant (Routledge, 2003), V pref.
[viii] Irenaeus of Lyons, translated by Robert Grant, Book III: 19:1.
[ix] On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, St. Athanasius, translated and edited by a religious of C.S.M.V. (St. Vladimir’s Press: Crestwood, NY, 2000), 54.
[xii] Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, by Saint Cyril of Alexandria, translated by Payne Smith (Studion Publishers, Inc.: Printed in the United States, 1983), homily 51.
[xiii] Christopher Veniamin, The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: “Theosis” in Scripture and Tradition (Dalton, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2016), 19.