The Early Fathers of the Church teach us that, when God created Adam and Eve, they were clothed in the Divine light of God Himself. Sadly, when they sinned, they lost the glory of God, and that’s when they realized they were naked. This is our past, which we lost because of sin.
Through the lifegiving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, however, this is also our future. In Matthew 13:43, we hear from the Mouth of our Savior that, in the Kingdom of Heaven, “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The same promise is echoed by God in Daniel 12:3. This is our future, a principle known in the Orthodox Church as theosis or deification.
Theosis refers to the process by which we become partakers of God’s divine nature, as St. Peter teaches in his second epistle. Of course, as His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of thrice-blessed memory made clear, this does not mean that we share in the essence of God; in other words, we don’t become God Himself. His Holiness was echoing the teaching of the Early Church Fathers, such as St. Cyril of Alexandria, who teaches that we cannot become the sons of God in exactly the same way that Christ is the Son of God, because He is the Son of God in His nature whereas we are sons of God through adoption. Theosis or deification, therefore, does not mean that we aspire to be God Himself, for this is a great sin, the very sin of pride that caused Satan, who was one of the exalted cherubim, to fall like lightning from heaven.
Instead, theosis refers to how our Lord Jesus Christ introduced immortality and incorruption into our human nature. God created man to be immortal and incorrupt, but when man chose to disobey God and sin, he lost this immortality and incorruption. God, in His great love for us, did not leave us in this state. Rather, He condescended from the heights of His glory and took our weak and sinful human nature from the Holy Theotokos St. Mary so that He could sanctify and restore it. We remember this in the Liturgy of St. Gregory when the priest prays, “You blessed my nature in Yourself.” When we are baptized as Christians, and when we live the pure and perfect Christian life, we unite ourselves to Christ and, through the Holy Spirit, share in His immortality and incorruption. This is why we partake of the Eucharist as a means of consuming Christ’s true Body, which is immortal and incorrupt. This is our way of receiving immortality and incorruption through Christ. In addition, we continue struggling to live the pure Christian life through prayer, meditation on the Holy Scripture, fulfilling the commandments, and all of the things we know we are called to do. The more we do this by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, the more we transcend our human nature and become partakers of the divine nature.
This is our future, our calling in life. It is for us to struggle to live the Christian life so that we may participate in the life of Christ and share in His immortality and incorruption.
Our holy and Orthodox Church, in the beauty of Her Tradition, reminds us of our calling every time we set foot inside the church. When we enter an Orthodox Church, we are immediately confronted with the icons of Christ, the Holy Theotokos, and the saints. These icons are intended to remind us of the divine life through several features: first, they are painted on a fine golden background, which represents the transfigured divine life; second, the saints are depicted with a nimbis or halo around their heads, which literally represents the luminous cloud of the divinity that surrounded their lives; third, all of the features of the saints, such as the mouth, nose, and ears are painted in a very fine way.
What do all of these things mean?
They remind us that these holy saints lived a transfigured life in the light of Christ’s divinity; they reflected His light in the world. When we gaze upon those holy icons, we are being told, “Be like that!” The Church is telling us that we can have this life through the imitation of our Savior and His holy saints.
In fact, this is one of the significant differences between an Orthodox church and a non-Orthodox church, such as a Protestant house of worship. When you walk into a Protestant house of worship, you see that the walls are bare. Perhaps there are some flowers or television screens, but there are no icons; there is no incense; there is no depiction of divine beauty. The reason for this difference lies in how each church sees salvation. For Orthodox Christians, salvation is to imitate Christ and to share in His divine light for all eternity; it is to become like Him and to shine brighter than the sun in Him forever. For non-Orthodox Christians, this is not the case. Many non-Orthodox see salvation as simply receiving forgiveness of sins and living the same way we live now, but in the Kingdom of Heaven. 1 How sad it is to think that the Kingdom of Heaven is simply a model of our life here on earth. In reality, there is something much better awaiting the righteous. Meditate on the icons around you here in the church and you will get a glimpse of what that is.
Let us therefore celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration as the feast in which we gaze upon our glorified past, which we lost because of sin, as well as the glorified future we hope to achieve through the imitation of Christ and His holy saints.