The Transfiguration of the Lord
...and [He] went up into a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening. And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elias. Luke 9:28-30
How sublime a spectacle on Mount Tabor! A spectacle indeed worthy of being contem- plated with rapture as the Apostles contemplated it, and of being solemnly celebrated, as we now celebrate it. It is not without meaning, that they who witnessed the great revelations on Sinai and Horeb, not without purpose, that Moses and Elias appear on Mount Tabor also. They shall see more here than they saw there. On Sinai and Horeb, the might and glory of God were revealed unto men through the powers of visible nature; on Tabor, not only does divinity reveal itself to man, but humanity itself appears arrayed in divine glory. Moses "quaked" on Mount Sinai; Elias complained on Horeb; whereas on Tabor, through the fear of the Apostles there shines forth joy: It is good for us to be here.
Christians! your heart is no doubt ready to say of the witnesses of the glory of Mount Tabor: indeed it was good for them to be there. Happy were they that they could be there! What then, if we tell you that the way to the contemplation of the glory of Mount Tabor, is not swallowed up in an abyss, is not walled up from us, nor overgrown with thorns, not forgotten, nor lost, but may still be indicated by those who know it, to those who seek for it. (It is not difficult to understand that we speak here of the spiritual way; for a carnal way cannot possibly lead us to spiritual visions and divine revelations.) Why does the Evangelist, when about to describe unto us the glorious Transfiguration of the Lord, first of all, direct his own and our attention to prayer? "He went up into a mountain to pray." Why again does he, as if distrusting the insight of certain readers and hearers of the Gospel, or as if fearing that they might not sufficiently understand the importance of the fact to be observed, repeat that the Transfiguration of the Lord took place during prayer: "As He prayed." Why, if not to point out to us in prayer - the way to the light of Tabor, the key to spiritual mysteries, the might of divine revelation? If the divinely inspired Evangelist found it so necessary to associate the idea of prayer with the description of the glory of Tabor, then it certainly will not be amiss on our part also, Christians, to associate however short a meditation on the power and efficacy of prayer, with the remembrance of the glorious Transfiguration of our Lord.
Though it is to be hoped that there are none in this house of prayer, who do not more or less comprehend the power and efficacy of prayer, yet in order to obtain a correct idea thereof, let us be allowed to meditate upon the subject, as if it were quite unknown to us. Well, then, has any prayer any effect at all? This question cannot long remain unanswered. It is solved by the common sense of mankind, inasmuch as all, from the Christian, enlightened by the pure light of faith, down to the pagan, darkened by gross superstition, all acknowledge the obligation of prayer; while the greater and better part of mankind do really fulfill that obligation, though not exactly in the same way, nor with the same success. But why ordain, or have recourse to prayer, unless some power is recognized in it, or some effect expected to attend it? Should any one ask, How it is the heathen can be witness of the power of prayer when they, being ignorant of the true worship of the Lord, cannot consequently be in possession of the true form of prayer? Then such a one we will in our turn ask, How it is that they have anything like prayer at all? In whatever way we may seek to explain a manifestation of prayer howsoever imperfect, the source of its origin will ever be found in the power of prayer. The heathen also pray, either because God, although forsaken by His creatures, forsakes not them, but leaves even in their darkened hearts some rays of His light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, and which the darkness comprehendeth not (John 1), a light which awakens even in the flesh a certain feeling of a spiritual want, affords a certain presentiment of the possibility of its satisfaction, and thus incites a desire to call on an unknown God for unknown help; or they pray because, even out of the slough of sensuality, in which paganism was sunk, there sometimes emerged a few winged souls, who, conscious of the vileness and uncleanness of their condition, did, through a sincere desire and exertion to know the powers of the spiritual world, attain to some communion with them, and did subsequently teach others to attain to the same, by means of a sincere and strong desire, that is to say, by means of prayer. Again,they pray because ever since those times, when the true worship of God still prevailed throughout mankind, and the power and efficacy of true prayer were therefore well known to it, there still remained, notwithstanding the subsequent corruption of divine worship, an indelible general conviction, both of the necessity of worship, and of the advantages of prayer, that is to say, of its power and efficacy.
Unfortunately there is a philosophy (of that kind which the Apostle Paul designates as "philosophy after the rudiments of the world and vain deceit" - Col. 2:8) which, disdaining the universal testimony of humanity, deems itself able to find out the best witness of the truth. It teaches that the whole world is bound by the bonds of causes and effects, in which even free beings are more or less entangled, and when, for instance, man prays for abundance of the fruits of the earth, the said abundance depending on the temperature of the atmosphere - this temperature on the action and reaction of the sun, earth, and water, and their action again on the laws of the universe, once for all ordained by the Creator, and operating immediately and in obedience to fixed laws; he then is praying either to no purpose or at most only for the purpose of evincing his humility and submission to the might and majesty of the Creator. Let us note that even such a philosophy cannot deprive prayer of that effect at least, which begets in man a spirit of lowliness towards God; and this alone is of no small value, and is a redeeming influence. But this is not all. Ask any disciple of this philosophy whom you may meet with, which is better, a skillfully constructed machine or a living being, intelligent and free, and a well-ordered community of such beings? Who is greater? the artisan who constructs a machine and regulates its movements; or a father who begets children, and by education forms them after his own likeness; or a king who has founded a kingdom of freemen, and governs them as they themselves wish to be governed, provided his wise and gracious designs are not controverted. The choice here is not a difficult one, and there is no need to wait for the answer. Ask him again, why he prefers to see the work of the All-perfect Creator, rather a perfect specimen of art than the well-ordered kingdom of a wise monarch, or the great mansion of an All-bountiful Father? Why would such people more readily picture to themselves God as the Architect of the universe, than as the King of heaven and earth and the Father of spirits? We leave them to seek an answer to this in their own conscience, while for our present purpose, it is quite sufficient to admit that if God is not only our Creator, but also our King and Father, then undoubtedly the children will not call in vain on their Father, nor will the King shut His ears against the sons of His kingdom. And is it then to be wondered at, that a loving Father should, to satisfy the righteous, or at all events the innocent desire of a son, stop or alter the movements of the machine which He has formed? We must not wonder then, if our Most Gracious heavenly Father, in answer to the prayers of His earth-born children, gives some new and unusual direction to nature governed by the law of necessity. It is by means of such a comparison that the Truth itself, the Word itself, explains the efficacy of prayer: If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father Which is in heaven, give good things to them that ask Him (Matt. 7:11)
There are some Christians, understanding and performing the acts of prayer rather in an outward ritual sense, than in an inward spiritual one, who, whilst in no way doubting in the general belief that prayer is powerful and efficacious, are mistaken, or do entirely err in the application of this truth to themselves and to their prayer.
Praying repeatedly, and seeing nothing result from their prayers, either in themselves or around them, they, instead of doubting the sincerity and merit of their own prayers, are prone to imbibe the idea inspired by a spirit of sloth and self-deceit, that powerful and availing prayer must needs be some peculiar gift of grace, reserved for some of God's elect, and for certain extraordinary cases only. ... To such we say without hesitation, that there is no man whose prayer may not become powerful, if he only desire it steadfastly and with a pure heart, with faith and hope in God, and that there is no case in which his prayer will not be granted, if only its object be not contrary to the Wisdom and Mercy of God, or to the true welfare of the suppliant. This is saying much; we trust, nevertheless, that we are not deceiving the true lovers of prayer.
Figure to yourselves a man, who by the power of prayer shuts or opens the heavens, stops or brings down rain; commands that a handful of flour and a little oil should suffice to feed several persons for several months, or perhaps even for more than a year, and it is fulfilled; breathes on a dead man, and restores him to life; brings down fire from heaven, to consume a sacrifice and an altar immersed in water. What can appear more extraordinary than this power of prayer? But it appears so only to a man who knows not what spiritual power is, whilst to one who does, it appears only as the act of a man like unto ourselves. This is not my own opinion merely, but the teaching of an Apostle. Saint James exhorted us to pray "one for another," and wishing to incite us thereto, says, that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16), and confirms this general precept and convincing motive by the example of that extraordinary man whom we have just pictured, and whom he represents as a man like unto ourselves: Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. and he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit (James 5:17-18). Why is it said here, that this wonderworking Elias "was a man subject to like passions as we are"? It is just that we, deeming him an extraordinary man, should not be discouraged from imitating him, and from attaining power in prayer.
If, notwithstanding, it appears to you, that to imitate the prayers of the prophet be a lot far above your mediocrity, and a height unattainable by you, then imagine yourselves as much below the prophet as you please, imagine yourselves to be even less than Christians, say heathens, and even then, I affirm that your prayer may be powerful and effectual. It may, and what more? It may convert you from heathenism to Christianity, it may lead you to the true knowledge and worship of God, even though they be till then unknown to you, and if there be no man near who can direct you to it, then will it open the heavens, and bring down thence an angel unto you, who will teach you. But am I not dreaming and carried away by my desire to invite you to fervent and effectual prayer? No, my brethren and fellow-worshippers, I am speaking but of what has actually happened before, and therefore may happen again, and which has the testimony of our holy books. The Roman centurion, Cornelius, who we know from the Acts of the Apostles, was a Gentile; it is not known whether he knew the One God, but certain it is that he did not know Jesus Christ, Whom God hath sent; but he did as much good as he was able: he feared, and prayed always to God, though to him unknown: a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always (Acts10:2). And what did the unceasing prayer of the Gentile achieve? It did indeed call down heaven upon him, and brought to his aid high and even divine powers. In the midst of his prayers an angel appears to him, saying, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard (Acts 10:31), and then instructs him to send for the Apostle Peter. And when the Apostle was preaching unto him Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, even before baptism, was poured from on high upon Cornelius.
Search in your mind, invent if you will, some object which may seem inaccessible to the power of prayer, and we do not despair of being able to prove to you, by the light of the Word of God, that it is accessible and attainable, though the same may appear impossible. Imagine to yourselves, for instance, a whole nation that has offended God by some heavy crime; suppose also that God has already declared His righteous will to destroy that nation, and that at this awful moment there remains but one man upon earth who can pray for this people, already about to be engulfed by hell. Does it not seem to you that it is no longer possible to save this people? The experience of Moses has proved that even this is possible. The children of Israel, immediately after the glorious revelation and covenant on Mount Sinai, suddenly relapsed into idolatry. Moses stands before the Lord on the mountain. Hear and understand what marvellous words the Lord then spake unto Moses: Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them (Ex. 32:10). O Lord God of spirits and of all flesh! can this Thy servant, strong only in Thy strength, oppose himself to the fulfillment of Thy will? Let Me alone, says He, I wish to declare My righteous wrath, I wish to destroy this nation: but thou restrainest Me. Let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them. What then? The supplicant does not even then leave God, but redoubles his prayers, and the wrath of the invincible Almighty yields to the power of the prayer of a mortal man! And the Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people (Ex. 32:14). Measure here, if you can, the miraculous power of prayer, and find something, after this, which it cannot achieve to our salvation!
That we may again perceive with what ease the key of prayer opens spiritual and divine treasures, let us once more glance towards Mount Tabor, to which we have endeavored to approach in these our present meditations. Let us once more earnestly contemplate the Transfiguration of the Lord as described to us by the Evangelist: And He went up into a mountain to pray: and as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, etc. If we may dare by these few traits to divine the heart-thoughts of the Divine Jesus: then does it seem that on the way to Mount Tabor, His direct and immediate object was not the Transfiguration, but simply prayer: He went up into a mountain to pray. It seems as if on the very mountain itself, even at the very moment of transfiguration, His sole object was prayer: And as He prayed... Now will one who meditates on this deem the supposition improbable, that the object or this, our Saviour's prayer, must have been the preparation of Himself and His disciples for His approaching Passion and Death on the Cross, which He had but recently revealed unto them, and of which during the Transfiguration itself, Moses and Elias spake unto Him. How was it then, that amidst this prayer of suffering, glory was revealed? Spontaneously, we may say, as the flower and fruit of prayer full of living power. The spirit of prayer uniting itself with the Spirit of God, filled the soul of Jesus with light; the superabundance of that light, which could no longer be contained within His soul, diffused itself throughout His body, shone forth in His countenance, and, not finding space sufficient to contain it there, illuminated and transfigured even His very raiment; extending itself still farther, it overspread the souls of the Apostles, being reflected in the exclamation of Peter: Master, it is good for us to be here! It penetrated into the domain of the invisible world, and drew thence Moses and Elias, reached unto the very bosom of the heavenly Father, and moved His love to a solemn testimony of His beloved: This is My beloved Son! O miracle of prayer, embracing in one act heaven and earth, and divinity itself! Let no one say that this example of prayer does not concern us, as being an act of the God-Man. It concerns us Christians also; for in us, though not in a like degree, must be accomplished the same as was in Christ: Let this mind be in you, says the Apostle, which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5).
But it is time at last to inquire why it is that so many prayers remain without effect, if every prayer can always be so powerful and effectual? For it is for the sake of this question principally that we have said all that which we have as yet spoken. Let us particularly note one instance, in which a prayer appears not to be answered, whereas it is really answered in an unexpected and sublime way. Thus, Paul besought the Lord thrice, to be delivered from a thorn in the flesh, but God answered him: My grace is sufficient for thee; for My strength is made perfect in weakness (II Cor.12:8-9). The temptation is not removed, but a victory still more wonderful is granted over the continuing temptation. If we except such cases, all unsuccessful prayers are accounted for by this short saying of the Apostle: Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3). Our prayers are fruitless, either because they are not fervent and persevering supplications, which proceed from the depth of our souls, and into which our whole soul is poured forth, but are only weak desires, which we utter without fervor, thinking they must needs be fulfilled of their own accord; or because our supplications are unclean and evil, inasmuch as we ask that which is hurtful,and of no benefit to our souls; of ask things not for the glory of God, but for the gratification of our carnal and selfish desires.
Pray, Christian, fervently and with the whole might of thy soul, pray diligently and perseveringly, pray rightly and purely; and if thou art not thyself equal to it, then pray for prayer itself, and by prayer thou wilt first obtain true and effectual prayer, and then this prayer shall overcome all things with thee and obtain all things for thee; it will guide thee unto Mount Tabor or create a Tabor within thee; it will call down heaven into thy soul, and raise thy soul into heaven. Amen.
Reprinted, by kind permission of the publisher, from Select Sermons of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, Eastern Orthodox Books, Willits, CA.
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