It’s good on Tabor – so let’s go there… One must go to Tabor! But at the same time always remember that the way there is through Golgotha, and there is no other road. (Elder Barsanuphius, pp. 502-3)
These are the words of Elder Barsanuphius of Optina monastery, and in thinking of Mt. Tabor, I always think of these words. “The way to Tabor is through Golgotha, and there is no other road.”
When Christ took his disciples up the mountain, His glory was manifest to them “as much as they could bear it.” And why was that? Why did Christ grant them this manifestation? The Fathers say that this was so that the disciples would know, when Christ was hanging on the Cross, just Who was being Crucified – just Who was being humiliated, beaten, tortured and betrayed. Christ, radiant with light and standing between Moses and Elias, who both bowed down before Him, – Christ showed himself to be Divine, and the voice of God the Father called forth from a cloud, saying: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And Christ allowed this revelation to his disciples so that they would know, at the Cross on Golgotha, just Who it was who was dying on the Cross. This was no ordinary man – not even a Prophet. This was God in the Flesh – the Son of God, the God-Man.
And so that moment on Tabor points to Golgotha. And just as Christ deemed it necessary that the disciples climb Mt. Tabor before they reached Golgotha, it is necessary for us, as Elder Barsenuphius reminds us, that we must pass through Golgotha before we can reach Mt. Tabor – and there is no other road.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, in his Prologue reading for the Feast of Transfiguration, says: “Why was our Lord transfigured on a mountain and not in a valley? So as to teach us two virtues: love of labor and godly-thoughts. For, climbing to the heights required labor and height represents the heights of our thoughts, i.e., godly-thoughts.”
I was recently staying with Fr. Mark Tyson and his family on his farm in Virginia, and on the wall in the room where I stayed was a quote, which read: “People do not wander around and then find themselves at the top of Mount Everest.” Similarly, people do not wander around and then find themselves on Mt. Tabor. To get there, we must strive, we must sacrifice, we must sweat, and we must make a serious, concerted, diligent and well-directed effort – and we must do so calling on God to help us. Yet too often these days we don’t want to make this effort, or we even think it is not necessary. We want Tabor without Golgotha – we want the Transfiguration without the Cross. We want a Christianity that is all sweet feelings and illuminations, comfort and grace, but we don’t want to take up our Cross – not only in ascetical efforts, to fast, to pray, to stand through Church services, and so on – but also in loving our neighbor, forgiving offences, turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies and returning evil with good. Many Christians today – and especially in the United States – have fallen for a Gospel of prosperity and self-help. They look for a Savior that will give then everything they want, that will give them health, wealth and success, and that will give them happiness and fulfillment in this world. But as St. Paisios of Mt. Athos said: “Worldly success is spiritual failure.” A Christianity that denies the Cross and that denies taking up ones Cross is no Christianity at all, and is only ripe for spiritual failure. And when the tide in our nation begins to turn against Christ and the Church, and when Churches are empty across Western Europe and are replaced with Mosques, a soul-searching beings. Within this easy, “feel-good” Christianity, they ask: Did we not do enough to accommodate the world? Was our message not “relevant” enough? Were we too judgmental? And did we not love as the world loves enough?
But the answer is always the Cross and Christ Crucified. For hasn’t it always been this way? Is the servant greater than the Master? “If they persecuted me, so will they persecute you.” This shock, however, only comes once Tabor is sought without Golgotha, and thus becomes the norm of a comfortable and complacent Christianity – what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” To be Transfigured in Christ, we must first die with Christ – to suffer with Him. And through suffering with Him – through Golgotha – we reach the Transfiguration of Tabor and the light of Pascha – and there is no other road.
But in suffering and in dying with Christ, we are not gloomy or sad! Not at all! The early martyrs entered the arenas with hymns on their lips, and even children enduring terrible tortures for their faith proclaimed lovingly, “It is a joy to suffer for Christ!” Their tormentors could only stand in amazement at their peaceful and joyful serenity. On this feast day, we rejoice in Christ’s resplendent light and we all offer a thanksgiving to Him for calling us all here together to share this meal – this Eucharist – at the Lord’s table. We sang at the Small Entrance: “O Lord, send out Thy light and Thy truth: they have guided me along the way, and have brought me unto Thy holy mountain.” On hearing these words as a monk on our little “holy mountain,” I cannot help but be struck with deep gratitude at the loving mercy of God’s providence to have brought me, a wretch and a sinner, out of the world and to this little mountain. And though the road through Golgotha is a difficult one, we never travel alone. We have our brother and sisters in Christ, the clergy and priesthood, and all the saints to help us along. And of course, it is Christ himself who is there for us when we call on Him, for His light and truth guide the way: “Thy law is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” It is we who make the first step, but it is God, the loving Father, who rushes to meet us when we do.
So let us all go to Mt. Tabor, for it is good there! And may we never lose heart but call on Christ when the road is difficult and the forest of our life is dark. And as co-travellers on the Way, let us bear each other’s burdens in this life, for if we are saved, then we are saved together, for nobody truly travels alone. With love in Christ, let us work to make a good beginning on the right path, and let us commit ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God – striving to be illumined by the Light of Christ’s Transfiguration, which banishes all the darkness of sin and Gehenna. For Christ is the ever-existing Light, transfigured on Tabor, in His Glory, along with His Father from all eternity, and His Life-Creating Spirit, Whom are One Radiance, One Godhead, and One Glory, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Let us come to ourselves like the prodigal; let us, like him, speak firm words of resolve to our own souls: “I will arise and go to my Father”; and the Gracious God will perfect our small intention.
He knows that we do not know the way to Him, or the manner in which to traverse it; but, hearing us say: “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart”, and seeing us begin our journey towards Him, He will then rush out to us, falling on us, and kissing our neck: He will send His All-Accomplishing Holy Spirit upon us, and guide us into all truth, not only in our understanding, but in all our deeds, all our life.
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.