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Second Savior

Three great feasts of Christ crown August, the month Eastern Christians cherish as 'Mary's month.'

May is Mary’s month according to the popular tradition of Latin Rite Catholics, but for Christians of the Byzantine Rite, the grace-filled month of August sees the full flowering of Marian devotion. The first two weeks of the month are spent in prayerful anticipation of the greatest of the festivals of the Mother of God, her Dormition or Falling-Asleep, as the Eastern churches tenderly call the Assumption.

In the East, Mary is always the Theotokos or Mother of God, and as such is rarely portrayed separately from her Divine Son. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Our Lord figures prominently in the Eastern “Marian season.” The Byzantine Slavs in particular grew very attached to the “Three Saviors,” as they called the three feasts of Christ that occur during this time.

On August 1, Eastern Christians celebrate “First Savior,” the Procession of the Relics of the Lifegiving Cross. They hallow the occasion by the Lesser Blessing of Water. On August 6 the East rejoices in “Second Savior,” the Transfiguration – one of the twelve major feasts of Our Lord. “Third Savior” is celebrated on August 16: the feast of the Icon of Christ “Not-Made-By-Hands.”

Though this grouping of the “Three Saviors” owes much to the folk piety of the Christian East, there is a profound theological relationship between these feasts and the Marian season.

The All-holy Mother of God is seen as the image of the perfect Christian. She is the one in whom the mystery of grace – theosis or divinization, to use the Eastern term – has been brought to fulfillment. Her glorification as a total human being, body and soul, is the first fruits of the redemption wrought by her Divine Son. In her, the restored Divine image and likeness shine most brightly among mortals. Her passage through the portals of death to the duskless kingdom of immortality stands as surety for all Christians who nourish the same hope of restoration.

Baptism plants the seeds of restoration in us; hence the connection with the aghiasmos, or Blessing of Water, on August 1. The waters of Baptism receive their efficacy through the death and resurrection of Christ; the Procession of the Relics of the Holy Cross reinforces this theme most dramatically. Recreated in the waters of Baptism, by the power of the Holy Cross, we are made over in the Divine image – we become living icons, not painted by the hand of man, but reborn by the breath of God. Thus the feast of the Acheiropoetos Icon – Image of Our Savior “Not-Made-By-Hands” – takes on its most profound significance.

The Transfiguration is the cornerstone of this liturgy of divinization. First, the Synaxion or Martyrology of the day tells us that the Transfiguration took place forty days before the Crucifixion. The Church presumably declined to celebrate so joyous a feast at the gates of Lent, and so transferred the feast to August 6, forty days before the exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14. Here one sees the connection between the theme of Transfiguration and that of the Cross. The kontakion or hymn of the feast reinforces this idea:

When You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God, Your disciples beheld as much of Your glory as they could hold, so that when they saw You crucified they might know that You suffered of Your own will, and might proclaim unto the world that You are truly the Splendor of the Father.

The Eastern Church developed a complete spirituality based on the mystery of the Transfiguration. Though this doctrine had its roots in the Scriptures and in the writings of the early Church Fathers, it reached its fullest and most perfect expression in the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas.

The Scriptural foundation for the doctrine is to be found in St. Peter’s Second Epistle:

His Divine Power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may become sharers of the Divine Nature. (2 Peter: 1-4)

St. Athanasius daringly summed this up when he said, “God became man so that man might become God.”

Of course, the chief means by which we become sharers of the Divine Nature are the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments. In Baptism, we are recreated in God’s image and likeness by mystically experiencing the death and resurrection of Christ. By Chrismation (Confirmation), we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, anointed as other “Christs.” By Penance and Holy Unction, we are restored to the splendor of God’s glory.

In Marriage, man and woman become icons of the love of Christ for His Church. Through Holy Orders, man becomes a fellow Suffering Servant of the Lord, a steward of Divine Grace. But the chiefest channel of our divinization is the Holy Eucharist, for, in the words of St. Leo the Great, “Thereby we are transformed into That which we consume.”

The Sacraments disclose the transfiguration that grace works on nature. The Metamorphosis, as the East calls Our Lord’s feast on August 6, reveals the glorification that awaits humanity, destined to participate in the Divine Nature. The glorified image of the Mother of God in her Dormition stands as a pledge of this gift. In addition, the Transfiguration provides a guide to Christian pilgrims along the path “from glory to glory.”

As the Apostles beheld the transfigured Lord Jesus on Mount Thabor between Moses and Elias, they were unable to bear the splendor of Christ’s Divinity illuminating His human nature. Jesus approached them and dispelled their awe by bidding them not to be afraid. “And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus.”

This is the grace of Thabor: to pass through life as Christians seeing only Jesus in all the people and events that cross our path. This is possible when our eyes are purified by repentance, so that we see all men created in God’s image and likeness and recreated in Holy Baptism. The East begs for the grace of Thabor in its briefest yet most perfect prayer, known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

The perfection of this prayer consists in this, that the entire mystery of the Divine Economy is disclosed in it. Jesus, whose name means Savior, is addressed as Lord, that is, as God. He is God because He is the Son of the Father. Before Him we bow in humility, conscious of our sins yet confident of His great mercy.

Some of the saints who made the Jesus prayer the center of their lives were granted the extraordinary grace of beholding the Uncreated Light of Thabor with their earthly eyes. The East identified this Light with the Divine Energy which transfigures the world so that Christ becomes All in all.

Today on Thabor in the brightness of Your Light, O Word, You changeless Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light all creation.

As a sign that the entire created world shares in man’s invitation to become transfigured into Christ, grapes are blessed on this day and distributed to the faithful. The grapes remind us that Christ is the True Vine onto whom we, as living tendrils, are grafted. In nature, grapes are pressed into wine “that gladdens the heart of man.” By grace, the fruit of the vine is transfigured into the very Body and Blood of the Lord. Nourished by the Food of Angels, we make our way through life in the Light of Thabor, seeing only Jesus.

Christ our God, fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, fill our hearts with joy and gladness, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Father Romanos Russo is Director of the Office of Educational Services of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.

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