Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

The feast of Transfiguration and Faces

Photo taken by Dita Schnitzer, rimonim.
Photo taken by Dita Schnitzer, rimonim.

The Сhristian Orthodox Churches celebrated Prophet Elijah on August 2 according to the Julian calendar. The next day, they commemorated Prophet Ezekiel. We are in a time that unfolds pages and pages of the wide scroll of destiny: a) before chronological time, b) in time or in the process of unfolding of what we call history c) and which is launched towards the future as in chariots of fire or preliminary visions to some ultimate unveiling.

Let’s deal with some reflection on the memory of Father Andrei Scrima, a Romanian Orthodox thinker and World War II resistant. We makes sense on this day of the Feast of the Transfiguration which, as each year, will be celebrated next August 19 [= Aug. 06, Gregorian cal.], at Mount Tabor by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

I want to underline that time was and remains important to Father Andrei Scrima (1925-2000) in his theological and mental approach of the “other”. Time confirms the redeeming dimension of faith. It implies a real labor to every reasonable human being who intends or pretends to walk before the Face of the living God. The “flagship” verse of the Fraternity of Saint Elias/Elijah is precisely “”You are alive, Lord, God of Israel, before whom I stand – חַי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר עָמַדװת ִּי לְפָנָיו” (1 Kings 17,1).

This echoes the prayer often present in synagogues around the world: “Know before Whom you stand / דע לפני מי אתה עומד”. To stand, to be upright, and therefore to ascertain that life is present and active in a place. It embodies a time granted to us according to personal and unique paths.

They can thus be embodied in a face-to-face, a reflection based on a conversation with the True Master of time and space, clocks, a sort of apparently monologued dialogue. Father Andrei, like the survivors of his time, was caught up in this deep mystery of a fire that burns without hurting, that lives and is not submitted to extinction. It shines night and day like a radiance of eternity. As for so many other Christians in Romania at that time, he was fascinated by the call to understand the meaning of  time that seemed imposed to them, as imprinted in them by the Burning Bush (cf. His work Timpul Rugului Aprins).

The incandescence has been seen, even if the ocular memory of the soul cannot retain such an image that soothes the heart and the brain (this is the meaning of hesychasm, a spiritual attitude that is rather parallel to Hassidic devekutדבקות (Cleave, junction, clutch), The  word has a touch of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and so many other Sages. Hesychia in Greek means “a secured rest, full confidence in Divine Presence and the Messiah” and subsequently a “siesta”… Those who go to some Orthodox site can check that the monks often take a sort of spiritual nap. The believer is in a face-to-face situation. At present, it seems often far more clever and adequate to think horizontally and to submit verticality to our own rules and prospects.

The feast of the Transfiguration relates to a face-to-face mini-fraction of time, a very tiny portion of what we might understand and get aware of about times. Jesus of Nazareth was accompanied by three disciples: Peter-Shimon-Kaipha, James, and John, and “He was transfigured before them, his face [prosopon] shone like the sun / καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψε τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος. (his) clothes became white as light / τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς (Matthew 17, 2).

In Hebrew, “panim/פנים” is the plural of a verb “panah/פנה” = to turn (head, face) and the root is related to the adverb “pûnin/פונין = alternatively”. The face can alternatively be perceived as two parts of itself: a) face 1 which is expressed by the mouth, the nose, the eyes, the ears, the forehead, and b) face 2 that seems inert and only covered with hair, neck, earlobes and it is mute, silent. 

Thus, in the Semitic languages, human individuals and animals as well have “faces”, a plural that is never in the singular form because the two sides cannot exist if one is missing. Yet the disciples saw the face of Christ in light which, by definition in the Semitic languages, includes a hidden or inexpressive face, yet indispensable. Face 2 is never mentioned in the Gospel, except that people recognize by seeing this side as we often can do. Likewise, the expressive face (the front according to our traditions) is also “polymorphic, plural”. One could almost say that everything is dual – between visible and invisible, what is expressed or seems to be expressive – or without expression. Dual is an important linguistic features of Semitic languages. Curiously, in contact with European languages, Yiddish “punim/פנים = face” correspond to a German plural form: “punimer/פנימער” after the Indo-European systems, as if to break the uniqueness which is expressed in a complementary way in the duality of human being nature.

What can we perceive of this “transfiguration”? Modern Hebrew has chosen to speak of “hishtanut/השתנות = change, transformation, becoming another, even reincarnation”. We have to be careful with the words, especially since we only have the story written in diversified languages (Greek, Aramaic, Latin) without photographic, images or video supports. The word is magic or pious, even if it turned to be used in totally paganized/idolatrious ways in our societies.I don’t wwant to add to many ideas, but there is even a point that is never mentioned, maybe unknown to Jews and Christians. The Hebrew word “השתנות/hishtanut” is has been created upon Greek “metamorphosis”, a change. Yiddish has a Hebrew word: “Tselem\צלם” = with different meanings: a) image (Bild), b) (Ge)Stalt, light, cross. “A frumer tselemdik/א פרומער צלמדיק” means a “pious Christian”. It may be an object for another article because this maybe explains how  the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas reflected at large on the meaning “the face” and “the identity of the Other”.

Just as the understanding of the Burning Bush is difficult for people who use quartz batteries… The Jewish bedtime prayer includes this verse: “begilgul zeh o b’gigul akher – בגילגול זה או בגילגול אחר/” i.e. “[for whoever has afflicted me] in this or other appearance” which designates the person as the “skull” inhabited by a living soul. Golgotha (“Place of the Skull” in Aramaic) is not a static skull that does not move… Of course, we have no right to “dream” but is can be what Yiddish calls “Chaloymes/כאלוימעס” (Soviet script) = utopian and dreamy irrealities. The name of Golgotha recalls something like “rolling” faces. In modern Hebrew, galgalim/גלגלים = the tires”, while the expression sounds Christian referring to the stone that was rolled before Jesus’ Tomb.

The face of Maran Jesus (Christian Aramaic expression) is not static. It moves, and advances towards the unity of beings, of times, of generations. and according to the tradition of the Transfiguration , it shows in a light which, on Mount Tabor, is only a flash of centuries that twinkles, a compacted vision that anticipates an eschatological view/of the world to come.

There remains one last linguistic point. In Aramaic-Syriac, the Feast of the Transfiguration is called khulap / ܚܘܠܦ. “weštaḥlap yešūᶜ qəḏāmayhon/ܘܶܐܫܬ܁ܰܚܠܰܦ܂ ܝܶܫܽܘܥ ܩܕ܂ܳܡܰܝܗܽܘܢ = Jesus was transfigured before them” (Mt 17, 2). The word is not linked to “the face, face, figure”, but directly to the root of “change, changing”. The root of the word “weshtahlap/ܩܐܫܬܚܠܦ = and He was transfigured” is found in the Hebrew and Aramaic word “khalifah/חליפה” which means “change, replacement, in particular as a garment“. Thus, “khalifat khatan/חליפת חתן = the suit of the groom”, or else “Arishet panim shelo khalfah/ארשת פנים שלו חלפה = the expression of his face changed, passed away”.

This allows to underline a Semitic particularity: the face like the clothes belongs to the domain of the visible and of appearance in a specific and unique circumstance. Witnesses reported what they saw in this way. and words.

The face of Jesus and his clothes became white like the light. This happens “six days after the feast”. There is clearly a connection with the eschatological feast of Booths (Sukkot). Six days after the confession of Peter-Shimon son of Iona, Kapha (Caipha\כיפא = “stone”), on a day which seems to have been the Day of Atonement or Yom HaKippurim (Matthew 16:16). We are in a particular momentum when Shimon the son of Yona (cf. Ecclesiasticus 50, 1) resumed worship during the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The apostle bears the same name as this High Priest. It is the same name as the one who judged Jesus…” It is therefore an eschatological time where only two “guests” appear: Moses and the Prophet Elijah.

Who recognized whom, and how?

When the disciples saw Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, they immediately proposed to build cabins-sukkot! At the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Biarritz (South of France built by the Russian Czar in the 19th c.), there is a magnificent icon. Its theme is rare: it brings together Jesus and various saints who lived in different periods. It is adorned with a gold background, a sign of eternity. Here, in a very brief instant, the luminous glory that is inhabited by divine forgiveness covers the disciples who bow their faces down.

And the cloud – basically we would venture today to compare this to a digital “cloud”- assembles them for this endless pre-supposed memory. Every year, at the Taborion/Transfiguration feast at Mount Tabor, the faithful look, and scan the sky to see this cloud appearing, often toward evening… Peter, Jacob/James and John were holding their faces down on the ground – their noses stuck in the ground suggesting Syriac. And Jesus comes to touch them, perhaps he has only approached them. He says to them: “ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε / Get up, do not be afraid”.

Basically, we share this theophany with Saint Thomas, Dydymos, the one who had doubt that Jesus had resurrected. He became the apostle of Syriac language from Jerusalem till India. “To have faith/believe without having seen” is the common experience in all denominations. Who accepts to believe when everything today seems to be stored in off-shore clouds, do we even know where they are really based? But you click and can see the images whenever you want. 

Father Andrei Scrima’s itinerary started while he was a librarian at the Orthodox Patriarchate of Bucharest. He was very impressed by the Hindu spirituality of the Indian Minister of Culture. He decided to go to Benares and study the Upanishads. And, as was often said – sometimes critically – he could recite Byzantine prayers as well as verses quoted from the Upanishads, from the Bhagavad Gîta, often in Sanskrit.

78 years ago, on the same day of the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aug 6, Gregorian cal.), at 8:30 a.m. local time, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The pilot sent out a kind of new bomb/missile, named “Little Boy” after “a Bhagavad Gita death song: “That I become, the destroyer of worlds”. This is what is written in the text of the Bhagavad Gita (ch. 11, 32). The scholar and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer had read the quotation in Sanskrit while with his colleagues he detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945: “I became Time and my task, currently, is to destroy” he declared, in Sanskrit in the place where the then-experience had been carried out and had been given the name of “Trinity”.

It is hard to believe that these scholars, coming from various Judeo-Christian horizons, could have decided to perform this lethal act on the very day when the Churches celebrate the luminous metamorphosis which leads to life with full and true faith in the living God. In Hiroshima, then in Nagasaki, the atom exploded bodies, souls, faces, identities and beings. Some continue to agonize at present and this has been repeated by the Japanese news this year too.

“Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is strong like death, passion terrible like Sheol; its features are features of fire, a divine flame. / שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל-לִבֶּךָ, כַּחוֹתָם עַל-זְרוֹעֶךָ–כִּי-עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה, קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה: רְשָׁפֶיהָ–רִשְׁפֵּי, אֵשׁ שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה. (Songs of Songs 8: 6).

I was pleased to give this “lecture” in August 2021 via Zoom at the annual “Fraternity of St Elijah” partly based in Romania. It gathers believers of Christian and Jewish denominations and in the presence of Rav Rafael Shaffer, Chief Rabbi in Romania. This year is the fiftieth (50) anniversary of the Fraternity, a yuvel-יובל/Jubilee. It means “ram’s horn trumpet” and calls to a return, a response and communication with Whom is alive and life-giving. Yallah – ויעל(ה)!

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.