It’s probably still Christmas Day where most readers of this blog are. But here in Thailand it’s already well into the morning of the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is recorded that even his false accusers looked on him and saw he had the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Stephen’s very appearance was transfigured, or lit up (so to speak), in Christ. John of the Cross sings of this reality as the “living flame of love” taking the whole person into it and converting the person into the Spirit’s fire. The Eastern Church lays emphasis on the word transfiguration, by analogy with Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Whatever word we use, the point is clear and it appears openly in the Scriptures: grace, though an interior reality, has signs and symbols in the world and in the body. There are many examples of this in the Church’s history.
This year, I’m thinking especially of Saint John Chrysostom, too. He meditated on Saint Stephen’s transfiguration a fair bit. “For even to the body,” he says when commenting on the martyrdom of Stephen, “the composure of the soul imparts a beauty of its own.” It’s true. But John doesn’t miss the growth of evil alongside good in this world. He adds elsewhere: “There are faces full-fraught with spiritual grace, lovely to them that love, awful to haters and enemies.” Not everyone loves the faces fully transfigured by love. This was Stephen’s fate.
Of course, John Chrysostom has a point. We need to love holiness to be in love with the holiness in others and to really notice it as such. The interaction between the observer of sanctity and the saint depends on two people: “Just as water reflects the face,” says Solomon, “so one human heart reflects another.” (Prov 27:19) Perception of sanctity is not a science except in a practical way. We can be certain, however, that sanctity becomes manifest when it overflows from God’s transformation within. This is attested by throughout the Old Testament: “A person is known by his appearance” (Sir 19:29). “The heart changes the countenance” (Sir 13:25). “Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed” (Eccles 8:1).
None of that has been overwritten. In the present time of the Church, even those who entertained false accusations against the protomartyr looked on him and saw the face of an angel. Of course, the name given to each of us may be secret, but even secrets have signs and symbols in the world. These signs and symbols are not predetermined and humanly predictable, and they are not seen by everyone in the same way, but they nonetheless exist. May God, in his infinite mercy and from his infinite bounty, give us a share, however small, in the grace of transfiguration.