Transfiguring Our Passions


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, August 13, 2023

1 Cor 4:9-16
Matthew 17:14-33

We gather this morning on a particular Sunday which happens to fall on the leave-taking of the Transfiguration, and is only two days before our Feast of the Dormition. And I think there’s something interesting that lies in today’s Gospel lesson, as it comes to us uniquely between these two feasts. Chronologically speaking, the passage we just heard takes place immediately following the events of the Transfiguration. On Mt. Tabor, Christ showed Peter, James, and John what it is to embody an awakening. That is, a heart awakened to the divine image. Here, Christ demonstrated for them what it is to be present and awakened to the reality of God’s manifestation among us.

But immediately following these events Jesus and the disciples return from the mountain, and a man meets them crying out, “Lord have mercy on my son!” Now, our English translation doesn’t reveal this well enough, but the man quite literally says “Kyrie Eleison!” That is, he refers to Jesus as “Lord,” and it wasn’t common for people to refer to Jesus that way, at least at this point in His ministry. This indicates the man had the confidence that Christ was able to heal. The disciples, by contrast, instead of allowing their experience on Mt. Tabor to guide them, are more focused on themselves. In particular, on why they could not perform the miraculous. “Why could we not drive out the demon?” they ask Jesus. What they want to do, of course, to perform something grandiose. But the goal of the divine life — which Jesus showed them on Mt Tabor — is not about showing off our ability to perform the miraculous.
St Augustine tells us the following:

“If a man prays so that he may throw out someone else’s demon, how much more so that he may cast out his own avarice? How much more so that the may cast out his own drunkenness? … How much more so that he may cast out his own impurity. How great are the sins of human beings!”

St. Augustine’s words give us a clue about the meaning found in today’s Gospel passage. The story is not focused on the exorcism of an epileptic, so to speak, so much as it is about looking inward at the inmost places of the heart where our Passions lie. The great Origen, of whom I hope the Orthodox Church will give a second chance to one day, unpacks today’s Gospel story with a bit more depth than St Augustine, revealing to us the story’s connection to our Passions. Using the image of the epileptic son rolling about through fire and water, Origen writes that:

...such persons, so to speak, are epileptic spiritually, ... often ill, at the time when the passions attack their soul; at one time falling into the fire of burnings, when, according to what is said in Hosea, they become adulterers, like a pan heated for the cooking from the burning flame; and, at another time, into the water ... so that they come into the depths of the waves of the sea of human life. [1]

So here we have this allegorical imagery of a man tossed back and forth and controlled by his passions. But how are his passions healed in the story?

It is important for us to understand first that passions are not sins which need to be penalized. “Passion,” as we speak of it in the Orthodox faith, comes from the Greek term pathos which indicates “suffering.” Archbishop Lazar Puhalo tells us that
Suffering is something which needs to be healed, not punished.” “Human passions,” he states, moreover, are normal emotions which “…become so powerful within [us] that it begins to cause [us true] suffering.” [2] Sin on the other hand “is the habitual misuse of our energies.” And I find this description so helpful, especially in light of the feast of the Transfiguration, because it shows us that it is possible for human beings to move away from the misuse of our energies. We can shift our energies away from our “inner human sufferings” and reorient our souls toward the divine energies of God. This of course is accomplished by focusing less on the satisfaction of our egos, and focusing more on Jesus Christ. And this is exactly what the man does in today’s story. He directs his attention to Christ as Lord, and Jesus, in turn, drives out that to which his son is passionately bound. Christ brings him true healing!

But what exactly does this look like for the lives of each of us sitting here today? The late Met. Kallistos Ware of blessed memory helps to us understand more of what it means to redirect our energies. He states:

“our aim is not to eliminate the passions but to redirect their energy.  Uncontrolled rage must be turned into righteous indignation, spiteful jealousy into zeal for the truth, sexual lust into an eros that is pure in its fervour. The passions, then are to be purified, not killed; to be educated, not eradicated; to be used positively, not negatively.  To ourselves and to others we say, not ‘Suppress’, but ‘Transfigure.’ [3]

So if sin is the “habitual misuse of our energies,” we learn from Met. Kallistos that it is possible to re-orient our inner desires toward God through Jesus Christ. While this may seem like an overwhelming, or perhaps even impossible task, what I find encouraging is that we have examples of those in our faith who have overcome those Passions — chief among them is the Theotokos whom we celebrate in only two day’s time. Mary, who suffered none of the passions, is know to us as the All-Holy (panagia) — a title ascribed to her because she is the supreme example of one who’s energies were directed toward God in a manner no other human has achieved. She exemplified a sinless life here on Earth. She achieved union with God. Yet, she too had to suffer the inevitable end of humankind’s fallen condition. Having died, yet being without sin, she was raised into heaven experiencing what all of us one day hope to achieve the end of all things — the resurrection of the body! The great 20th century theologian Sergius Bulgakov states this beautifully:

“The Mother of God in her resurrected and glorified body is already the completed glory of the world and its resurrection. With the resurrection and ascension of the Mother of God the world is completed in its creation. [She is] the perfectly and absolutely divinized creature, the one who begets God, who bears God, and receives God. She, a human and a creature, sits in the heavens with her Son, who is seated at the right hand of the Father.” [4]



1 Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Origen), Book XIII, 4,” New Advent, accessed August 18, 2022,

2 On the Neurobiology of Sinby Archbishop Lazar Puhalo,” Clarion Journal for Religion Peace and Justice, accessed August 13, 2023,

3 Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 116.

4 Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009), 74-75