What is the difference between “Transfiguration Sunday,” “The Feast of the Transfiguration,” and the proclamation of the gospel narrative of the transfiguration? In large part it depends on what day we’re talking about.
If we are reflecting on the last Sunday before Lent (the Last Sunday after the Epiphany for some), or the Second Sunday in/of Lent, or August 6th, we may have the same gospel reading (or one of the three synoptic gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration) but different emphases. What happened to a more perfect union in following an ecumenical lectionary? ‘Thereby hangs a tale…’
We know a bit about the origins of the Feast of the Transfiguration and how those beginnings give different emphases to the narrative of a Christ-centred event. In Eastern Christianity the establishment of an annual feast is certainly linked to place – specifically the growing early church consensus (beginning with Origen in the 3rd century) that the transfiguration took place on Mt. Tabor. Archeologists have found the remains of two early churches (early pilgrim reports list three churches), a Crusader-era church on top of one of those, plus recent archeological work revealing a substantial 6th/7th century monastery at the foot of Mt. Tabor. The popular identification of one of those early churches with the mother of Constantine gave the place an added importance. But, what about the date of August 6th (or, if following the Julian calendar, August 19)? In Syriac writings and other Oriental Orthodox churches, the thematic linking of the transfiguration and crucifixion provide the grounds for the dating (joined by Constantinople in the 8th century). In these early reflections and sermons on the observance of place and event, there was increasingly a view that the Feast of the Transfiguration preceded the crucifixion by 40 days (40 days representing all the metaphorical weight of thematics and importance it has elsewhere). But here, it was not so much a link to Good Friday as to the Feast of the Holy Cross – September 14th, joined with the central Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. So glory, transformation, being drawn into the divine, all of these directly tied to glory and transformation through the crucifixion and resurrection in dates that make particular sense to the early church geography of Palestine.
What about the Latin speaking churches of the West? The same identifications of August 6th and Holy Cross show up first in 1038 in Catalonian records (another bit of tantalizing evidence of the links between Constantinople and Spain), with further expansion in the Cluniac adoption of the August 6th feast in 1132 (perhaps linked to their monastic presence on Mt. Tabor). From there, historians often point to the ‘universal’ establishment of August 6th as the Feast of the Transfiguration by Callistus III in 1457, in celebration of the lifting of the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. But the importance of the transfiguration narrative and an annual focus on it shows up much earlier in Latin preaching and theologizing, particularly in Leo the Great (mid-5th century). Leo’s sermon 38 is one of only two tied to a specific narrative outside of Sundays and major feastdays – this one to the event of the transfiguration on the Saturday before the Second Sunday of Lent. Here again, the narrative of the transfiguration of Christ is anticipatory of the transfiguration of Christ through death and resurrection, and our engagement in that transformation. Eventually that Saturday became an Ember Day, and somewhere along the line, the reading of the transfiguration narrative was duplicated so that it appeared on Saturday and Sunday. When the first printed edition of the Roman Missal was made in 1474, it contained the same gospel for both days, a duplication copied in later missals, and not “corrected” until after Vatican II, when it was dropped from its original Saturday location but retained on the Second Sunday of Lent.
By the end of the Middle Ages, therefore, Western Christians heard the gospel twice, the ‘newer’ August 6th observance focused on glory and transfiguration, and the earlier Eastern association of that glory linked to the crucifixion – now transferred to a more ‘logical’ place in Western thinking in preparation for the observance of Pascha in Latin-speaking Christianity.
So, how do we end up with the variants we have now? Like so many feast days of the Middle Ages, Anglicanism dropped the Feast of the Transfiguration (and its narrative in Lent), only to restore it in 1662. No less a theologian than Michael Ramsey (the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote extensively about the transfiguration (The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, 1949) as one of many Western Christian voices picking up and working with theological issues long important in Eastern Christianity, thereby raising the feast and its rich theologies to a broader public view. But Anglicanism in particular has had a mixed-up pattern with both the narrative of transfiguration and the Feast of the Transfiguration.
Pity the poor Canadian Anglicans who will suffice as our example. They have in the Book of Common Prayer (1962) the Feast on August 6th (with the Matthean account), but the Sunday prior to Lent still have Quinquagesima and retain both the Lenten Ember Day and the Second Sunday in Lent, none of which hear the transfiguration narrative. At the same time, they also have the Book of Alternative Services (1985), an official liturgical book with the narrative of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday in Lent, along with a lovely opening collect linking transfiguration and crucifixion together in continuity with Leo the Great (“Almighty God, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross, give us faith to perceive his glory, that being strengthened by his grace we may be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory…”) and, this year, the now-standard year B pericope of Mark’s account of the transfiguration. But, there are options to not observe the transfiguration with an alternative gospel reading for each of the 3 years (and therefore a mis-matched opening prayer; the proper prayer over the gifts and after communion being sufficiently “vague” to escape being a problem). On top of this, when arriving at the “Last Sunday after Epiphany” the BAS points to the readings of transfiguration with the instruction that “the proper prayers for the Last Sunday after Epiphany may be found…under the Transfiguration of the Lord”. There, the opening collect is different that Lent II: “Almighty God, on the holy mount you revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured: mercifully deliver us from the darkness of this world, and change us into his likeness from glory to glory…” reflecting more Eastern Christian emphases on divinization and therefore not linking to the crucifixion, either by means of Holy Cross or the Pascha.
But, there’s more! In the online additions to the BAS, this past Sunday had a clarification as “Transfiguration Sunday” with the explanation that “liturgy always looks forward” so “it is appropriate therefore that the theme of today emphasise the hope of our salvation at Easter prefigured in the Transfiguration rather than concentrating on the Feast of the Transfiguration itself which is observed on the 6th of August.” What follows is an introduction to a collect borrowed, it says, from Common Worship (the primary liturgical resource of the Church of England in the 21st century) but which is not new to Canada, being simply a slightly re-worked version of the opening prayer for Lent II.
Lutherans appear to be the source of the term “Transfiguration Sunday” as a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, building on the ecumenical revisions of the new Roman Lectionary where the option was introduced. Here was an opportunity to stress glorification and a precursor of the celebration of the resurrection to come without putting the narrative in Lent itself. It also appears at the end of Epiphany for practical reasons, so that the narrative of the transfiguration will fall on a Sunday when more people will hear it, rather than on August 6th. But, not all Lutherans observe this dating (or the substitution of the Sunday before Lent as the only observance of the Transfiguration, hearing the gospel narrative just once in the year). Lutherans in Scandinavia continue a separate tradition of observing the Feast of the Transfiguration on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. And so the variations continue…
The deep theological implications of the Transfiguration, in its three synoptic accounts, richly deserve two readings in the year. When situated differently, paired with different scripture readings, different prayers, different preaching, and representing two different historical trends, observing the Feast of the Transfiguration and hearing the reading on the road to Jerusalem in Lent seem to make much sense, paticularly now that the August 6th Feast is forever joined to the searing destructive ‘light’ of the Hiroshima bombing. The confusion in the Anglican Church of Canada and other places does raise the question, however, if the urgency to remove it from Lent II and back it up a couple weeks actually reflects a continuing nervousness about celebrating “glory” in the midst of Lent. In spite of the use of “Sundays IN Lent” not “OF Lent”, Lent remains for many only a time of penance, or an extended passiontide, rather than the richness of history which is to accompany those to be initiated at Easter and those returning to the church’s communion, and to the tension between a narrative which acknowledges how much we want to ‘stay’ where all is well, but hear again and again the instruction to come off the mountain, to move on, even toward things not always desired…