The Ecumenical Muddle of Celebrating the Transfiguration of the Lord

The Transfiguration of Christ by Earl Mott. Used by permission of the artist.

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…

14 comments

  1. Thanks for that historical survey. With my childhood formation in pre- and post Vatican II (with a bit of a Polish accent in piety), I frankly never thought much about the placement of the Transfiguration celebration. Becoming a Lutheran as a young adult, and having my call to the Holy Ministry originally heard at age 7 renewed in this new Evangelical Catholicism, I found (and preached so yearly) the placement of the Transfiguration as a “Glimpse (for us) of the glory” before the actual and metaphorical descent from the mountain to the valley of the betrayal and tormenting of our Lord, to the climbing to the summit of Golgotha. It made perfect theological sense to me.

    When preparing to study in Rome (the excellent Ecumenical Theology from a Roman Catholic Perspective at the Centro Pro Unione) I happened across the placement of Transfiguration as you described here. It made no theological sense to me, and I wondered to myself (I never remembered to ask at Centro) why this was so. Thanks again for the historical overview!

    1. thanks for youor thanks! I really decided to do a bit of research because I was sufficiently confused about the multiple interpretations going on – it was fun to learn historically and, I think, the lurking theological reasons in the present day!

  2. This is really interesting. I remember writing a paper in seminary on the Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the Exaltation. It’s deeply embedded in the hymnography of the feast, which is usually an echo of the Greek patristic tradition.

    I’m particularly intrigued by your analysis here because the Transfiguration is somewhat of an outlier in the Eastern festal cycles. Historical events function as the sources of festal celebrations (Pascha – Pentecost – Ascension – Palm Sunday, and especially Theophany – Christmas – Hypapante). Feasts like the Transfiguration (in the East) are dictated by the finding of relics/dedication of a church and pilgrimage site. I guess this is true of Marian feasts to a degree, as well (the cult of Mary in Gethsemane). But this is really interesting to have the double celebration of Transfiguration in the West, without one in the East – and yet we have multiple commemorations of the finding of the Head of John the Baptist, and also of the Cross.

    1. Thanks for this – is there an ‘equivlaent’ to finding a relic in the establishment of the church on Mt Tabor by Helen (meaning – I am aware of the stories of the dedication of a church as a pilgrimage site, but was there something observed/noted as physically marking the spot)?

  3. Hi Lizette, and all. The only reason that Transfiguration for Lutherans now appears as the bridge Sunday between the Epiphany Season and Lent – in this country at least – is because in the 70’s we dropped the three pre-Lenten Sundays of Septua-Sexa-Quinquagesima . That is, prior to this for Lutherans (in many cases including some of the 16th century German Church Orders), Transfiguration Sunday was, indeed, the last Sunday after Epiphany but it was not the Sunday before Lent, since the Epiphany Season ended before the start of the Gesimas. Whatever it is called today in various traditions, the Lutheran placement is followed in the RCL. But, for some reason, known only to God and I suspect a few others in the former Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, Transfiguration on August 6 (40 Days before Holy Cross, which was placed on the Lutheran calendar) was simply abolished. Anyone want to speculate that this had to do with the other blinding and transfiguring light associated with August 6, namely Hiroshima?

      1. let me add a short PS. There are several Feasts of the Lord in the calendars of both Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (including Epiphany and Presentation) that almost never occur on Sundays so the Sunday question probably does not work with the August 6 omission. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Max – I knew about the ‘cancellation’ of the 6th of August but had not caught that the last Sunday after Epiphany did not equal the Sunday before Lent because of the gesimas…The RCL placement is not followed in a number of Anglican member churches, which made me wonder if it was simply a matter of following the Roman calendar or a matter of following the Lutherans. I still wonder about the theological differences between situating the narrative before Lent as opposed to in Lent – aside from the Feast on the 6th of August…

  4. A few hypotheses put together here. The Ambrosian Rite still begins the fast on the Monday of hte first week of Lent. Up until Borromeo, the Sunday before that was kind of a feast even though with the Temptation gospel. The equivalent of Election & Enrollment took place on the fist Sunday in the fast.
    Rome, though, had Ember Days, ending with an all-night vigil on that Sunday. Catechumens, though, did not participate in such vigils, so E&E happened on the Sunday with the temptation gospel.
    An appropriate gospel for a dawn Mass would be the Transfiguration not only because of the light imagery but also because of the foreshadowing of the Resurrection.
    The great advantage of that sequence is that it links three gospel passages in relative sequence: the Baptism when Jesus personally experiences his identity as the beloved Son/Servant, the Temptations when he explores the meaning of that identity, and the Transfiguration when the disciples experience it in glory–along with the same words as at the Baptism but with the command to listen to him added.
    It is a coherent progression. My problem with Transfiguration as the end of the post-Epiphany season parallel to Christ the King at the end of post-Pentecost is that it inverts the sequence of the Temptation and Transfiguration passages.

    1. Ah – very interesting hypothesis, and, as you say, it makes theological sequential sense (with or without the weaving in of catechumens)

  5. The historical survey and theological framing were very helpful. My strictly personal experience is, as someone who’s served a Protestant congregation twice through the RCL three-year cycle, that I truly like Transfiguration Sunday better immediately before Lent begins. Once that blinding (pun somewhat intended) Easter preview is gone from the Lenten Sundays, I’ve found it much easier to encounter the many other and diverse ways we glimpse Easter all through Lent.

  6. Regarding Lutheran history here is quite precise, the previous comment is correct that the use of the propers on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany does not build on the Common Lectionary, but the other way around. The practice does indeed date to the the 16th C. German orders, specifically to the work of Luther’s associates Bugenhagen and Dietrich. While maintaining August 6, they also assigned various of its propers to the final Sunday after the Epiphany. In the U.S., when the Common Service Book was published in 1917, the revisers noted that August 6 was rarely celebrated because it didn’t often fall on a Sunday and so dropped it altogether and designated the final Sunday after the Epiphany as the Feast. Jumping forward 40-or-so years, when the so-called Lutheran “Common Liturgy” was prepared and eventually published in the Service Book and Hymnal (1958), the 16th Century German practice returned: August 6 was named as the Feast but the calendar specified the use of the propers on the final Sunday before Septuagesima. Approximately a decade later, however, the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship reverted to the practice of the Common Service Book, eliminating August 6 (which it gave to the commemoration of J.M. Neale, who died on the Feast of the Transfiguration) and designating the Last Sunday after the Epiphany as the Feast as in the CSB. The members of the ILCW noted (when the calendar was published in 1970) only that such a usage had become “customary among Lutherans” and that the bridge to Lent is apt in light of Jesus’s look forward to Jerusalem. The 1979 Episcopal Church BCP, following the “Prayer Book Studies” that preceded it, replicated the 1958 Lutheran use (August 6 as the Feast but propers repeated on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany). The 1974 ecumenical COCU lectionary (predecessor to the CL and RCL) thus mirrored the Lutheran and Episcopal practice.

  7. There is no liturgical provision for the Transfiguration in 1662 BCP (pace lisette) although it is in the kalendar. this first appears in the 1878 Ire BCP,1892 Amer BCP and 1912 Scot BCP and 1928 Eng BCP.The collect in Can BAS p288 is derived from Ire via Scot & various Eng revision reports 1920-1925. It is in S Afr, Ind BCP for (6Aug) & in Eng ASB & Eng CW.The collects in various Anglican prayer Books are in J W Suter’s lovely” BOOK of English Collects” (Harper, Lon & N Y, 1940) nos 123-126. Dr Suter gave me a personally signed copy more than 50 yrs ago. Collects are also in Archbishop Ramseys’ book but can’t give refs as I no longer have book.There are comments on the various collects in Bishop KD Mackenzie’s chapter in LW. Percy Dearmer admired exordium of Amer collect but thought petition was like a car starting up. Do not at present have access to reference. The Alcuin Club’s” Orange Book ” and Dean Eric Milner-White in DP preferred Amer to Eng 1928 and its earlier forms. Lisette, I possess both Draft Prayer Book Canada 1959 & Common Prayer Canada but have not discovered any difference between them. Fr Dirk

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