The Transfiguration of the Lord

Dear Friends in Christ,

The Feast of the Transfiguration (described with slightly different emphases by Matthew, Mark and Luke) recalls the manifestation of His divine glory by the Lord Jesus to Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor. During this revelation of His divine nature to human eyes, Jesus was accompanied by Moses and Elijah, living symbols of the Law and Prophets, who spoke to their Savior about the suffering which He would endure in His passion and death. This combination of suffering and glory reveals the paradox at the heart of the Gospel and spoken of by the Lord Jesus just before His Transfiguration: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9.23-24)

The oldest known liturgical celebration of this feast was in the Armenian Church, and the 7th century Armenian Bishop Gregory Arsharuni wrote that the feast was placed in the liturgy in the early 4th century by St. Gregory the Illuminator. In the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year, and it is both preceded by a fast and celebrated with a Vigil and an Octave, in the way Latin Rite Catholics celebrate Christmas and Easter. These liturgical observances underscore the importance of the truths revealed to us by the Transfiguration of the Lord.

The Feast of the Transfiguration, which from antiquity has been kept on 6 August, gradually entered the liturgical life of the Western Church through our monasteries, and by the tenth century this feast was observed in many of the dioceses of England, France and Germany. But despite the  importance and widespread celebration of this feast, it was not placed by the Pope on the Universal Calendar until the 15th century, and the reason for that change is a timely one for us. In 1453, Sultan Mohammed II conquered the great Christian imperial capital of Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul; the armies of Islam seemed to be invincible, and the Turks were on the move north and west. But on 22 July 1456, János Hunyady, the Governor of Hungary and a devout Catholic, led a Christian army to victory over the Turks at Belgrade, marking a turning point in the centuries-long struggle between the Christian West and militant Islam. In celebration of this victory, Pope Callistus III extended the Feast of the Transfiguration to the universal Church and ordered that it be kept each year on 6 August. Callistus died two years later on 6 August 1458.

Father Newman