The Transfiguration

of Our Lord Jesus Christ

As i pointed out in last year’s post, the bcp1979 Mass readings for the Transfiguration consist of St Luke’s account coupled with the account in II Peter and the account of the strongest Old Testament type of the Transfiguration, Moses coming down from Sinai with face aglow [Ex 34.29–35]. A kingship Psalm [99] rounds out the selection.

I would like to look this time at some of the prayers and Office texts for the feast which serve to explicate the narrative of the event on Mt Tabor.

The bcp1979 Collect (original wording in square brackets) –

O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved [thine only-begotten] Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening [glistering]: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith [may be permitted to] behold the King in his beauty...

– was written by the Rev’d Dr William Reed Huntington for the addition of this feast to the American Prayer Book (the first Anglican Prayer Book to include it) in 1892; it must have drawn upon the Sarum Collect and Secret (Offertory Prayer):

O God, who from heaven on this day didst reveal to the fathers of both testaments thine only-begotten Son, wonderfully transfigured: grant unto us, we beseech thee, that by actions acceptable unto thee we may attain unto the perpetual contemplation of his glory in whom thou hast testified that thou, the Father, was well pleased...

O Lord, Heavenly Father, Almighty, everlasting God, receive, we beseech thee, the gifts which we present on the glorious Transfiguration of thy Son; and mercifully grant that by them we may be delivered from the disquietude of this world, and may be knit together in happiness eternal...

These medieval prayers have essentially been combined and emended in a Protestantizing effort to remove any suggestion that our actions, or even the Sacrament, might play a part in our ‘being delivered from the disquietude of this world’ or being ‘permitted to behold the King in his beauty’. The Collect leaves a somewhat vague impression of the import of the feast, which the commentary in Lesser Feasts and Fasts concretizes only to a certain point: that the Transfiguration is a type of the Risen and Ascended Christ.

Fortunately the Prayer Book treatment of the Transfiguration does not end there. The 1928 proposed revision to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer provided a collect that, lightly revised, was appointed in bcp1979 for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, on which the Transfiguration is also celebrated:

O God, who before the passion of thine only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross,* and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory...

This begins to get at the deeper point of the Transfiguration: that we should not only be drawn to, and gaze upon, the dazzling beauty of Christ, but that our lives would be so transformed by contemplation and imitation of him, through the Holy Spirit, that we ourselves would begin to manifest the light of God, which is our ultimate end. This theme is explored in the Responsories of Roman Matins for the day (which are interspersed with the Transfiguration passage from II Peter, homilies by St Leo the Great and St John Chrysostom, and a number of kingship Psalms), as well as in the bcp1979 Office Lessons:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are... Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
     1J 3.1–3; Responsory III

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
     2Co 3.18; Responsory VI; Lesson II at First Evensong

For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
     2Co 4.6; Responsory VIII; Lesson II at Mattins

Finally, the Roman Collect gets to the heart of the matter –

O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration of thine only-begotten Son didst attest the mysteries of the faith by the witness of the fathers: and who, in the voice that came from the bright cloud, didst wonderfully presignify our completed adoption as sons: mercifully vouchsafe to make us the fellow-heirs of that very King of Glory, and the sharers of his bliss...

– drawing upon Rm 8.14–17:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

The Transfiguration, then, is a sign of the new life that awaits us (which is really the life for which we were first created), which is perfected in Christ’s own obedience unto death, made our own with the seal of the Holy Spirit (‘the pledge of our inheritance’, Ep 1.14) in Baptism,† renewed in the Eucharist,‡ and cultivated as we follow the example of Christ’s humility in every thought, word, and deed. Joined to him in sacrament and sacrifice, we begin to see the image of God in him, in one another, and in ourselves, and we are slowly transformed into it.

*  Note that the account of the Transfiguration in St Luke’s Gospel comes between the passage about taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to find it, and the beginning of the Passion.

†  cf. the prayer of thanksgiving (one of two wonderful and little known, because now little used, prayers for use at Baptism apart from Mass:

All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of the saints in light; through Jesus Christ...
     bcp 311

‡  cf. the anthem ‘O sacrum convivium’:

O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given to us. Alleluia!
     Antiphon to the Magnificat at II. Vespers of Corpus Christi