The Transfiguration

of Our Lord Jesus Christ
2014.08.06


I have written more than once previously about the great Feast of the Transfiguration; this time I would like to explore its connections with one of the major Jewish festivals, for the Synoptic Gospels give us good reason to understand the Transfiguration to take place at the feast of Sukkoth (‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’, Ex 23.16, 34.22; Lv 23.39–44), which in turn has implications for our understanding of this event.

Sukkoth, like Pesach / Passover and Shavuot / Pentecost, was originally an agricultural festival: in the late summer, which was considered the end of the year, the harvest would be gathered in, to expedite which process farmers would live in the fields for a week in shelters made of branches and leaves. As part of the festival, thanks were given for past fruitfulness and prayers made for fruitfulness in the season to come, with water libations signifying prayer for rain and a procession made round the altar with bundles of greenery.

Sukkoth was later appointed as a pilgrimage festival in which all Israelites were to travel to Jerusalem and live in shelters on the slopes of Zion to remind them of their ancestors’ travels in the wilderness, where the Israelites lived in tents and ultimately were sheltered by the cloud of God’s glory. By the time of Our Lord, the festival also featured a grand illumination of the Temple Mount with the ceremonial lighting of lamps on giant lampstands.

Because it was a time when the whole nation was supposed to be gathered (and possibly also in connection with an ancient Near Eastern coronation festival), Sukkoth was also the occasion for other important business to be conducted – for example, the reading of the Law every seventh year [Dt 31.10–11], the dedication of the First Temple, in which the glory of the Lord came to dwell [1K 8.2, 8.65, 12.32; 2Ch 5.3, 7.8], and likewise the establishment of the Second Temple [Ez 3; Ne 8]. During the era of Hebrew prophecy, Sukkoth attracted eschatological overtones, with the year’s end and harvest being obvious symbols for the end times and the tents coming to symbolize the dwelling-place of the righteous in the presence of God (cf. Ps 84, which is appointed for the Eve of the Transfiguration, and Ps 118, which concerns precisely the Sukkoth procession described above).

Finally, we should note that the ordination of the feast of Sukkoth in the Book of Exodus is connected with the giving of the Law, in which the glory of the the Lord covered the mountain for seven days, Moses spent forty days on the mountain, and Moses reflected the divine radiance after his experience.

And so we read that the Transfiguration of Our Lord takes place ‘six [or eight] days later [that is, after the Confession of St Peter]’ – a clear reference to this week-long festival – and, even more obviously, St Peter wishes to build ‘shelters’ on the mountainside. Moses appears, and there is a vision of the glory of God which now suffuses Jesus. Several of the Lessons appointed for the Transfiguration and the Last Sunday after the Epiphany* [Ex 34.39–35; Hb 12.18–29; 2Co 3–4] accordingly recount the experience of Moses, contrast the glory given to him with that given to Christ, and discuss our share in that latter glory, as we discussed last year.

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has no account of (or, presumably, need for) the Transfiguration, for already in the Prologue we read

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [1.3–5]

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. [1.9]

We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [1.14b]

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. [1.18]

To reinforce this, the seventh and eighth chapters place Our Lord teaching in the Temple specifically at Sukkoth; here Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the light of the world’ [Jn 8.12], which will make us think of the ceremonial lamp-lighting mentioned above and the presence of the glory of God in the Temple which it was meant to signify.

The Prologue also returns us to the tents / dwellings / tabernacles: for the true shelter is that of Our Lord’s body, which is the dwelling-place of God’s glory: ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling (‘pitched his tent’) among us’ [Jn 1.14]. This is the same glory which was the true shelter for the Israelites in the wilderness, which dwelt in the Temple, which came to dwell in the Lord’s Body, was shown to a few at the Transfiguration, was opened to all in a preliminary way by the soldier’s spear upon the cross, is glimpsed in the Body of Christ at every celebration of the Eucharist, and will be fully realized when we sing the final Benedictus qui venit [Mt 23.39], when the tents of our own bodies [Gn 3.21; 2Co 5.1–4; 2P 1.13–14] are fully transformed into the likeness of Christ and are also made fit for the glory of God.

I will have much more to say about all of this on Holy Cross Day, which is intimately connected to Sukkoth and the Transfiguration (texts shared between the Transfiguration and Holy Cross should alert us to this connection: Jn 12.24–32, ‘When I am lifted up will draw all people to myself ’, is read at the Office of the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in Year I and is the Gospel for Mass of Holy Cross Day; and two Office texts are also shared between the feasts: the Invitatory Antiphon ‘The Lord hath manifested his glory: O come, let us adore him’ and the somewhat analogous Anthem / Responsory at the Candle-Lighting ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw the whole world to myself / I am the light of the world: I will draw...’). For now, I will close with the Collect that, though appointed for neither the Transfiguration nor Holy Cross Day, connects the two:

O God, who before the passion of thy 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; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord...
     Collect for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany


*  The Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August, was placed forty days before that of the Holy Cross (of course we will think of the forty days of Lent and Christ’s Temptation as well as the forty days Moses spent on Mt Sinai), but the occasion is actually celebrated twice, at least in the West: it is also the focus of the Second Sunday in Lent (Roman Rite) or the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Episcopal Church and others who follow the Revised Common Lectionary), both falling very roughly forty days before Easter. Furthermore, if Easter fall on its ‘native’ date of 25 March, then the Last Sunday after the Epiphany nearly coincides with Candlemas, another great festival of light falling at the early spring cross-quarter day.