By Calvin Lane
The Transfiguration — when Jesus takes his inner core of disciples up a mountain and is suddenly bathed in brilliant light and flanked by Moses and Elijah — is important enough, with enough layers to be unpacked, that worshipping communities should encounter it twice a year. This story is one of a handful of events that appear in all three synoptic Gospels, and, for good measure, it comes up again in 2 Peter. In Mark’s Gospel, it even serves as the narrative hinge at the dead-center of the text, thus wrapping up the “messianic secret” which dominates the first half of Mark; the characters in Mark’s narrative now know who Jesus is at last: God among us.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Transfiguration appears so many times in the New Testament: despite the brevity, it holds a tremendous amount of theological detail. Here is just a cursory review: There is the cloud, that sign of the near-presence of God found many times in the Old Testament; there’s the affirmation from the voice of God the Father that Jesus is his Son; there are Moses and Elijah effectively pointing to Jesus, a firm rejection of a simple Marcionite division of Christianity from the Old Testament; and yes there is Peter who wants to linger and adore the Christ. If clergy can’t preach for 15 or 20 minutes on any of these themes, I’m not sure they should be anywhere near a pulpit.
But when do we tackle this story in our worship? Certainly, thanks to early Lutheran advocates, the Last Sunday after Epiphany has become a very good choice. That’s what the Revised Common Lectionary offers us and for good reason. The first Sunday of that season gives us Jesus’ baptism and the affirming voice from God the Father, “this is my Son.” The following Sundays, then, give us lessons that persistently raise a question with which would-be disciples of Jesus need to wrestle: Who is Jesus? When the Epiphany season closes, we circle back to the voice of God the Father who again tells us, “This is my Son.” We go down the mount, stumble through the valley of Lent, and then climb the mount of Calvary, another moment of glory. The Transfiguration, then, is the summit of the Epiphany season. And it sets us up for a fruitful Lent. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, stressed that it is here at the Transfiguration that Christ reveals his glory to the disciples; they know who their master is now.
(Side-Note: I had a rousing back-and-forth on Covenant some years ago about the relative coherence of the Epiphany season; I didn’t know at the time that no less than John Henry Newman, in one of his sermons, also argued for the practical reality of an Epiphany season, a period of sustained Christological reflection.)
So, yes, the close of Epiphany is a good time to hear the Transfiguration story. On the other hand, the fixed Feast of the Transfiguration is August 6. A little history may be helpful here. There was a trend, starting in the 10th century, of celebrating the Transfiguration on that date. No one knows exactly why August 6 emerged as a worthy date and, as was the case with many medieval Christian liturgical patterns, it was hardly universal. But in 1456, just three years after the cataclysmic fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks and the end of the Byzantine Empire, a Christian army won a victory over Muslim opponents at Belgrade. The victory was July 22, but news didn’t reach Rome until August 6. Pope Callixtus III (r.1455-1458) thought it a good opportunity to establish formally the Feast of the Transfiguration for the whole Latin West on that date. But what a discordant opposition: this day of bloodshed, slaughter, and violence running up against the serene peace of Christ’s transfigured glory. Sadly, that was not the only time when human carnage aligned with August 6. On that date in 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped killing upwards of 150,000 people in Hiroshima. However one feels about the necessity or propriety of using violence in the cause of justice, no disciple of Jesus can imagine this much death as good. So, if we’ve got Transfiguration at the end of Epiphany, why keep it on August 6? I say not only should we mark this event on both days, but that the fixed feast ought to be moved to a Sunday. Yes, I know this violates prayer book rubrics, but bear with me.
Celebrating the Transfiguration at the close of Epiphany situates the event perfectly in the arc from Christmas to Pentecost, building and tracking with the mysteries of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. But the Transfiguration is worth a reprisal in the long season after Pentecost, a season marked by the themes of the Church’s mission and the nature of the Kingdom of God. One of the central aspects of this story is how Moses and Elijah point to Christ; the Law and the Prophets all lead to Jesus. And here’s the point for us and our worshipping communities: everything we do as his Church, all our efforts, must point to Jesus.
As Augustine puts it in one of his sermons, Elijah and Moses are there as “servants and ministers. They are vessels: Christ is the fountain.” So now, in August, we come to the same story, not so much to delve into Christology, but to check the focus of our mission. Do we, as God’s church, also point to Christ without any ambiguity in all that we do and say? Think of all we do: worship, fellowship, Bible studies, food banks, advocacy for social justice, programs for creation care, business meetings, commissions and committees for the diocese and beyond, and even ecumenical projects. The question, in light of the Transfiguration, is this: Does all of this point clearly and plainly to Jesus Christ, the Son of God in whom the hopes of the world and the longings of every human heart are brought to peace? If not, then something must change.
If I am found guilty of violating rubrics, I’ll pray mercy for my crime of observing the Transfiguration, a feast of our Lord Jesus Christ, instead of Proper 13 or Proper 14 in the season after Pentecost. I hope, though, my point is made: the first observation of the Transfiguration is Christological; the second observation is missional. At the end of Epiphany, we see Jesus, fully God and fully human; in August, we show the world this same beautiful Messiah.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Church in Dayton, OH and affiliate professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.