This article was researched by Kendall McCabe for Rev. Richard Eslinger's Commentary on Lent, Year A, in the New Proclamation series, 2007. We hope it is helpful to you as you prepare for preaching.
The Festival of the Transfiguration may hold the record for frequency of
observance within any given liturgical year. For those observing the sanctoral calendar, Transfiguration has long been celebrated on August 6 while within the temporal calendar, Roman Catholic faithful also meet the Feast on the Second Sunday in Lent. Those within Episcopal and Protestant Communions that follow some version of the three-year lectionary and calendar observe Transfiguration on the last Sunday after the Epiphany (the Sunday immediately before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). Although these arrangements may seem rather scattershot, two themes are constants with regard to all three calendar locations. On one hand, each of the dates for the festival follows the precedent of the Gospel lessons with regard to Jesus’ journey from the mount to the cross. That is, all of the Transfiguration festivals take the passion predictions surrounding the vision quite seriously; Jesus “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”(Matt. 16:21). On the other hand, the Transfiguration pericope itself invites the faithful to an almost Easter-like joy as the glory of the Lord is revealed to the disciples and to the church. How we arrived at our present situation of these multiple feasts of the Transfiguration, though, is an interesting story in itself.
Prior to the late 20 th -century revision of the Calendar, the Transfiguration was
celebrated in the West on the Second Sunday in Lent. This was occasioned by the fact that the day before was Ember Saturday, a time for ordinations. 1 The Gospel for that day was the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew, and because Lent II had been an “open” Sunday, Saturday’s Gospel was repeated. (It is interesting to note that the Ember Saturday liturgy was particularly special in that it had four sets of collects and lessons preceding the epistle and Gospel, an indication of its use for ordination. These lessons continued to be used at ordinations on that Saturday up until the modern Roman revision of the Calendar.)
The Orthodox Church did not observe the Transfiguration on Lent II, but it is
worth noting that it dedicated that Sunday to St. Gregory Palamas, whose writings make much of the uncreated light, and so the theme of light is maintained in a different way. The Orthodox have since the late fourth century celebrated the Transfiguration on August 6. Again, attention should be called to the fact that this is 40 days before September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross, thus keeping a connection between Transfiguration and Calvary.
There was a shared practice in the West of observing August 6 in honor of the
Transfiguration, probably because of Eastern influence, but it was not until 1457 that Pope Callistus III extended it as a required observance in the West to commemorate the victory of John Hunyady over the Turks in a battle near Belgrade the previous year and which was announced at Rome on August 6.
The work of Calendar and Lectionary revision in the United States in the 1960’s
resulted in a reconsideration of the place of the Transfiguration in the Sunday cycle by non-Roman Catholic traditions. Transfiguration was placed on the Sunday before Lent, thus representing the last of the epiphanies prior to the Resurrection. It thus sums up the previous weeks and it becomes a hinge opening the way to Calvary. This dating of the festival was offered as an option as early as the 1958 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal although wider acceptance of this calendar location had to wait upon the reforms mandated at the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church and the emergence of Episcopal and Protestant variants of the three-year lectionary. The Episcopal Church’s Services for Trial Use, published in 1971, introduced this use of the last Sunday after Epiphany within the context of the new lectionary, and it was quickly adopted by others.
© Kendall McCabe
1 For an analysis of the origins of Ember Days and their relation to ordination, see: Shawn Tribe, “Quatuor: Notes on Origin and Meaning of Ember Days,” Liturgical Arts Journal, September 27, 2021, accessed February 16, 2023, https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2021/09/quatuor-tempora-notes-on-origin-