Transfiguration in Lent or before Lent?

Two weeks ago I was listening to With Heart and Voice early on Sunday morning. The host, Peter DuBois, stated matter-of-factly that the celebration of the Transfiguration was that day and focused much of this program on music for it. DuBois, in addition to being a concert organist, is director of music at Rochester, New York’s Third Presbyterian Church. Like Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and others, many Presbyterians follow the Revised Common Lectionary. It assigns the reading of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain to the Sunday before the season of Lent.

But in Roman Catholic churches around the world, the gospel story of the Transfiguration is read this week, on the Second Sunday in Lent. This is one of the few differences during the whole year in the gospel readings assigned by the Roman Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries. Here is my hypothesis on why and the significance these different liturgical contexts for the interpretation of the story.

The current three-year Roman Lectionary for Mass was developed in the 1960s to replace the existing one-year lectionary mass. This was in response to the decision by the Second Vatican Council that “the treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 51). The pre-Vatican II Roman Missal assigned Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration to the Second Sunday in Lent, and the new lectionary followed suit, though using Mark’s account in Year B, and Luke’s in Year C.

Lutherans, I understand, had traditionally read the story on the Sunday before Lent began. This was taken up by the ecumenical adaptations of the Roman Lectionary that eventually yielded the Revised Common Lectionary in 1992. The great revelation of Jesus’ glory to the three disciples on a mountain top seemed an appropriate conclusion to what most Protestants saw not as “ordinary time,” but as the Season of Epiphany. It also reflected the story’s place in Luke’s’ narrative (9:28-36). There Jesus’ transfiguration occurs shortly before his journey to Jerusalem for his crucifixion begins (9:51).

After the new lectionary was introduced, Episcopalian priest and hymn writer, F. Bland Tucker, wrote a new final stanza for Christopher Wadsworth’s Epiphany season hymn, “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.” Included in The Hymnal 1982. Tucker’s stanza skillfully links the Transfiguration to the other ways Christ and his divine mission was manifested to people, while also linking all of them to Christ’s death and resurrection at Passover.

Manifest on mountain height
shining in resplendent light,
where disciples filled with awe
thy transfigured glory saw.
When from there thou leddest them
steadfast to Jerusalem,
cross and Easter day attest
God and man made manifest.

Is there then any logic for keeping the Transfiguration story n Lent as Catholics do? For me its Lenten placement reflects an ascetical theology. That is the beatific vision of Christ’s glory is to be accessed through fasting and prayer. This is, of course, a common theological theme, particularly among monastics in the Eastern orthodox tradition.

The Latin Lenten hymn attributed to Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604), “The Glory of these Forty Days” brings this idea to the fore in its central stanzas

Alone and fasting Moses saw
the loving God who gave the law;
and to Elijah, fasting, came
the steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
delivered from the lions’ might;
and John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
the herald of Messiah’s name.

Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
and give us joy to see thy face.

Gregory the Great, translated by Maurice F. Bell, 1906.

Of course Gregory doesn’t mention the Transfiguration story among his examples, because it doesn’t fit the pattern. Mark and Matthew don’t mention Jesus and the three disciples doing anything on the mountain. They go up it, Jesus is transfigured. Luke states that Jesus went up the mountain with them to pray. Jesus prayed, but the disciples were very sleepy. Luke doesn’t say they prayed, but they did stay awake enough to see Christ transfigured.

The placement of the Transfiguration in Lent, on the Sunday after Jesus’ temptation fits with a characteristic, one might better say stereotypical, Catholic focus on the importance of prayer and self denial and its ability to help realize holiness. Its placement in Epiphany signals just the opposite, a stereotypical Lutheran focus on unmerited, even unrequested, favor. It is a great example of the function of liturgical context in interpretation.

Stained glass window of the Transfiguration, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Homewood, Alabama, J.R. Lamb & Co. Photo (C) David R. Bains, 2016.

[Note: The Transfiguration is also observed in both lectionaries on the traditional date assigned to the feast, August 6.]