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 Concilium51). 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.
[Note: The Transfiguration is also observed in both lectionaries on the traditional date assigned to the feast, August 6.]
Today, January 25th, is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. There is a nice arrangement of the liturgical calendar in the fact that exactly one month after Christmas, in the season of Epiphany, comes the feast of the great missionary apostle. It is also the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This eight-day period has been observed since 1908. It begins on January 18. Originally Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches all observed it as feast of St. Peter. Thus the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity unites the feast of these two apostles who are often seen as rivals.
It is possible to read too much into the traditional assignment of days to the feasts of biblical saints. Since the dates of their death or martyrdom are generally unknown, their traditional days have more do to with the dedication of churches in their honor, if their origin is known at all.
But, since allegorical interpretation is common in Christianity, one may consider that:
The feast of St. Andrew, the first apostle to be called to follow Jesus, begins the liturgical year on November 30.
The feast of “doubting” Thomas occurs on the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere) when the light of the sun begins to grow stronger over the darkness of the night.
The feast of John the Apostle, Evangelist, and Beloved Disciple is closest to Jesus’ birthday. This is fitting both because he was the disciple who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and whom the Gospel of John says served as an intermediary for Peter on a few occasions.
The twin feasts of the Confession of Peter and the Conversion of Paul have a nice alliterative symmetry in English. They twin the sometime-rival apostles in the winter even as they are twinned in the feast of their martyrdom in the summer on June 29. As Paul has often been seen as the “type” and “representative” of Protestantism, grace, and freedom and Peter of Roman Catholicism, law, and order, octave, or eight days including their feasts is well chosen as a time to emphasize Christian Unity. They also figure most prominently in the story of early Christian missions in the Acts of the Apostles and thus fittingly occur in the season of Epiphany that is so closely associated with mission.
The feasts of Simon and Jude, two of the most obscure apostles occurs near the end of the year, shortly before the feast of All Saints’, which exists in part to honor those saints whom the church has forgotten.
Of course not all Christian observe the same calendar of saints. In reforming and consolidating their medieval inheritance, Western Christian have taken slightly different paths. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic church
Moved the feast of St. Thomas to July 3 so it would not be overshadowed by the special observances leading up to Christmas.
Moved the feast of St. Matthais was moved from February 25, which often falls in Lent, to May 14. Some have suggested that it be observed on the Monday after the Ascension, since Mathias’s only appearance in the Bible is when he is chosen after Jesus’ ascension and before Pentecost.
Combined the two feasts of the Chair of Peter (on January 18 and February 22) into one on February 22.
Anglicans and Lutherans kept January 18 as the Confession of St. Peter and did not observe February 22. But they have divided among themselves on whether to follow the other changes. The Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod have kept the traditional dates, while the Church of England and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have adopted the new Roman dates. The two major variations of the the Western calendar of apostolic feasts follow below.
Calendar of the Episcopal Church and Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
November 30 – Andrew December 21 – Thomas December 27 – John January 18 – Peter (confession of) January 25 – Paul (conversion of) February 25 – Matthias May 1 – Philip and James (the less, son of Alphaeus) June 11 – Barnabas June 29 – Peter and Paul July 25 – James (the greater, son of Zebedee) August 24 – Bartholomew September 21 – Matthew October 28 – Simon and Jude
General Roman Calendar
November 30 – Andrew December 27 – John January 25 – Paul (conversion of) February 22 – Peter (chair of) May 3 – Philip and James (the less, son of Alphaeus) May 14 – Matthias June 11 – Barnabas June 29 – Peter and Paul July 3 – Thomas July 25 – James (the greater, son of Zebedee) August 24 – Bartholomew September 21 – Matthew October 28 – Simon and Jude
My students know that I am fascinated by religious calendars and liturgical texts. These come together uniquely in the the formal announcement of the date of Easter and other feasts at the celebration of the Epiphany. This ancient custom originated long before printed calendars and may seem utterly unnecessary today. Indeed for most of the history of printing, it has not been performed in parish churches. Yet, in recent decades it has been revived in some Roman Catholic and other churches as a way of linking the observance of Christ’s birth to his resurrection. There now two texts commonly used for the proclamation in English. I think both have there merits and that the one more commonly used by Anglicans and Episcopalians would benefit from a few edits.
History A variety of sources from the fifth and sixth centuries testify that after parish clergy received news of the date of Easter each year from their bishop they would announce it on Epiphany. From at least the sixteenth century, however, in the Roman Rite the announcement occurred only in Epiphany masses celebrated by a bishop. It survived longer as a practice in parish churches in the Parasian Rite. But this use was curtailed in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1970s, Liturgy Training Publications published an English version of it for optional use in Catholic parishes (Merz 2011). A few Episcopalians, Anglicans and perhaps some other Protestants began to use it as well to add an additional festive element to the Epiphany celebration and unite the nativity and paschal cycles of the church year.
Texts, Music, and Variations Two English texts for the proclamation are in common use. A translation of the Latin text is supplied in the current Roman Missal (2011). Its content is very matter-of-fact. It begins, “Know, dear brothers and sisters that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by leave of God’s mercy, we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection” and then proceeds to list the dates. Its liturgical performance, however, is more significant than the text itself. It is sung to the same tone as the Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet). For those familiar with it, it brings the full joy and solemnity of the Easter Vigil into the Epiphany eucharist. (The text and a video of its performance are near the end of this post.)
A longer form, approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1989, was used by Roman Catholics through 2011. It is still the version most commonly used by Episcopalians and Anglicans. This longer form is more instructive and can hold its own in the liturgy even if it is not sung. It was published to be sung to a preface tone, not the Exsultet. Using the same tone as the Exsultet would be an improvement.
The text itself needs improvement in at least two places. First, it states, “from Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.” This is true theologically. And thus through a “theological license” one might deem it liturgically acceptable. Yet, it is not true calendrically and the proclamation is about the details of the calendar. Second, given the Easter-centered elaboration in this text, the abrupt announcement of the date of the First Sunday of Advent sounds like an awkward. It should be included more logically into the flow of the proclamation. Here is the text as it stands, below it I will propose changes to remedy this problems.
Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the . . . of . . . and the evening of the . . . of . . . Each Easter–as on each Sunday–the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the . . . of . . .. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the . . . of . . . Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the . . . of . . . And this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the . . . of . . . . Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed. To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. R. Amen
“The Proclamation of the Date of Easter on Epiphany,” Sacramentary Supplement . . . Approved for Use in the Diocese of the United States of America by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Confirmed by the Apostolic See (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1994), 28
The first change I propose is simply to insert the word “moveable” before “days we keep holy.” This brings the text in line with the realities of the calendar. The dates of Christmas and most saints’ days are in no way affected by Easter’s changing date.
The second change is to move the announcement of the date of the beginning of Advent until after the sentence about the feasts of the saints, and to link it to them. There are a couple of good ways to do this. My preference is to follow ancient tradition and the universal norms for the Catholic calendar issued by Pope Paul VI and state that Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day, November 30 (Roman Missal,114). The First Sunday of Advent is always both the fourth Sunday before December 25th and the Sunday nearest November 30. Since Andrew was the first apostle called by Jesus, it makes sense that he begins the liturgical year. With this change I suggest the end of the proclamation be:
“Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed. “These conclude and begin anew with the feast of Andrew, the first Apostle to follow the Lord, on the 30th of November. Thus the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ will be the … day of …. “To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever.”
(If November 30 is a Sunday, Andrew’s feast is transferred to December 1. In that case the text is given as above, but with December 1 given as Andrew’s day.)
If the mention of St. Andrew is not desirable, an alternative ending is
“These days are reckoned from the Nativity of our Lord, as is the season of his Advent which this year will begin on Sunday, the . . . of . . ..
Arguably, the reference to the “day of his return” in the opening of this long form of the proclamation invites a more significant reference to Advent and the Second Coming as a kind of inclusio, but I’ll save that proposal for others or another time.
Full texts of the short form, the long form with my edits, and other resources follow below.
‘Short Form’ Announcement of Easter and the Movable Feasts (Roman Missal, 2011) — Text and Performance
Know, dear brethren (brothers and sisters), that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by leave of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection, who is our Savior. On the … day of … will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season. On the … day of … you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Paschal feast of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the …day of … will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.] On the … day of …, the feast of Pentecost. On the … day of …, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On the … day of …, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
“The Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts” Roman Missal (USCCB, 2011), 1448-49
As Corinna Laughlin notes in her pastoral introduction to the text, the fact that the Roman Missale does not include the text of the Epiphany proclamation without music suggests that if it is not sung, it should not be read (Proclamations 2011). That makes sense to me if this short form is to be used.
‘Long Form’ “The Proclamation of the Date of Easter on Epiphany” (1989) Sacramentary Supplement (1994) — Performance
‘Long Form’ with suggested amendments incorporated
Dear brothers and sisters, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the . . . of . . .and the evening of the . . . of . . .. Each Easter – as on each Sunday – the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the movable days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the . . . of . . . . The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the . . . of . . .. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the . . . of . . .. Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed. These conclude and begin anew with the feast of Andrew, the first Apostle to follow the Lord, on the 30th of November. Thus the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ will be the … of …. To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. R. Amen
Today, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. While internal evidence in the Bible suggests otherwise, tradition identifies him as the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of all five books in the New Testament ascribed to a John. As such his role in the New Testament is rivaled only by Peter and Paul. He is recognized in Christian art by usually being beardless or symbolized by an eagle or a chalice with a snake.
John, the apostle of love, has not without reason been styled by the church the “Theologian” per eminentiam. For by the eagle flight of his believing speculation into the depths of God and his Word as existing before the world and then made flesh for our salvation, he may be said to have led the way to Christian theology in its bold and glorious course. His love is only the strong will-force of knowledge, his knowledge but the keen vision of love.
The whole history of the Church furnishes proof that the men who have exerted the greatest and most happy influence, the wakers of a new life, the pillars of the temple of God, have always been distinguished also above there contemporaries by a thorough scientific cultivation.
He flies like a bird without limit, in that neither seer nor prophet ever flew higher. As much what would be fulfilled as what has been, never were so many secrets seen so purely by a pure man.
Cited in Development of the Church, 175
Schaff was an ecumenist, passionately concerned with the reunion of what he, following his German teachers, called the church of Peter (Roman Catholicism) with the church of Paul (Protestantism) in the coming church of John. He closes the Principle of Protestantism stating
The revivification of the spirit of John the evangelist, in the Church, will open the way directly for his second coming, to establish the Church absolute and triumphant, in which law and freedom shall both be perfect in one, and the results of all previous development appear conserved as the constituent elements of a higher and more glorious state. To this refers the mystical sense of Christ’s word, John 21:22, where he speaks enigmatically of John’s tarrying till his second coming.
Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, in The Development of the Church, 190.
With such an emphasis on John–the beloved disciple, the theologian, the evangelist, the author of Revelation–as the embodiment of the coming church of the future, it is unsurprising that Americans would name him patron of their largest and most ambitious church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Its name was fixed in a 1873 charter when Schaff was in his prime at age 54. Its cornerstone was laid on this day in 1892 a year before Schaff’s death. Its structure, like the reunion of Christ’s visible church is still unfinished.
While for Schaff, the key attributes of John were knowledge and love, the traditional Anglican collect for this feast highlights the theme of the light of truth appropriate for this dark time of year in the northern hemisphere. The phrasing in the Church of England’s Common Worship captures it best.
Merciful Lord, cast your bright beams of light upon the Church: that, being enlightened by the teaching of your most blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John, we may so walk in the light of your truth that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.