We are rapidly approaching the end of the season after Epiphany, and with it one of the more confusing holy days in the liturgical calendar. Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary are preparing to mark the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Rather, most churches that follow the RCL are. The Anglican Communion — so often in alignment with the Lutheran tradition on matters of liturgy and feasts — will read the same texts, sing many of the same hymns, and hear similar sermons. But they will not refer to this Sunday as the Transfiguration; their collect will be different, their vestments will be green, and they won’t celebrate the Transfiguration until August 6th, the same date as the Catholic Church.
The liturgical calendar is one of the great unifying traditions of the Church in the West. Our major feasts are almost always observed the same day — but not this week. Why the difference?
The Feast of the Transfiguration traces it origins to the Eastern Church in the fifth century; it only became part of the Western tradition in the ninth or tenth century. In the East, it was a major feast of the year, but it lacked such widespread acclaim in the Latin West. In actuality, the feast was not observed across the entire Latin Church until the mid-fifteenth century — just in time, as we shall see, to be reformed.
The August 6th date seems like an odd choice. As Richard Buxton notes, “[Transfiguration] is independent of and not related to the rest of the liturgical year.” Instead, Buxton speculates, August 6th is possibly tied to the consecration of ancient churches on Mount Tabor (traditionally understood to be the site of the Transfiguration). Owing to an ancient tradition placing the Transfiguration forty days before the Crucifixion, the Feast of the Holy Cross follows forty days later in mid-September.
Less than a century after Pope Calixtus III added the Transfiguration to the calendar across the Western Church, the reformer John Bugenhagen moved the observance to the last Sunday after Epiphany. Keep in mind, though, that due to the Reformation’s localized city-by-city approach to liturgy, other Lutherans followed the August 6th date for some time — even until the 20th century. Take, for example the United Lutheran Church in America and its successor, the Lutheran Church in America: while the Common Service Book (1918) places the Transfiguration in its current Lutheran location, the Service Book and Hymnal (1958) places the feast back in August. The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), though, opts for the pre-Lenten date while also permitting for an August 6th observation.
Somehow, despite the back and forth and resulting confusion, the Protestant world has taken to this change. Even the United Methodist Church, which owes so much of its liturgical life to the Anglican tradition, observes the Transfiguration just prior to Lent.
Why did the Lutheran reformers take the unusual step of relocating a feast day? As Philip Pfatteicher explains it:
The baptism and transfiguration are both epiphanies of Jesus as he is and as he will be and are therefore like the first manifestation of Jesus in Matthew’s account, to the Magi….Observing the Transfiguration at the end of the Epiphany season is a happy contribution. It remembers an epiphany which brings the Old Testament law and prophets into Jesus’ time, provides a glimpse of Jesus in all his divine splendor, and offers a preview of his glory to come before descending into the shadowed valley of Lent and Holy Week.
The Transfiguration, then, is a fitting conclusion to the Season after Epiphany. I would also add that, as roughly the mid-point in the Gospels, it marks a right and salutary transition into the long Lenten journey while also complimenting the traditional timeline which places the Transfiguration forty days prior to the Crucifixion.
It is worth noting that while the Lutheran reformers relocated the feast, the Anglican reformers completely dropped it; the Transfiguration was absent from the earliest post-Reformation liturgies in England. When it did reappear, it was as a minor commemoration without its own proper prayers. Moreover, while the holy day is not observed until early August, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer specifies the preface for Epiphany be used in the Eucharist.
What, then, shall we say? From a narrative standpoint, the Transfiguration fits much more naturally in the lead-up to Lent. From the perspective of ecclesial tradition and ecumenism, the August 6th date moves the Church closer to liturgical unity. The vast majority of the Church, both the East and West, uses the August 6th date. Perhaps the ’79 BCP has taken the best path: leave the readings in the lectionary and devote two days to contemplating the glory of Christ’s Transfiguration.
- J. Neil Alexander. Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons. Church Publishing, 2014.
- Philip J. Pfatteicher. Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 1990.
- Richard F. Buxton. “Transfiguration.” In The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship. WJK Press, 2002.