03 February 2006

Transfiguration--This Soon?

Unique among all other communions, most Lutheran churches transfer the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. I'm not sure when this custom began, and whether the Lutherans took it over from some medieval use. However, it does fit nicely between Epiphany (the manifestation of Jesus as God) and what the Germans call Fastenzeit (the time of fasting).

Prior to 1969, the Latin churches used one of the Transfiguration accounts (Mt 17.1-9) as the Gospel reading for Reminiscere, the Second Sunday in Lent. However, as I said, the Lutheran churches transfer the entire feast.

If one follows the calendar in use during the Reformation, then this Sunday is the Sunday on which Lutheran churches will celebrate the Transfiguration. If one follows the modern Latin calendar, then Lutherans will celebrate the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

In either case, here is a marvelous meditation on the account of the Lord's Transfiguration. It is by St. Anastasius, a 7th century Abbot of the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai.


Benjamin Andersen said...

Nice blog, Father!

Interesting about the Lutheran VI Sunday after Epiphany.

IIRC, propers for the VI Sunday in both the Roman and Anglican rites were added rather late. As to what the Romans did before that, I don't know. The Sarum Use numbered Sundays from after the Octave of the Epiphany, so they wouldn't have had the need for a sixth Sunday.

The Roman propers are rather pedestrian (IMHO). The Anglican propers are quite striking (composed by Bishop Cosin), and have an apocalyptic theme (I John 3:1-8 / Matthew 24:23-31): "when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be."

These sound like themes related to the Transfiguration; maybe there's a connexion between the Lutheran VI Sunday and the Anglican VI Sunday?

fr john w fenton said...


If there is a connection, it wouldn't surprise. There are several due, I believe, to the use of a similiar lectionary. Consider, for example, that both use Mt 21.1-9 for Advent I.

Any research someone might bring to bear on this topic would be helpful.

ptmccain said...

Pastor Fenton, ok.....I'm stumped. I've been trying to track through the historic church year calendar with J.S. Bach's Cantatas, but alas...I can find not a single cantata composed for the Transfiguration of our Lord by Bach. Was gibt? It would appear that the transfiguration was not commemorated on a Sunday in the Leipzig church in Bach's time. What am I missing?

fr john w fenton said...

Rev McCain,

I skimmed through Gunther Stiller's tome ("Johann Sebastian Bach & Liturgical Life in Leipzig") and noticed the same thing you did. Apparently, Leipzig did not celebrate the Transfiguration at all!

My information was gleaned from comments by Paul Z. Strodach and Luther D. Reed. Reed says this:

"[S]ince it seemed appropriate as a climax to the Epiphnay season, the reformers Bugenhagen and Veit Dietrich chose [Transfiguration] as the theme for sermons on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. Eventually this became the general Lutheran use." (The Lutheran Liturgy, 486)

My guess, based on this comment, is that the practice begins in Saxony and (as is common before and outside the codification of Trent) spreads slowly into surrounding regions until it becomes universal. Perhaps Leipzig was one of the last regions to latch onto this custom.

Or, perhaps Bach doesn't compose a cantata for this feast because he's already composed one on "Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern" which, I seem to recall, quickly (and most reasonably) was associated with Transfiguration in Lutheran churches.

No doubt, however, there are holes in my historical understanding of this unique Lutheran displacement of the feast--holes that I would be pleased if others would help fill.

(As an aside, Reed points out that, while the Feast of the Transfiguration has been commemorated in the East since the sixth century, this feast does not become universally celebrated in the West until 1457--less than 30 years before Luther's birth! Perhaps that history also plays into this puzzle.)

William Weedon said...

But Leipzig is in Saxony, no?

It also appears not to have been celebrated in Magdeburg, near as I can figure out with a quick glance over the Cathedral Book.

fr john w fenton said...

Okay, my geography's a bit off. :(

But my larger point still remains--that such liturgical customs migrate slowly, and not very evenly; and this may be one evidence of that.