Saturday, August 6, 2005
Feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, 16th century

Feast (1969 Calendar): August 6
Double of the II Class (1955 Calendar): August 6

Today is the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, when we recall Christ's divinity showing forth on Mount Tabor. This event foreshadowed the glorious Resurrection and Ascension of Christ that would occur after His death on the Cross. This is the beginning of a 40-day before until the Feast of the Holy Cross.
Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. Mark 9:2-10
Yet, the greatest mystery in this was not that Christ shone forth in glory. The true mystery is in that Christ kept that light and divinity hidden all during his earthly ministry to save our souls. The 4th Reading at Matins is from a sermon by St. Leo the Great who wrote:
The Lord taketh chosen witnesses, and in their presence, revealeth His glory. That form of body which He had in common with other men, He so transfigured with light, that His Face did shine as the sun, and His raiment became exceeding white as snow. Of this metamorphosis the chief work was to remove from the hearts of the disciples the stumbling at the Cross. Before their eyes was unveiled the splendour of His hidden majesty, that the lowliness of His freely-chosen suffering might not confound their faith. But none the less was there here laid by the Providence of God a solid foundation for the hope of the Holy Church, whereby the whole body of Christ should know with what a change it is yet to be honoured. The members of that body whose Head hath already been transfigured in light may promise themselves a share in His glory.
Before the changes to the Roman Missal in 1955, the Preface for the Nativity was used in Masses today. This changed to the common preface and was included as the preface in the 1962 Missal. The Preface for the Nativity though indicates the hidden reality we contemplate today:
It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Thee, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God: for through the Mystery of the Word made flesh, new radiance from Thy glory hath so shone on the eye of the soul that the recognition of our God made visible draweth us to love what is invisible. And therefore with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominations, and with all the host of the heavenly army we sing a hymn to Thy glory, evermore saying: Sanctus... 
The Transfiguration only became a feast of general observance in the mid-15th century. When it did, the Feast of Ss. Sixtus II and Companions, which was kept on August 6th, was reduced to a Commemoration. Dom Gueranger has more of the history of how this feastday became universal in the Roman Catholic Church:

The origin of today's feast in the West is not so easy to determine. But the authors who place its introduction into our countries as late as 1457, when Callixtus III promulgated by precept a new Office enriched with indulgences, overlook the fact that the pontiff speaks of the feast as already widespread and ‘commonly called of the Saviour.’ It is true that in Rome especially the celebrity of the more ancient feast of St. Sixtus II, with its double Station at the two cemeteries which received respectively the relics of the pontiff-martyr and those of his companions, was for a long time an obstacle to the acceptance of another feast on the same day. Some churches, to avoid the difficulty, chose another day in the year to honor the mystery. As the feast of our Lady of the Snow, so that of the Transfiguration had to spread more or less privately, with various offices and masses, until the supreme authority should intervene to sanction and bring to unity the expressions of the devotion of different Churches. Callixtus III considered that the hour had come to consecrate the work of centuries; he made the solemn and definitive insertion of this feast of triumph on the universal Calendar the memorial of the victory which arrested, under the walls of Belgrade in 1456, the onward march of Mahomet II, conqueror of Byzantium, against Christendom.

Already in the ninth century, if not even earlier, martyrologies and other liturgical documents furnish proofs that the mystery was celebrated with more or less solemnity, or at least with some sort of commemoration, in divers places. In the twelfth century Peter the Venerable, under whose government Cluny took possession of Thabor, ordained that ‘in all the monasteries or churches belonging to his order, the Transfiguration should be celebrated with the same degree of solemnity as the Purification of our Lady'; and he gave for his reason, besides the dignity of the mystery, the 'custom, ancient or recent, of many churches throughout the world, which celebrate the memory of the said Transfiguration with no less honour than the Epiphany and the Ascension of our Lord.’

On the other hand at Bologna, in 1233, in the juridical instruction preliminary to the canonization of St. Dominic, the death of the saint is declared to have taken place on the feast of St. Sixtus, without mention of any other. It is true, and we believe this detail is not void of meaning, that a few years earlier, Sicardus of Cremona thus expressed himself in his Mitrale: 'We celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord on the day of St. Sixtus.’ Is not this sufficient indication that while the feast of the latter continued to give its traditional name to the eighth of the Ides of August, it did not prevent a new and greater solemnity from taking its place beside it, preparatory to absorbing it altogether? For he adds: ‘Therefore on this same day, as the Transfiguration refers to the state in which the faithful will be after the resurrection, we consecrate the Blood of our Lord from new wine, if it is possible to obtain it, in order to signify what is said in the Gospel: I will not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of My Father. But if it cannot be procured, then at least a few ripe grapes are pressed over the chalice, or else grapes are blessed and distributed to the people.’

The author of the Mitrale died in 1215; yet he was only repeating the explanation already given in the second half of the preceding century by John Beleth, Rector of the Paris University. We must admit that the very ancient benedictiouvœ found in the Sacramentaries on the day of St. Sixtus has nothing corresponding to it in the life of the great pope which could justify our referring to him. The Greeks, who have also this blessing of grapes fixed for August 6, celebrate on this day the Transfiguration alone, without any commemoration of Sixtus II. Be it as it may, the words of the Bishop of Cremona and of the Rector of Paris prove that Durandus of Mende, giving at the end of the thirteenth century the same symbolical interpretation, did but echo a tradition more ancient than his own time.

St. Pius V did not alter the ancient office of the feast, except the lessons of the first and second Nocturns, which were taken from Origen, and the three hymns for Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, which resembled somewhat in structure the corresponding hymns of the Blessed Sacrament. The hymn now used for Vespers and Matins, which we here give, is borrowed from the beautiful canticle of Prudentius on the Epiphany in his Cathemerinon.

O God, Who in the glorious Transfiguration of Thine only-begotten Son didst confirm the mysteries of the faith by the witness of the fathers, and in the voice which came down from the shining cloud, didst wondrously foreshow the perfect adoption of sons: vouchsafe in Thy loving kindness, to make us coheirs with this King of glory, and to grant that we may be made partakers of that same glory. Through the same our Lord.

Prayer Source: 1962 Roman Catholic Daily Missal

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