(LifeSiteNews) — “O God, who in the glorious transfiguration of thine only-begotten Son, didst confirm the mysteries of the faith by the testimony of the fathers: and who, in the voice which came from the bright cloud, didst in a wonderful manner fore-signify our adoption as sons: mercifully vouchsafe to make us fellow-heirs of that King of glory, and the sharers of His bliss.” Such is the formula which sums up the prayer of the Church and shows us her thoughts on this day of attestation and of hope.
We must first notice that the glorious transfiguration has already been twice brought before us on the sacred cycle – viz., on the second Sunday of Lent, and on the preceding Saturday. What does this mean, but that the object of the present solemnity is not so much the historical fact already known, as the permanent mystery attached to it; not so much the personal favor bestowed on Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee, as the accomplishment of the great message then entrusted to them for the Church? Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of man be risen from the dead. (Matthew 17:9)
The Church, born from the open side of the Man-God on the Cross, was not to behold Him face to face on earth; after His resurrection, when He had sealed His alliance with her in the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, it is on faith alone that her love was to be fed. But by the testimony which takes the place of sight, her lawful desires to know Him were to be satisfied. Wherefore, for her sake, giving truce, one day of His mortal life, to the ordinary law of suffering and obscurity He had taken upon Him for the world’s salvation, He allowed the glory which filled His blessed soul to transpire. The King of Jews and Gentiles revealed Himself upon the mountain, where His calm splendor eclipsed forevermore the lightning of Sinai: the covenant of the eternal alliance was declared, not by the promulgation of a law of servitude engraven upon stone, but by the manifestation of the lawgiver Himself, coming as Bridegroom to reign in grace and beauty over hearts.
Elias and Moses, representing the prophets and the Law whereby His coming was prepared, from their different starting points, met beside Him, like faithful messengers reaching their destination; they did homage to the masters of their now finished mission, and effaced themselves before Him at the voice of the Father: This is my beloved Son! Three witnesses the most trustworthy of all assisted at this solemn scene: the disciple of faith, the disciple of love, and that other son of thunder who was to be the first to seal with his blood both the faith and the love of an apostle. By His order they kept religiously, as beseemed them, the secret of the King, until the day when the Church could be the first to receive it from their predestined lips.
But did this precious mystery take place on the 6th of August? More than one doctor of sacred rites affirms that it did. (Sicardus, Cremon. Mitrale, ix, 38; Beleth. Rationale, cxliv; Durandus, vii., xxii., etc.) At any rate, it was fitting to celebrate it in the month dedicated to eternal Wisdom. It is she the brightness of eternal light, the unspotted mirror and image of God’s goodness, (Wisdom 7:26) who, shedding grace upon the Son of man, made Him on this day the most beautiful amongst all His brethren, and dictated more melodiously than ever to the inspired singer the accents of the Epithalamium: My heart hath uttered a good word: I speak my works to the king. (Psalm 44:2-3)
Seven months ago, the mystery was first announced by the gentle light of the Epiphany; but by the virtue of the mystical seven here revealed once more, the “beginnings of blessed hope” (Leon in Epiph., Sermon 2:4) which we then celebrated as children with the Child Jesus, have grown together with Him and with the Church; and the latter, established in unspeakable peace by the full growth which gives her to her Souse, calls upon all her children to grow like her by the contemplation of the Son of God, even to the measure of the perfect age of Christ. We understand then why the liturgy of today repeats the formulas and chants of the glorious Theophany: Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee: (Isaiah 60:1) it is because on the mountain together with our Lord the Bride also is glorified, having the glory of God.
While the face of Jesus shone as the sun, His garments became white as snow. (Matthew 17:2) Now these garments so snow-white, as St. Mark observes, that no fuller on earth could have bleached them so, are the just men, the royal ornament inseparable from the Man-God, the Church, the seamless robe woven by our sweet Queen for her Son out of the purest wool and most beautiful linen that the valiant woman could find. Although our Lord personally has now passed the torrent of suffering and entered forever into His glory, nevertheless the bright mystery of the Transfiguration will not be complete until the last of the elect, having passed through the laborious preparation at the hands of the Divine Fuller, and tasted death, has joined in the resurrection of our adorable Head.
O Face of our Savior that dost ravish the heavens, then will all glory, all beauty, all love shine forth from thee. Expressing God by the perfect resemblance of true Son by nature, thou wilt extend the good pleasure of the Father to that reflection of His Word, which constitutes the sons of adoption, and reaches in the Holy Ghost even to the lowest fringes of His garment which fills the temple below Him. According to the doctrine of the angel of the schools, the adoption of sons of God, which consists in being conformable to the image of the Son of God by nature, is wrought in a double manner: first by grace in this life, and this is imperfect conformity; and then by glory in patria, and this is perfect conformity, according to the words of St. John: We are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2)
The word of eternity, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee, has had two echoes in time, at the Jordan and on Thabor; and God, who never repeats Himself, did not herein make an exception to the rule of saying but once what He says. For although the terms used on the two occasions are identical, they do not tend, as St. Thomas says, to the same end, but show the different ways in which man participates in the resemblance of the eternal filiation. At the baptism of our Lord, where the mystery of the first regeneration was declared, as at the Transfiguration which manifested the second, the whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice, the Son in His humanity, the Holy Ghost under the form, first of a dove, and afterwards of a bright cloud; for if in baptism this Holy Spirit confers innocence symbolized by the simplicity of the dove in the Resurrection He will give to the elect the brightness of glory and the refreshment after suffering, which are signified by the luminous cloud.
But without waiting for the day when our Savior will renew our very bodies conformable to the bright glory of His own divine body, the mystery of the Transfiguration is wrought in our souls already here on earth. It is of the present life that St. Paul says and the Church sings today: God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 4:6) Thabor, holy and divine mountain rivaling heaven, (John Damascene, Orat. on Transfiguration iii) how can we help saying with Peter: “It is good for us to dwell on thy summit!” For thy summit is love, it is charity which towers above the other virtues, as thou towerest in gracefulness, and loftiness, and fragrance over the other mountains of Galilee, which saw Jesus passing, speaking, praying, working prodigies, but did not know Him in the intimacy of the perfect. It is after six days, as the Gospel observes, and therefore in the repose of the seventh which leads to the eighth of the resurrection, that Jesus reveals Himself to the privileged souls who correspond to His love.
The Kingdom of God is within us; when, leaving all impressions of the senses as it were asleep, we raise ourselves above the works and cares of the world by prayer, it is given us to enter with the Man-God into the cloud: there beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, as far as is compatible with our exile, we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18) “Let us then,” cries St. Ambrose, “ascend the mountain, let us beseech the Word of God to show himself to us in His splendor, in His beauty; to grow strong and proceed prosperously, and reign in our souls. For behold a deep mystery! According to thy measure, the Word diminishes or grows within thee. If thou reach not that summit, high above all human thought, Wisdom will not appear to thee; the Word shows himself to thee as in a body without brightness and without glory.” (Ambrose, in Luc. Book vii, 12)
If the vocation revealed to thee this day be so great and so holy, “reverence the call of God,” says St. Andrew of Crete: (Hierosolymitani, Archiepisc. Cretensis, Oratio on Transfiguration) “do not ignore thyself, despise not a gift so great, show not thyself unworthy of the grace, be not so slothful in thy life as to lose this treasure of heaven. Leave earth to the earth, and led the dead bury their dead; disdaining all that passes away, all that dies with the world and the flesh, follow even to heaven, without turning aside, Christ who leads the way through this world for thee. Take to thine assistance fear and desire, lest thou faint or lose thy love. Give thyself up wholly; be supple to the Word in the Holy Ghost, in order to attain this pure and blessed end: thy deification, together with the enjoyment of unspeakable goods. By zeal for the virtues, by contemplation of the truth, by wisdom, attain to Wisdom, who is the principle of all, and in whom all things subsist.”
The feast of the Transfiguration has been kept in the East from the earliest times. With the Greeks, it is preceded by a vigil and followed by an octave, and on it they abstain from servile work, from commerce, and from lawsuits. Under the graceful name of Rose-flame, rosæ coruscatio, we find it in Armenia at the beginning of the fourth century, supplanting Diana and her feast of flowers, by the remembrance of the day when the Divine Rose unfolded for a moment on earth its brilliant corolla. It is preceded by a whole week of fasting, and counts among the five principal feasts of the Armenian cycle, where it gives its name to one of the eight divisions of the year. Although the Menology of this Church marks it on the 6th of August like that of the Greeks and the Roman Martyrology, it is nevertheless always celebrated there on the seventh Sunday after Pentecost; and by a coincidence full of meaning, they honor on the preceding Saturday the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, a figure of the 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 Savior.” (Const. Inter Divine dispensations arcana) 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 acceptation 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, (Schulting, on this date; Tommasi Antiphoner) 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 (Wandalbert, Eldefons) furnish proofs that the mystery was celebrated with more or less solemnity, or at least with some sort of commemoration, in diverse 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 honor than the Epiphany and the Ascension of our Lord.” (Statutia Cluniac V)
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. (Deposition of the prior of St Nicholas) 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.” (Sicardus, Mitrale 9, 36) 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. (Matthew 26:29) 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.” (Sicardus, Ibid.)
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. (Beleth, Rationale, cxliv) We must admit that the very ancient benedictio uvæ 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 it to him. The Greeks, who have also this blessing of grapes fixed for August 6, (Eucholog.) 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, (Durand, Rationale, 7 & 22) 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, (Homily 12 on Exod. De vultu Moysi glorificato et velamine quod ponebat in facie sua.) and the three Hymns for Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, which resembled somewhat in structure the corresponding Hymns of the Blessed Sacrament. (Gaude mater pietatis. Exultet laudibus sacrata concio. Novum sidus exoritur.) 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:
All ye who seek Christ, life up your eyes to heaven; there ye may behold the token of His eternal glory.
A certain brilliance we perceive that knows no ending, sublime, noble, interminable, older than heaven and chaos.
This is the King of the Gentiles, and King of the Jewish people, who was promised to Abraham our father, and to His seed forever.
The prophets testify to Him, and the Father, who testifies with them for His own witnesses, bids us hear and believe Him.
O Jesus, glory be to thee who revealest thyself to little ones, with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, through everlasting ages. Amen.
Adam of St. Victor has also sung of this glorious mystery:
Come, let us sing with joy, and devoutly celebrate these sacred solemnities; let the Church resound with the praises of this day to the honor of the Most High God.
For on this festal day did Christ give manifest signs of His great glory; that we may recount the same, may He give us His aid and fill us with His grace.
Christ, then, the mighty God, the giver of life, and conqueror of death, the true Sun of justice, today transfigured on Thabor’s height, did glorify the flesh He had taken of the Virgin.
O how happy the lot of the good! For such will be the resurrection of the blessed. As shines the sun in fullness of His light, so shone the countenance of God and Man, as the Gospel testifieth.
The brightness, too, of His sacred robe gave testimony of His Godhead and of the glory to come. Wondrous the honor and sublime: wondrous exceedingly, O God, is the power of thine almightiness.
And when Christ, the power of God, to Peter and the sons of Zebedee did clearly show the glory of His majesty, lo! they beheld, as Luke doth testify, Moses and Elias.
This we learn of Matthew, that they were seen speaking with God, the Son of God the Father. Oh! how noble and how holy, how good and full of all joy, to speak to God!
Great is the glory of this day, consecrated by the voice of God, and exceeding is its honor; a cloud did overshadow them, and the Father’s voice proclaimed: “This is my Son.”
Hear ye His voice: for the words of life hath He, who can do all things by His word. This is Christ, the King of all, the world’s salvation and the light of Saints, the light enlightening all things.
This is Christ, the Father’s Word, by whom He destroys the bitter law set in us by the wicked enemy, the cruel serpent, who, pouring out His poison upon Eve, did work our ruin.
Christ by dying healed us, who by rising restored our life and condemned the tyranny of death. This is Christ, the eternal peace, ruling both depths and height; to whom from heaven the Father’s voice bore testimony.
At His voice those three aforesaid fathers were afraid, and prostrated on the earth when the word was uttered. At length they rise, Christ bidding them; they gaze around intently, but at once see none but Jesus.
Wishing these things to be concealed, Christ suffers them not to be uttered, until the restorer of life and conqueror of life’s enemy should rise triumphant over death. This is the day so worthy of praise, whereon are wrought so many holy signs; may Christ, the splendor of God the Father, by the prayer of His holy Mother, deliver us from death.
To thee, O Father, thee, O Son, and thee, O Holy Ghost, be, together with highest power, the praise and honor due! Amen.
The Menæa of the Greeks offers us these stanzas from St. John Damascene:
MENSIS AUGUSTI DIE VI
O Christ, who with invisible hands didst form man to thine own image, thou hast shown thine original beauty in the human frame, not as in an image, but as being this thyself, both God and Man.
How grand and awful was the spectacle beheld this day! from heaven the visible sun, but from earth the incomparable spiritual Sun of justice shone upon Mount Thabor.
Thou art the King of kings most beautiful, and Lord of all lord, O blessed Prince, dwelling in inaccessible light; to thee the disciples, beside themselves, cried out: Ye children, bless Him; ye priests, sing to Him; ye people, exalt Him above all forever.
As before the Lord of heaven and King of earth and Ruler of the regions under the earth, before thee, O Christ, there stood the Apostles as from the earth, Elias the Thesbite as from heaven, Moses as from the dead; and they sang unceasingly: Ye children, bless Him; ye priests, sing to Him; ye people, exalt Him above all forever.
Leaving to the earth its wearying cares, the chosen Apostles having followed thee, O loving one, to the divine city far above the earth, are justly admitted to behold thy divine manifestation, singing: Ye children, bless Him; ye priests, sing to Him; ye people, exalt Him above all forever.
Come to me, attend to me, ye people, ascending the holy, heavenly mountain; casting away material things, let us stand in the city of the living God, and mentally behold the immaterial divinity of the Father and the Spirit, shining forth in the only-begotten Son.
Thou, O Christ, has won me with desire, and inebriated me with thy divine love; but burn away my sins with immaterial fire, and make me worthy to be satiated with the delights that are in thee; that exulting I may sing thy two comings, O thou who art so good.
It will be well to borrow also from the Church of Armenia, which celebrates this feast with so much solemnity:
IN TRANSFIGURATIONE DOMINI
O Light intelligible, who, transfigured on the mountain, didst show thy divine power, we glorify thee.
But this ineffable Light of the Godhead thou didst happily bear in thy womb, O Mary, Mother and Virgin: we glorify and bless thee.
The choir of the Apostles trembled before the diminished Light; but in thee dwelt fully the fire of the divinity, O Mary, Mother and Virgin: we glorify and bless thee.
A bright cloud was spread over the Apostles; but upon thee was poured the Holy Spirit, the Power of the Most High, overshadowing thee, O holy Mother of God: we glorify and bless thee.
O Christ our God, grant that with Peter and the sons of Zebedee, we may be deemed worthy of thy divine vision.
Lift us above the earthly mountain to the spiritual tabernacle higher than the heavens.
Today the mountains of God exult, going to meet the Creator, the troops of Apostles and Prophets associated to the divine mountains.
Today the bride of the immortal King, the lofty Sion rejoices, beholding her heavenly Spouse adorned with light in the glory of the Father.
Today the rod of the root of Jesse blossomed on Mount Thabor.
Today it breathes forth the perfume of immortality, inebriating the disciples.
We bless thee, O Consubstantial Son of the Father, who didst come to save the world.
Let us conclude by addressing to God this prayer of the Ambrosian Missal:
Enlighten, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy people, and ever kindle their hearts by the brightness of thy grace: that through the glory of the Savior of the world, the Eternal Light, the mystery here manifested may be ever more and more revealed, and may grow in our souls. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.