At the mid-point in his public ministry, something unique happened to Jesus and it was witnessed by only three of his disciples, Peter, John and James, together with—amazingly—Moses and Elijah, who actually talked with Jesus. Here is how the first three Gospels describe what happened to Jesus:
He was transfigured before the three disciples, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses and they were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:3-4)
He was transfigured before the three disciples, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. (Matthew 17:2-3)
As he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure [exodus], which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:29-30)
There are perhaps three explanations of what actually happened to Jesus and they are complementary. First of all, the Spirit of the Lord, who filled him and guided him as the Messiah (the Anointed One), caused his whole being to be radiated with his own pure immortal light and this shone through his skin and clothing. In the second place, God the Father caused the pure light of his own being to radiate through the total humanity of Jesus and via his clothing. And, thirdly, since Jesus (as we now know) is One Person made known in two natures, divine and human, the Transfiguration is nothing less than the brilliant purity of his divine nature being reflected through his human nature and via his garments. All in all by this event, Jesus was declared to be the Messiah, the one who fulfills the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah), and he is the one to whom the disciples and the world must henceforth listen! Yet, as the Lukan account makes very clear, the path of the Messiah included fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 53) and by this suffering creating a new Exodus, a great deliverance and redemption of his people.
The transfigured Jesus on the mount is the Jesus who is transfigured now in heaven, at the Father’s right hand. The only difference—and it is a major one—is that his transfigured human nature and resurrected body in heaven have been through suffering, crucifixion and death en route to glorification through resurrection and ascension. 2 Peter 1:15-17 refers to the Transfiguration briefly.
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, though celebrated in the East from the fourth century, was not made a universal Feast in the West until 1457. Provision was made for it in late editions of The Sarum Missal in England, but it was not included as a red-letter or major feast by Archbishop Cranmer in 1549 in The Book of Common Prayer. The probable reason for this was that it had been imposed by Pope Callistus III and thus was seen by the Reformers as a papal innovation. However, the feast entered the American edition of The BCP in 1892 through the zeal of Dr William Reed Huntington, and it was later incorporated into editions in other countries. Yet, though there is a similarity in the content of the Collects composed for this day, no two are exactly the same. Likewise the Epistle and Gospel are not identical throughout the editions. Here are the major texts:
ENGLAND (1928, proposed)
O God, who before the passion of thine only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us thy servants, that in faith beholding the light of his countenance, we may be strengthened to bear the cross, and be change into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Epistle: 1 John 3:1-3 Gospel: Mark 9:2-8
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (1928)
O God, who on the mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thine only-begotten Son wonderfully transfigured in raiment white and glistering; Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may be permitted to behold the King in his beauty, who with thee, O Father, and thee O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.
Epistle: 2 Peter 1:13-17 Gospel: Luke 9:28-36
O Almighty and Everlasting God, whose blessed Son revealed himself to his chosen Apostles when he was transfigured on the holy Mount, and amidst the excellent glory spake with Elijah and Moses of his decease, which he should accomplish at Jerusalem: Grant to us, thy servants, that beholding the brightness of his countenance we may be strengthened to bear the cross; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Epistle: 2 Peter 1:16-17 Gospel: Matthew 17:1-8
SOUTH AFRICA (1952)
O God, who before the passion of thine only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us thy servants, that in faith beholding the light of his countenance, we may be strengthened to bear the cross, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Epistle: I John 3:1-3 Gospel: Mark 9:2-8
O God, who on the holy mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thy well-beloved Son wonderfully transfigured: Mercifully grant unto us such a vision of his divine majesty, that we, being purified and strengthened by his grace, may be transformed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Epistle: 2 Peter 1:16-21 Gospel: Matthew 17:1-8
We note that two of these Collects relate the experience of beholding the transfigured Jesus to the bearing of his cross in the Christian life, following the Lukan account where the transfigured Jesus is sent forth from the mount on his way to suffering and death, thereby to create a new exodus for the people of God. But the other two relate the seeing of the transfigured Jesus to the deification of the people of God, with no reference glorification through the way of the Cross. The omission of the cross in these two collects is regrettable for all three Gospel accounts certainly present a very distinct relation between the Transfigured Jesus on the Mount Tabor and the Crucified Jesus on Mount Calvary. The Scottish Collect appears to be a free rendering of the original Collect from the fifteenth century.
Regrettably, there are not many hymns in English especially written for this Feast. The Episcopal Hymnal of 1940 only has one, and that is a translation from a fifteenth-century Latin hymn, written for the Feast soon after it became a major Feast in the West.
Whether we attend public worship on August 6 to keep this Feast or we keep it in our own private or family devotions what we are keeping is a celebration of the Incarnate Son of God who is truly God and truly Man and whose humanity is filled with the radiance of his Godhead—and further, that it this very Incarnate for us and our salvation suffered and died on the Cross.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon