Thursday, August 06, 2020

The Psalms of the Transfiguration

The feast of the Transfiguration was adopted into the Roman Rite from the Byzantine in the reign of Pope Callixtus III (1455-58), in thanksgiving for the Christian victory against the Turks at the siege of Belgrade on August 6th, 1456. Coming only three years after the fall of Constantinople, this victory signaled an important halt to the Turkish invasion of Europe; in fact, the common custom of ringing church bells at noon began as a reminder to pray for the defense of this bulwark of Christendom.

Icon of the Transfiguration, attributed to Theophanes the Greek (called ‘Feofan’ in Russian), the teacher of the famous iconographer Andrei Rubliev; early 15th century. Originally painted for the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Pereslavl, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The nature of the Byzantine Divine Office is such that it would be impossible to construct an Office in the traditional Roman form by merely translating the Byzantine texts. Offices and Masses for new feasts could either be composed ex novo, or reused from older sources, or both. In the pre-Tridentine period, there was no uniformity in this regard, and a variety of liturgical texts were used on the Transfiguration. At Augsburg in Germany, the Office was simply that of the Holy Trinity, with different Matins lessons and a different collect, while the Mass propers were borrowed from the season of Christmas and Epiphany, again with proper prayers and lessons. There were also various proper Offices in circulation; the one found in the Roman Breviary of St Pius V was used by the Franciscans before Trent, but changed in several respects for the Tridentine edition.

One such change was the addition of the doxology for the feast of the Epiphany: “Glory to Thee, o Lord, who didst appear today, etc.” (A new doxology was created in Pope Urban VIII’s reform of the hymns, but the older one was retained by the Benedictines, Dominicans and others.) This is noteworthy because at the Mass of the Transfiguration, the preface is that of Christmas, not Epiphany. But the connection between the “new” feast and the manifestations of the Lord celebrated by older liturgical feasts is expressed most clearly in the third nocturn of Matins, where the psalms and their antiphons were clearly not chosen merely for accidental references to “glory” and “light”, but as a deliberate echo of these same older feasts.

The first psalm (seventh of Matins as a whole) is Psalm 88, which is used at Matins on only one other feast day, namely Christmas. The antiphon reflects the common tradition, not stated in the Gospels themselves or in the Second Epistle of St Peter, that Mt Tabor in Galilee was the “high mountain” on which the Transfiguration took place. “Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in thy name: Thy arm is with might.” This reflects the fact that at Christmas we celebrate the manifestation of God’s humanity, whereas at the Transfiguration, we celebrate the manifestation of Christ’s divinity.

Mt Tabor (Image from Wikimedia by Eliot from the Negev.)
The second psalm, 96, is said with the same antiphon as on the feasts of Apostles, “Light is risen to the just, and joy to the right of heart,” but with two “alleluias” removed. This refers to the fact that in addition to Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, three preeminent Apostles, Peter, James and John, were chosen as witnesses of the Transfiguration. This psalm is also sung on the Epiphany, and it is certainly not a coincidence that each of the three nocturns of the Transfiguration has a psalm from the Epiphany: 28 in the first, 86 in the second, and 96 in the third.

The third psalm, 103, is also sung on only one other feast day, Pentecost. As a group, together, therefore, these psalms indicate that the mystery of God’s Incarnation, which is revealed privately at Christmas and Epiphany, to Israel in the shepherds, and to the gentiles in the Magi, is now revealed privately to the Apostles, who will preach it publicly to the world once the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

The Church traditionally marks the public manifestation of Christ with the feast of His Baptism, which in the Roman Rite is celebrated as the Octave of the Epiphany, and in the Byzantine is the main object of Epiphany itself. The Apostles, however, were chosen after the Baptism. We must note therefore, that the same words of the Father at the Baptism, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” (Matt. 3, 17) are repeated at the Transfiguration, with the addition of a special commission to the Apostles “Hear ye him!”

Just as the Creeds of the Apostles and Nicaea focus on the events of the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly life, (“born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate”), so does the liturgical year. We do not keep feasts as such to mark events of Christ’s public ministry like the many miraculous healings or the multiplications of the loaves and fishes, although many of these stories are read in the Sunday Gospels. The Transfiguration is uniquely chosen among these events to be celebrated with a particular feast, because it marks the point at which both the Incarnation and its purpose, the Passion and Resurrection, are revealed to the Apostles, who in the fullness of time will reveal them to the rest of the world.

The Church of the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Zairon.)

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