Why Do We Celebrate Transfiguration Sunday?

by Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum | The transfiguration of Jesus is when Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant in glory upon a mountain, (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36, 2 Peter 1:16–18). Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James, John, go to a mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration) to pray. On the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light (Image by CCXpistiavos on Pixabay).

Many denominations in North America schedule the observance of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent. Celebration of the Transfiguration began in the eastern church in the late fourth century. The feast is celebrated on Aug. 6. This was the date of the dedication of the first church built on Mount Tabor, which is traditionally considered to be the “high mountain” of the Transfiguration. Others locate the Transfiguration on Mount Hermon or the Mount of Olives. Celebration of the feast was not common in the western church until the ninth century. It was declared a universal feast of the western church by Pope Callistus III in 1457. The feast was first included in the English Prayer Book as a black letter day in the 1561 revision of the calendar of the church year. It was included as a red letter day with proper collect and readings in the American Prayer Book of 1892. Its inclusion reflects the efforts of William Reed Huntington, who wrote the BCP collect for the Transfiguration.

This collect prays, “O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the king in his beauty. . . .” (BCP, p. 243). The Transfiguration is listed among the holy days of the church year as a Feast of our Lord. Other provinces of the Anglican Communion followed the lead of the Episcopal Church in celebrating the Transfiguration as a major feast. The Transfiguration gospel is used on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in all three years of the BCP eucharistic lectionary. As an Epiphany story, the Transfiguration provides one of the most distinctive and dramatic showings of Jesus’ divinity.

We celebrate the revelation of Christ’s glory “before the passion” so that we may “be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness.” The focus of the Lenten season is renewed discipline in walking in the way of the cross and rediscovery of the baptismal renunciation of evil and sin and our daily adherence to Christ. At Easter, which reveals the fullness of Christ’s glory (foreshadowed in the Transfiguration), Christians give themselves anew to the gospel at the Easter Vigil where they share the dying and rising of Christ.

In the biblical context, the synoptic gospels narrate the Transfiguration as a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and his passion. From the time of the Transfiguration, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem and the cross.

Feast that celebrates Jesus’ radical change of appearance while in the presence of Peter, James, and John, on a high mountain (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). The Gospel of Matthew records that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” At this moment Moses and Elijah appeared, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter, misunderstanding the meaning of this manifestation, offered to “make three booths” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud stated, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples fell on their faces in awe, but Jesus encouraged them to arise and “have no fear.” They saw only Jesus. This event is alluded to in 2 Pt 1:16-18, which records that “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” and “we were with him on the holy mountain.” The Transfiguration revealed Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion, and it anticipated his resurrection and ascension. It may have given strength and comfort to his disciples in the difficult times that followed. It also prefigures the glorification of human nature in Christ.

Donald Armentrout is a professor emeritus of church history and historical theology, the Charles Quintard Professor of Dogmatic Theology, and director of the Advanced Degrees Program at the University of the South School of Theology. Robert Slocum is the rector of Trinity Church in Danville, KY and the author of many books, including The Theology of William Porcher Dubose and Prophet of Justice, Prophet of Life: Essays on William Stringfellow.

Robert Boak Slocum is distinguished lecturer in the department of philosophy and religious studies at St. Catharine College in Kentucky. He has served as president of the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians and is on the editorial board of the Anglican Theological Review. He also co-wrote An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church with Donald S. Armentrout for Morehouse Publishing.