A Brief History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

In the book, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN (Translated by Brian Daley)  there is some information about when the Feast of the Transfiguration was first served in the Church and how it became a universal and Major Feast of Orthodoxy.  The Feast commemorates the events in Christ’s life described in Matthew 17:1-8 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).

“… the Transfiguration was first celebrated liturgically in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine and Syria. . . .  the Greek Church in Jerusalem from the mid-seventh century, lists Scripture passages for August 6th as specific to ‘the Transfiguration of the Savior, which took place on Mount Tabor’; this is the earliest attestation of such a feast within the Chalcedonian Churches.”  (p 19)

“The Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, which represents the liturgical celebrations of the Church in Palestine in the middle of the seventh century, already lists a feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord for August 6 … The celebration was adopted throughout the Eastern Empire, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911)…”  (p 161)

“The celebration of the feast on August 6, first attested for Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century, apparently had spread widely through the Church of the Eastern empire in the century that followed, and seems to have been universally accepted in the Greek-speaking Church by the end of the ninth century.”  (p 180)

“… Nikon of the Black Mountain, and Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople (1084-1111) – tell us that people had begun, during Leo the Wise’s reign, to interrupt their preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition on August 15 in order to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6.  Some have seen here evidence that Leo himself introduced this feast, originally celebrated in Palestine, to the Church of Constantinople…” (p 234)

In many ways, I’m surprised about how late in history this Feast first appears and how late in history it is before it spreads throughout the Orthodox world.  It is a feast which theologically seems to lend itself so well to viewing salvation as deification.  I would think it fit well with hesychast tendencies as well, but perhaps rather than feeding hesychast tendencies, it grew slowly along with them which led to its rise in importance in the feasts of the Church.

It has always seemed strange to me that such an important Feast of Christ was celebrated in the middle of the fast for a feast of the Theotokos.  But the two events appear to have slightly different histories and the Transfiguration was already being celebrated locally on August 6, and became a universal Feast in Orthodoxy only after the Dormition Fast had been established.

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