Summary: a Christian festival celebrating the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ
2018 Date: 6th August
Celebrated by: Christians (especially in the Orthodox Churches)
Linked Holidays: Twelve Great Feasts of Orthodoxy
Background and Theological Significance
The Feast of the Transfiguration is an annual festival in the Christian liturgical calendar that celebrates the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. According to the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus and his disciples Peter, James and John went to a mountain in order to pray. Whilst they were there, Jesus was suddenly illuminated by a bright light, and the figures of the great prophets Moses and Elijah appeared beside him. A voice from the clouds declared that Jesus is ‘my Son’ to whom the disciples should listen. When the vision passed, Jesus asked his disciples not to tell anyone of what they witnessed. This event is referred to as the Transfiguration, due to Christ being changed from his earthly appearance to a heavenly one. The early Church considered it to be one of the greatest miracles of Jesus and is unique in that it happened to him rather than was performed by him. The Feast of the Transfiguration has been observed in various forms since at least as early as the ninth-century CE, and is today celebrated by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, amongst others.
Christians perceive the Transfiguration both as the revelation of Christ’s glory and as a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Scripture often portrays high mountains as the meeting place of heaven and Earth, and Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain suggests that he is the bridge that brings the two together. The presence of Moses and Elijah during the moment of revelation also demonstrates that Jesus both fulfils and surpasses the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. The Transfiguration is of particular importance to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, who believe that it was a moment when Christ revealed the glory of the Holy Trinity. It has often been said that the Eastern Church emphasises the Transfiguration of Jesus whereas the Western Church emphasises the Crucifixion of Jesus, meaning that the theology of Eastern Christianity is more concerned with spiritual glorification than with suffering or atonement.
The Transfiguration of Jesus has inspired theologians since the early days of the Church. The second-century priest Irenaeus was moved by the event to write his famous words: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’. The Desert Fathers identified Christ’s experience with a spiritual ascension, and it has come to be deeply influential in the development of the Christian mystical tradition. It is possible that the spiritual imagery in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John is influenced by the glorious light of the Transfiguration.
The exact origin of the Feast is uncertain, and it may be that it replaced a pre-Christian pagan festival. The tradition that the mountain on which Christ and his disciples prayed is Mount Tabor in northern Israel may derive from the consecration of three basilicas there in antiquity. The festival was celebrated throughout the Byzantine Empire by the ninth-century CE and gradually spread to the West, although it was only officially fixed as a universal feast by Pope Callixtus III to commemorate the end of the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 CE.
The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches have traditionally held the Transfiguration of Jesus in very high regard, and it is one of the most popular subjects for religious icons. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers the Feast of the Transfiguration to be one of the Twelve Great Feasts that are second only to Easter in liturgical importance. It is held almost universally on the 6th August, although those Churches which maintain the Julian calendar will actually hold it on 19th August in the Gregorian calculation.
The Transfiguration has been the subject for numerous artistic works, including a famous painting by Raphael as well as a great number of Orthodox icons. Its influence has also spread to literature; in JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ the resurrected Gandalf the White (an allegorical Christ figure) is often seen shining with a heavenly light in a very similar manner to Christ’s Transfiguration. The word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘a change in form’, which is adopted by JK Rowling in her ‘Harry Potter’ series to mean the magical ability to transform physical matter. This influence in art and literature demonstrates how much the idea of the Transfiguration has influenced many Christian cultures around the world.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration falls during the Dormition Fast (a two-week fast leading up to the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God). The rules of the fast are relaxed on this day in honour of the Transfiguration, and the faithful are permitted to consume fish and wine in celebration. The Divine Liturgy will be celebrated with special recognition of this important moment in the life of Christ. A long-held tradition of bringing grapes for a church blessing on the Feast may derive from it coinciding with the start of the harvest season in countries such as Greece and Romania, with the grapes and other fruits being the first produce of the harvest. In the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, celebrations are less overt but the liturgical themes and readings during the Eucharist will reflect the importance of the Transfiguration. The Feast of the Transfiguration marks one of the most defining moments in Jesus’ journey and is recognised across the worldwide Christian Church as an event of spiritual insight and transformation, both for him and for the faithful everywhere.