On the sixth of August we celebrate the solemn feast of the Holy Transfiguration in commemoration of the glorious change in appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ on a “high mountain” (Mt. 17:1), which, since the fourth century, Christian tradition identifies with Mt. Tabor. The Fathers refer to Christ’s transfiguration as to His “second epiphany” or the second manifestation of His divinity. For this reason the Fathers during the Christological disputes adduced the transfiguration of Christ as a certain proof of His divinity. The establishment of the feast then followed.
1. The glorious transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is described in detail by the three Evangelists (Mt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:1-7; Lk. 9:28-36). St. Peter also vividly recalled the event in his Epistle, saying: “We have seen His majesty for ourselves. He was honored and glorified by God the Father, when He spoke to Him and said: ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.’ We heard this ourselves ‘spoken from heaven, when we were with Him on the Holy Mountain.” (II Pet. 1 :16-18)
The Holy Mountain in biblical sense is the mountain of the manifestation of God’s glory. We are told that in the Old Testament God ” called Moses to the top of the mountain” (Ex. 19 :20), and there manifested Himself to him. It was the holy mountain of Sinai. Then again, before appearing to the Prophet Elijah, God summoned him to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” (I Kgs. 19:8) And in the New Testament Jesus took three of His disciples to a “high mountain” (Mt. 17:1), and there He was transfigured before them, manifesting to them His divine glory. As we can see in the Bible a mountain is a favored place of God’s manifestation to people, for which reason the mountain becomes the holy mountain. At the same time, a mountain (a high place) properly symbolizes the exalted dwelling place of God ” on high.” (Is. 33 :5)
Neither St. Peter nor the Evangelists have given us the name of the mountain on the top of which the transfiguration has taken place. But the Christian tradition since the fourth century designates the place as Mt. Tabor, an imposing elevation near Nazareth, surging almost 2,000 feet high into the blue sky of the lush Plain of Esdraelon. There, on the top of Mt. Tabor, St. Helen (d. about 330) built the church of the Holy Transfiguration, which shortly afterwards became a favored place of Christian pilgrimage.
The authentic witness of tradition, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), did not hesitate to indicate Mt. Tabor as the place of Christ’s glorious transfiguration . (cf. P.G., 33, 743) The famous inhabitant of Bethlehem, St. Jerome (d. 420), agreed with him in his description of the Palestinian itinerary of his friend, St. Paula. (cf. P.L., 22, 889)
After them, st. Proclus of Constantinople (d. 447) also testified : ” Mt. Tabor is the mountain on the top of which Christ willed to be transfigured.” (cf. P.G., 65, 770)
The modern church of the Holy Transfiguration built on the top of Mt. Tabor over the ancient ruins in 1924, was designed by a famous Italian architect, Professor A. Barluzzi.
2. The importance of the feast of the Holy Transfiguration is indicated by its high rank in the Byzantine liturgical calendar. The feast belongs among the twelve Major Feasts and, usually, is represented by one of the festive icons of the iconostasis. In the East the feast has been celebrated since the fourth century. Its liturgical solemnity was enhanced by the Christological disputes, since the transfiguration was considered as an irrefutable argument for the divinity of Jesus Christ by the Fathers of the Church. At the same time the commemoration of the glorious event was to sustain the hope of the faithful in their participation in Christ’s glory in heaven. The oldest homily for the feast is ascribed to st. Proclus of Constantinople, who died in 447 A.D. This would indicate that in Constantinople the feast was already celebrated in the first half of the fifth century, passing there from the Church of Jerusalem. Then the feast gradually was extended to other regions of the Byzantine Church.
The most famous homilies for the feast of the Holy Transfiguration are those delivered by St. Andrew of Crete (cf. P.G., 97, 931-958) and St. John of Damascus (cf. P.G., 96, 545-576). The oldest work of art representing the glorious transfiguration of Christ is a mosaic in the church of the noted Greek monastery on Mt. Sinai from the sixth century.
The liturgical formation of the festal services took its final shape during the eighth century, when the beautiful hymns and canons were composed by the celebrated hymnographers, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) and St. Cosmas of Maiuma (d. 760) . In the Byzantine Rite the feast of the Holy Transfiguration was traditionally celebrated on August 6, since on that day the first church on Mt. Tabor was solemnly dedicated. During the eighth century the celebration of the feast penetrated into the West, where it was observed by the local Churches at various dates. It was only in 1457, that Pope Callistus III extended the solemn celebration of the feast to the entire Latin Rite Church and introduced the traditional date of August 6. Thus the feast of the Holy Transfiguration became a universal holyday and was solemnly celebrated by both Eastern and Western Churches on August 6.
3. Since the Gospels describe Christ’s transfiguration in detail, it was not hard for hymnographers to compose liturgical hymns and sticheras. It requi red only some appl ication of the scriptural text to Christian life in poetic form . Making such ” spiritual application” of the text, at the same time the hymnographers explained the deep spiritual and liturgical meaning of the feast in order to help the faithful in their spiritual growth. Thus the liturgical compositions of the Byzantine Rite have also an educational value.
Some sticheras for the feast describe the entire event of Christ’s glorious transfiguration as it was recorded by the Evangelists. Thus, for example, at Matins we sing: “Christ, taking with Him aside Peter, James and John to a high mountain, was transfigured in their presence-His face shining like a sun, and His clothes becoming as white as the light. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and talked to Him. Suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow and from the cloud there came a voice, saying : ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him! ‘ ”
This stichera, besides repeating almost wordfor- word the Matthean description of the event, also presents to us the theological meaning of the transfiguration, namely: the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Christ’s glorified body, the testimony of Moses and Elijah, and the Father’s voice from heaven are incontestable witnesses to the truth of the previous confession of St. Peter about Jesus, saying: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Mt. 16:16)
The second theme recurring in the festive sticheras is the encouragement of the Apostles to trust Jesus as they were about to face the humiliating passion of their Master. This point is emphasized by St. Luke, who reports that Moses and Elijah “were speaking of His passing (death), which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9:31 ) So at Vespers we sing : “As You were transfigured before Your crucifiixion, 0 Lord, . .. Peter, James and John were present, the very same Apostles who were to be with You at the time of Your betrayal ; so that having seen You in glory, they would not be dismayed at the time of Your sufferings.” This stichera is also a reminder to the fai thful-to recognize in the sufferings and death of Christ the infinite mercy of God.
The third meaning of the festivity is the assurance of our own participation in Christ’s glory. Thus at Vespers we are professing : “Through Your transfiguration, 0 Lord, You renewed Adam’s fallen nature to its original beauty, restoring it to the glory and splendor of Your divinity.” And again at Matins: “As You were transfigured on Mt. Tabor, 0 Savior, You manifested the transformation of mankind by Your glory, which will take place at Your awesome second coming.” Thus, the enti re liturgy of the Holy Transfiguration is filled with a joyful assurance, encouragement and hope of our own glQrification with Jesus as we “grow brighter and brighter into His image.” (II Cor. 3:18)
4. The feast of the Holy Transfiguration is celebrated late in summer, at the time of the first fruits, which remind us of God’s great goodness and His infinite bounty. To express our recognition and gratitude to God for His generosity we bring some of these first fruits to the church for blessing. The custom to bless the first fruits passed to us from the Old Testament, since the Jews at the very beginning of their exodus were ordered by Almighty God : “You must bring the best of the first-fruits of your soil to the house of the Lord, your God.” (Ex. 23:19) St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 389) calls the practice to bless the fruits in church a “just and holy” custom. (cf. P.G., 37, 119)
The Christian practice to bless the fruits in church can be traced back to Apostolic times. The oldest prayer for the blessing of fruits is registered by the Apostolic Constitutions in the fourth century. But there is also an older Prayer of Thanksgiving for the new fruits in the work of St. Hyppolytus, the Apostolic Tradition, composed about 220 A.D. St. Hippolytus mentions the following fruits usually blessed: grapes, figs, pomegranates, pears, mulberries, peaches, and almonds.
The sixth Ecumenical Council, celebrated in Constantinople (680-681), prescribed that the new “wheat and grapes” were to be blessed in church on the feast of the Holy Transfiguration (canon 28). For this reason some older books of blessings, called Euch%gia, forbid the faithful to eat new fruits of the season before they have been blessed in church.
In the land of our ancestors, in Subcarpathia, the fruits of the season were apples, plums, and pears. These usually were brought to the church and blessed. In the United States grapes are also added.