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August 12, 2017

History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration at Saint Katherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai

By John Sanidopoulos

The celebration of the miracle of the Transfiguration of Christ by the Church dates to after the fourth century, since it is not mentioned either in the Apostolic Constitutions or the Pilgrimage of Egeria, nor any other document before this time. It seems that the initiation of the feast of the Transfiguration became associated with the location of where it happened. Though all three Synoptic Gospels mention the miracle of the Transfiguration, nowhere in the New Testament does it say where it took place, except that it happened on a "high mountain". It was later Christian tradition that identified this mountain to be Mount Tabor.

The earliest testimony of the association of Mount Tabor with the miracle of the Transfiguration is in the third century writings of Origen; the origin of this association between Tabor and the Transfiguration is unknown. It is also mentioned by St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome in the fourth century. According to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, Saint Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built a church atop Mount Tabor which she dedicated to the three apostles present during the event, namely Peter, John and James. However, this later testimony may not be accurate, since Eusebius makes no mention of Helen building anything atop Mount Tabor. Furthermore, according to fifth century pilgrims to the Holy Land, the only churches atop Mount Tabor were one dedicated to the Lord and two more dedicated to Moses and Elijah. Therefore, it is possible that the feast of the Transfiguration began as a commemoration of the consecration of these three churches, and this would explain why the feast early on was known as the Feast of Tabor. It should be noted, that despite the antiquity of the association between Mount Tabor and the miracle of the Transfiguration, some modern scholars like R. H. Fuller and J. Lightfoot believe Mount Hermon is the more probable location, though this is disputed.

As for why the date of the celebration of the Transfiguration is on August 6th, there are three primary views. First of all, the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14th falls exactly forty days after August 6th, therefore it was established, according to this view, that the Transfiguration precede this feast by forty days like another Great Lent, since September 14th is observed like another Good Friday. And as the Transfiguration was forty days prior to the crucifixion of the Savior, the Holy Fathers, having counted forty days back from the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord, established that the Transfiguration would be celebrated on August 6, because from August 6 to September 14 is exactly 40 days. Another view is that the Church of Jerusalem sought to replace the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which was a celebration of the large late summer and autumn harvest in the land of Israel. This could be why in some Syrian-Jacobite menologia August 6th is known as the "Feast of Tabernacles on Mount Tabor" or "Feast of Tabernacles" or "Feast of Tabernacles, revealing the glory of our Lord on Mount Tabor". The third view is that some associate the feast of the Transfiguration and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross with the 17th of the month of Tammuz (a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple). This feast and fast falls forty days after the Jewish Feast of Weeks, like the feast and fast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross falls forty days after the feast of the Transfiguration. The Feast of Weeks celebrates the manifestation of the glory of Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah.

The first testimony of the existence of a feast of the Transfiguration comes from the sixth century Life of Saint Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis. In this Life it says that the Church of Jerusalem received imperial representatives in 518 within the festive atmosphere of the Transfiguration on August 6th, which means the feast probably preceded this date. We know the feast was certainly celebrated in Jerusalem during the patriarchal reign of Sophronios (634-644) from the Jeruslame typikon. At the same time it was also being celebrated at the Monastery of Saint Katherine on Mount Sinai, as testified by a homily for the feast from the mid-seventh century by St. Anastasios of Sinai. This is the first homily that not only refers generally to a feast of the Transfiguration, but also to its liturgical celebration. It should be noted also that the earliest known version of the standard depiction of the Transfiguration is from the apse mosaic at Saint Katherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, dating to the period of (and probably commissioned by) Justinian the Great, where the subject had a special association with the site, because of the meeting of Christ and Moses, who was especially venerated at Sinai.

From the Church of Jerusalem the feast of the Transfiguration was probably immediately transferred to the Armenian Church. The celebration seems to have been universally accepted in the Eastern Roman Empire by the end of the ninth century, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911). 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. The first firm position of the feast of the Transfiguration in the calendar of Constantinople is in the tenth century Synaxarion of Constantinople, and it is repeated in the eleventh century Menologion of Basil II. The litany of August 6th for the feast of the Transfiguration until the twelfth century took place at the Church of Hagia Sophia, and after it took place at Pantocrator Monastery. During the Hesychast controversy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the feast of the Transfiguration was elevated in status due to the theology of the manifestation of God's uncreated divine light as being a manifestation of the divine energies instead of the divine essence. By this time it was already considered one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church.

In the West, the Transfiguration was celebrated locally in various parts of the Catholic world on different days, including August 6, but was not universally recognized until the fifteenth century. In 1456, the Kingdom of Hungary repulsed an Ottoman invasion of the Balkans by breaking the Siege of Belgrade. News of the victory arrived in Rome on August 6. Given the importance to international politics at that time of such battles between Christian and Muslim nations, in celebration of the victory Pope Callixtus III elevated the Transfiguration to a feast day to be celebrated in the entire Roman rite.