Thursday, February 07, 2013

Name That Feast

The Egg's Department of Kalendrical Anomalies -- the "K" is for our Anglican readers -- has been giving more thought to the strange modern custom of saying that the Transfiguration of Our Lord falls properly on August 6 and yet is routinely and almost universally transferred to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  Our conclusion is that since, whether one likes it or not, the custom is here to stay, the logical next step is to distinguish the two by giving them different names.

We propose that this coming Sunday be called the Trans-faux-guration.

The italics are optional.

To be honest, we don't especially hanker for the old "pre-Lent," variously called Septuagesima or Shrovetide.  The idea, we gather, was to focus on penitence before the start of the fast proper.  But frankly, both fasting and penitence are so far out of fashion that we worrry about beating a dead horse.  In any case, Lent stands or falls on its own, and we don't think that its cause is served by a "Lent Lite."  

We suspect that both ideas -- the Transferredguration and Mini-Lent --  evolved as efforts to deal with the the curious intrusion of some Ordinary Time (or Time of the Church, tempus per annum, or whatever you like, into the so-called Festival Season, those six months of the year in which green is not the usual color.  

But why? There is some teaching value to that little intrusion, which reminds us that the Christian year is not merely a series of feasts and fasts linked by ... something forgettable.  On the contrary -- and this was, paradoxically, one of the chief points of the 20th-century "Liturgical Movement" -- all time is God's time, and all the Church's days are consecrated equally to God.  

The reformers of the calendar knew well how easy it is to over-emphasize the seemingly special occasions at the expense of the seemingly plain ones, which makes their decision to move a feast from summer to winter all the more mysterious and all the more wrong-headed.  In our most cynical moments, we suspect that they may actually have thought something on the lines of "People should celebrate the Transfiguration more often; but people don't come to worship in summer; so let's move the Transfiguration to a time when attendance is higher."  It is hard to imagine how this does favors for anybody, but there you go.

Ah, well.  Come sunday, we will do what the publishing-house bulletin inserts tell us to do.  We will wear white and preach on the strangely changed appearance of Our Lord.  We will not ramble on about the calendar, or make up new names for the day.  Not out loud.  But in our heart of hearts, we will be ignoring the snow and cold, pretending that it is a warm summer day.

3 comments:

Geoff said...

I was originally not moved by the custom myself, but I can sort of understand it as a parallel to the Reign of Christ: a white/gold conclusion to the per annum cycle. And I have, since belonging to a parish which still observes it, moved away from my distaste for the gesimas. I have no desire to go back to treating it as a full-blown extension of Lent, violet and all, but I can recognize the Byzantine wisdom of not trying to flick an ascetic switch on a dime come the First Day of Lent.

Mark C. Christianson said...

On the other hand, there is no reason to be particularly attached to August 6 as the date for Transfiguration, either. It was fairly slow to spread into the Western church's rites. When it did, while August 6 was fairly common, the date of its observance varied from place to place. The elevation of the feast to universal status on August 6 owes more to political factors than liturgical concerns. The story is that news of the Christian victory at the Siege of Belgrade in 1456 reached Rome on August 6, observed there as Transfiguration. Pope Callixtus III then ordered that the feast be celebrated throughout the church in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks.

On the other hand, the transfiguration is a story of theophany. The time between Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord (both theophonies as well), is marked in the Revised Common Lectionary with Gospel readings in which Jesus begins his self-revelation and description of the kingdom through signs, healings, teaching, and even one or two who blurt out who he is. To bookend that seasons with another theophany seems appropriate and fitting, with good thematic sense. Given the whole picture of this time of and after Epiphany, the feast of the transfiguration makes as much sense here as it does anywhere else in the year.

Matthew Frost said...

Rationalization of a custom after the fact is what it is, but there is meaning to be had from the "down the mountain into Lent" idea conveyed by Transfiguration as the Sunday that brackets our Lenten observance. I might rather ask what Lent is in itself, without either Transfiguration or the prior weeks of the "Great Lent" to color (or colour, for your Anglican readers) our observance of it.