Tuesday, October 6, 2015

136. Transfiguration Hymn

I am daunted by the task to compose an original hymn for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, when there are already several excellent ones, each approaching the story from a different but spiritually useful angle. The story of Jesus' transfiguration is recorded in Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36 and briefly with interpretive comments in 2 Peter 1:16-21, which happens to be the Epistle for the mass of the Transfiguration. The Gospel thereof is Matthew's account. The tune is the chorale MEIN SCHÖPFER, STEH MIR BEI by Franz H. Meyer, 1740.
Lord, how Your visage shone
On Peter, James and John!
For them alone the sight
Of garments white as light!
For them dead saints appearing,
The Father's dread voice speaking,
Till at the bright cloud's breaking
Your word roused them from fearing
To gaze with comprehension slight
On You, O Christ, alone!

Lord, as You left that peak
You warned them not to speak
Of features like the sun
Until Your course was run.
For You yet loomed the shaming,
The ruler's scourge and mocking,
The tree of anguish shocking,
But one blind heathen naming
The Son of God, O Christ, in One
So wretched, low and weak!

Lord Christ, our poor eyes spare
Such glimpses all too fair!
Give us instead as food
Your stricken flesh and blood!
For us Your promise certain
Is armor from sin's sallies,
Light on our road's dark valleys,
And hope beyond death's curtain.
To bear Your cross will be our good
Till we Your glory share!
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is a funny thing. In most of Christendom, outside Lutheranism and a few other Protestant bodies, it is celebrated on Aug. 6 or, in communities too conservative for the Gregorian calendar, Aug. 19. In some Scandinavian Lutheran bodies it is observed on the 7th Sunday after Trinity, a.k.a. 8th Sunday after Pentecost. Most Lutherans observe Transfiguration on the last Sunday after Epiphany, but among them those who follow the revised lectionary of the period influenced by Vatican Council II consider that to be the Sunday immediately before Ash Wednesday, formerly known as Quinquagesima. But in the increasingly narrow sliver of liturgical tradition in which I feel most at home, the Pre-Lenten "Gesima" Sundays still stand as a buffer between the Epiphany season and Lent; so Transfiguration is three weeks earlier on the Sunday before Septuagesima - except when there is only one Sunday after Epiphany, which can happen when Easter falls between March 22 and 24. So this hymn, understand, is intended for that interpretation of Transfiguration Sunday within a projected series of hymns for every Sunday of the church year. Perhaps ironically, it's the only scenario that includes the (slight) possibility of a year without Transfiguration.

1 comment:

Robin D Fish Jr said...

I love digging into the differences between parallel accounts of the same biblical event. Matthew, Mark and Luke all fix the date of the transfiguration in relation to Peter's great confession, Jesus' prediction of his own suffering and death and His exhortation for believers to carry the cross. Matthew and Mark make the transfiguration six days later; Luke makes it "about eight." That's strange, isn't it? Now I would lay a token bet, without consulting Art Just's commentary on Luke, that he mentions either the word "midrash" or the symbolic significance of the "eighth day," if not both. R. C. H. Lenski, on the other hand, probably focuses more on the fact the evangelists wrote for different audiences who reckoned days differently. I'm totally guessing, but my guesses are not uneducated ones. Either way, the discrepancy between "six days" and "some eight days" doesn't imply a factual error in Scripture. Whew!

Naturally, the evangelists choose different words to describe the way Jesus' face and clothing were transfigured before Peter, James and John. Matthew says Jesus' face "shone like the sun" and His clothes became "as white as light," two very robust bits of word-painting. The other evangelists wimp out by comparison, with Mark using the adjective "radiant" and appealing to a launderer's power to whiten cloth, while Luke confines himself to two adjectives, "white and gleaming." Luke also volunteers more detail about the purpose of their visit to the mountaintop (to pray), the topic of Jesus' palaver with Elijah and Moses ("concerning his departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem"), and the reason for Peter's suggestion about building three tabernacles ("not realizing what he was saying"). Mark also chimes in with a rationale for Peter's blurt ("for he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified"). Matthew, the church's traditional authority on the story, contributes nothing to the popular conception of Peter's foolish speech being triggered by terror.

After the cloud forms and the voice speaks, the disciples look around and find no one with them but Jesus, who afterward instructs them (which Luke omits) with the result that they tell no one about this incident for some time. While Mark admits the disciples were afraid, only Matthew mentions that Jesus roused the three disciples with a touch and the words, "Arise, and do not be afraid."

As for what the voice out of the bright cloud says, only two witnesses agree word for word, up to a point: Matthew and Peter both have, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased." Matthew (joined by Mark and Luke) adds, "Listen to Him!" Based on this similarity Dr. David Scaer says 2 Peter may have originated as a preface to Matthew's gospel. Mark, meantime, omits "with whom I am well-pleased," and Luke further changes "beloved" to "chosen." Peter's seconding of Matthew's "well-pleased" phrasing, along with Mark and Luke's tendency to add details explaining the characters' motives, whereas Matthew's only unique touch is the stage business of Jesus picking up and dusting off the disciples, suggest to me that Matthew's is the earliest written account. For what it's worth...