Music Notes | Last Sunday after the Epiphany – Feast of St. David (Observed)

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The Transfiguration is one of a series of manifestations in the Gospel accounts by which Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God. It tells in concrete, narrative terms what is already affirmed in passages such as Sunday’s Epistle: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’

The Transfiguration has always been of the utmost importance in the Eastern Churches, though it came to be observed as a feast rather late in the West and did not make its way into the post-Reformation calendar of the English Church. The Episcopal Church was the first Anglican body to adopt it and now celebrates it twice a year: on 6 August – the Feast of the Transfiguration itself, at a time of year when the connections between the Transfiguration and the Jewish harvest festival of Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkoth) are clear – and also on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when it serves as a bookend to the Epiphany Season, mirroring the Baptism of Our Lord and preparing the Church for the journey into Lent.

The Collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration itself focuses upon Christ’s glory  and our desire to see it: ‘grant that we…may by faith behold the King in his beauty…’. The Introit chant used on both celebrations of the Transfiguration, with verses from Psalm 27, speaks of this same desire and suggests that it may be fulfilled in the place and act of worship: ‘Your face, O Lord, will I seek; do not hide your face from me. One thing have I asked of the Lord…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord…to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple’.

This Sunday’s anthem is a setting of a hymn for the feast, ‘Christ upon the mountain peak’ (found at 129/130 in the Hymnal, set to two other 20th-century tunes). In bold terms Brian Wren, a leading hymnist of the late 20th century, recounts the Transfiguration, placing us at the scene and focusing upon our natural response of awe: ‘let us, if we dare to speak… praise him’; ‘trembling at his feet we saw…’. In addition the hymn is particularly concerned with the relationship of Law and Prophets to Christ: in stanza 2, ‘all the prophets and the Law shout through them [Moses and Elijah, representing these two traditions of Hebrew religion] their joyful greeting’; in stanza 4, after the revelatory event, ‘Law and prophets fade before him [Christ]’, who was before them and comes to fulfill them. Finally – and appropriately enough before we head into Lent – each stanza of this hymn ends with an acclamation of Alleluia (see below).

The transfigured Jesus is, however, not only to be adored, but to be followed; this event is a preview not only of the risen and glorified Christ, but also of the transformation and union with God that await all those who earnestly seek the Lord, in which quest disciplines like those we are exhorted to undertake in Lent (and the example of saints such as our parish’s patron, David of Wales, whose ‘purity of life and zeal for the Gospel’ are mentioned in the Collect that will also be used Sunday) are a great aid. It is well to remember that in the Synoptic Gospels the Transfiguration is immediately preceded by Our Lord’s admonishment that we must take up our cross and lose our life in order to follow him, and followed by his prediction of his betrayal; the Collect for this Sunday prays ‘that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory’ (cf. II Corinthians 3.18). 

Our Sequence hymn, ‘O wondrous type! O vision fair’ (a 19th-century translation of a 15th-century Latin Office hymn for the Transfiguration) accordingly not only recounts in a nutshell the vision of the Transfiguration but also makes clear its import: the glory ‘which Christ upon the mountain shows’ is also ‘glory that the Church may share’, ‘glory [that] shall be theirs above who joy in God with perfect love’. The word ‘type’ in the first line is a key to this: though the translator likely had in mind the technical theological meaning of this word (i.e., something that prefigures a later event, often referring to an Old Testament person or occasion interpreted Christologically), but the Greek root of this English word (the Latin original has ‘forma’, which shares many of its senses but not the theological one) means, among other things, a print, impression, figure, outline, form, pattern, mold, model, example – many of which things Christ may be said to be for us, if we will let him, to lead to our own transformation.

I mentioned above the Alleluia acclamation concluding each stanza of ‘Christ upon the mountain peak’. Alleluia, of course, is omitted from liturgical use in the Lenten Season, and to embody this custom the ritual arose in the Middle Ages to ‘bury the Alleluia’, often with great ceremony and in a magnificent sepulchre, some examples of which survive. ‘Alleluia, song of gladness’ (Hymn 122/123) is a hymn for this ceremony, exhorting the singer/listener to keep a holy Lent so that Easter may be celebrated worthily and eternally. This Sunday’s postlude is a verset on the fine tune found with this text at 122 – one of a set of short pieces written to be played in alternation with sung verses, as was common in the 16th and 17th centuries. This particular piece, however – being the final verset for this hymn, and the last one in the publication from which it is taken (hymn-verset cycles by 17th-century French composer Jehan Titelouze) – is extended and elaborated and serves well on its own. (In this verset, the first, third, and fifth phrases of the tune form the basis of the subjects treated in imitation in the piece’s three sections; these and the remaining phrases are also hinted at in the accompanying counterpoint.)

This tune is more usually associated with an Office hymn for the Feast of the [Anniversary of] the Dedication of a Church, found translated (with this tune) at 519 in the Hymnal (‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’; the better known Hymn 518, ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’, is a translation of the second half of this hymn). It thus forms a connection with another theme in this week’s service: honoring those who have made a legacy gift to the parish to continue its history of over 170 years (also the reason for the inclusion of the Collect for our patronal feast mentioned above). This Sunday, as we often do on such occasions, we sing ‘The Church’s one foundation’, which celebrates the unity of the Church on earth and in heaven, even in the midst of ‘toil and tribulation’ and much else (it was written during a period of acute theological controversy in the Church of England), and which also looks to the ‘vision glorious’. 

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