How Liturgy Reads the Bible: The Old Testament on the Transfiguration of Christ

On this day, August 6 (O. S.), we celebrate with great joy the bright Feast of the Transfiguration. (For a sublime exposition of the meaning of this Feast, see this sermon by St Gregory Palamas.) Great Feasts such as this always afford us a sterling opportunity to have a good look at the fabric of liturgical exegesis, which is lavishly displayed throughout the festivities. It occurred to me yesterday during Vespers, however, that one of the chief ways in which we are exposed to the Church’s way of reading Scripture is by the simple use of Old Testament texts, without immediate commentary, in festal contexts. For instance, at Vespers, three lessons from the Old Testament are read on feasts of a certain rank; at Liturgy, feasts of the Lord feature three entrance antiphons made up of Psalm verses and a refrain. These texts are thus placed in a new context, and the events of the feast with which they are paired cast new light upon them, even as they illumine the feasted events with perspectives from other events in salvation history. Ultimately, that becomes the matrix within which liturgical poetry and patristic commentary develop. With that in mind, I offer below my hero Father Ephrem Lash’s translation of the Church’s text of the Old Testament lessons read last night during Vespers (spelling modified in a few instances), along with St Theophanes the Greek’s breathtaking icon of the Transfiguration, hoping that the juxtaposition will provide a taste (albeit a very small one) of the most basic way in which the Church reads her Scriptures.

6th. The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

67. The Reading is from Exodus.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.’ When Moses had arisen, he and Jesus, who attended him, went up onto the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us, until we come back to you again; and, see, Aaron and Or are with you; if anyone has a dispute, let them go to them.’ Then Moses went up onto the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of God came down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day the Lord called Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the children of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And he was there on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

68. The Reading is from Exodus.
[33:11-23; 34:4-6.8]

The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as one speaks to one’s friend. Then he would return to the camp; but the young servant, Jesus, son of Navi, did not leave the tent. Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you say to me, “Bring up this people”; but you have not shown me whom you will send with me. Yet you have said to me, “I know you above all others, and you have also found favour in my sight.” Now if I have found favour in your sight, show yourself to me, so that I may see you and find favour in your sight, that I may know that this great nation is your people.‘ And the Lord said to him, ‘I myself will go before you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If you will not go with us yourself, do not carry me up from here. For how shall it be truly known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be glorified, I and your people, more than all the nations.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘For you I will do this word that you have spoken; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you above all others.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your own glory.’ And he said, ‘I will pass by you in my glory, and will proclaim before you my name, “The Lord”; and I will be have mercy on those on whom I will have mercy, and will have pity on those on whom I will have pity.’ And he said, ‘You cannot see my face; for no human shall see my face and live.’ And the Lord said, ‘See, there is a place by me; stand on the rock. And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen by you.’ So Moses rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord. The Lord passed before his face, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, God compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and full of mercy and true’. And Moses quickly bowed to the earth, and worshipped the Lord.

69. The Reading is from Third Book of Reigns.

And Elias heard and was afraid; he arose and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, in the land of Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly someone touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat and drink, for you have a long journey.’ Elias looked, and there at his head was a cake of flour and a jar of water. He arose, ate and drank, and slept again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Arise and eat and drink, for you have a long journey.’ He arose, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to mount Horeb. There he entered a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold, the Lord will pass by.’ And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elias heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood by the cave. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return to your way and you will come to the desert way of Damascus; and you shall anoint Eliseus son of Shaphat as prophet in your place.’

“Thou hast put on praise and majesty; who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment.” (Psalm 103:1-2, LXX)

2 responses to “How Liturgy Reads the Bible: The Old Testament on the Transfiguration of Christ

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