The transfiguration was an important festival in the eastern church by the eighth century. In the west, the festival was introduced much later and became common only when Pope Callistus III ordered its observance to commemorate the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on 6 August 1456.
Transfiguation of Jesus - Armando Alemdar Ara, 2004.
The first three Gospels all tell of an episode in which Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, and his appearance took on the look of one glorified (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36). There is no comparable event in John’s Gospel, but, as commentators have pointed out, the whole of the Fourth Gospel is suffused with the idea of the manifestation of the glory of Jesus right from the very prologue of the Gospel.
The accounts of the transfiguration in Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ slightly in detail but agree in general. The episode included just the three disciples. Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah, and Peter suggested making shelters for them. The disciples were very fearful. Then a voice from the cloud that overshadowed them assured them that Jesus was the beloved Son, whom they should heed, but that they should say nothing about the episode till after the resurrection. The Gospels also agree in placing the incident shortly after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ and immediately before the final journey south to Jerusalem. The location of the event is not certain, though various mountains in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi have been suggested.
The exact significance of the event has been debated in the church down the centuries. A reference to the transfiguration in 2 Peter (1:16-18) links the eyewitness account of the transfiguration to the trustworthiness of prophecies about the return of Jesus in glory. In the eastern church it was frequently understood as symbolic of the transformation of the world as well as referring to the world to come. In modern biblical studies, some scholars treat it as historical and factual. Others treat it as a narrative full of symbolic meaning: the glory of Jesus is revealed; the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) are seen to attest the validity of Jesus’ mission; the cloud of God’s presence affirms Jesus’ credentials; and the presence of God strengthens Jesus for the coming struggle in Jerusalem, a point emphasised by Luke (9:31).
Oswald was born about 602 and became king of Northumbria after his father’s death in 616. He was forced to flee to Scotland when Edwin seized the kingdom. For seventeen years Oswald lived in exile on Iona and was converted to the Christian faith and baptised by the monks of St Columba.
Edwin died in 633, and Oswald was determined to return and free his country. On the eve of the decisive battle near Hexham, Oswald set up a large wooden cross, and he and his soldiers prayed for victory. He had a vision of Columba, who assured him of victory. Oswald defeated the British king, Cadwalla of Gwynedd, and after a few years Oswald was undisputed king of Northumbria. He married Cyneburga, daughter of Cynegils, the first Christian king of Wessex.
Oswald began to establish Christianity in his country and appealed to Iona for missionaries. The first bishop who was sent was rather harsh and had little success. Aidan was eventually sent, and he and Oswald worked unceasingly to build up the church in Northumbria. Oswald often acted as interpreter for Aidan, and together they achieved the conversion of a large part of the area. On more than one occasion Oswald had to translate Aidan’s Irish for the benefit of his thanes. Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan for a monastery and episcopal seat.
In 642, Penda, king of Mercia, sought revenge for the death of Cadwalla. During the battle at Maserfield, Oswald was killed, praying for the souls of his people as he died. His body was dismembered, but his head was carried to Aidan at Lindisfarne, who placed it in the royal chapel at Bamburgh. The dispersion of other parts of his body led to various places, on the continent as well as in Britain, claiming to have his relics. The English honoured Oswald as a martyr. He was a popular hero and was canonised soon after his death.
The French Revolution had a devastating effect on Christianity in France. During the revolution, Christianity was attacked and the priesthood proscribed. In the years after, people became preoccupied with the practical business of reconstructing their lives and had found solace in other pursuits. The country was in disarray, but Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney brought an important and distinctive contribution to the revival of Christianity.
Jean was born into a peasant family at Dardilly near Lyons in 1786. He received little education and, in the upheavals of the 1790s, was soon working on his uncle’s farm at Ecully. Although church-going was discouraged in post-revolutionary France, Jean-Marie felt called to the priesthood. His academic limitations hampered him, and then he was conscripted into the Napoleonic army. He deserted and resumed his studies after a general amnesty in 1810. After a great struggle he was ordained in 1815. Three years later, at the age of 30, he was appointed to the little village of Ars, a remote and insignificant place north of Lyons.
There had been no effective ministry in Ars for some years, and Jean had to rebuild the parish virtually from nothing. He visited his parishioners; he re-established education for the children and set up an orphanage for girls. Above all he set out to reclaim the habits of his parishioners. Jean-Marie followed a rigid self-discipline, and in his early years at Ars attacked the dancing and drinking of the locals in an effort to reform the parish. He used the confessional as a means of correcting people’s habits. Shining through the rigour and discipline was a profound love of people. He came to place great stress on the love and mercy of God.Not without a lot of sometimes bitter opposition, he succeeded in transforming the village by 1827.
By 1827 the Abbé Vianney was widely regarded as a priest of deep devotion and spiritual skill. People began arriving at Ars from further afield, seeking the counsel of the Curé d’Ars. The pressure on him, compounded by his own disregard of his health and comfort, made for an enormous spiritual burden. People also came to expect miracles of him, but he simply attributed these to St Philomena. Eventually Lyons railway station had a separate booking office for trains to Ars, and in 1853 it was calculated that 20,000 people a year were visiting him. Those who could not visit in person wrote to him. Even though he could not answer all the letters in person, he determined the general scope of the replies. During his later years he spent up to 16 hours a day in the confessional. He would have dearly loved to leave the parish and devote himself to solitary prayer, but was not allowed by his bishop and the villagers to leave. He died, worn out by his self-denying life-style and devoted ministry to those who came to him.
In 1929 Jean Vianney was designated the patron saint of parish priests.
St Stephen is celebrated as the first martyr in the name of Christ.
Of the seven chosen to attend to the material needs of the Hellenist widows, Stephen in particular is “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Stephen was a “Hellenist” himself, a Greek-speaking Jew with cultural roots in the Dispersion. Even before his conversion to the way of Jesus, he would be less bound than the “Hebrews” to the letter of the Mosaic Law. While the seven were appointed to “serve tables” in contrast to preaching the word (Acts 6:2), the idea that Stephen was the first deacon only grew up later in the church. Deacons actually seem to have emerged in Gentile Christianity as associates of the presbyter-bishops.
As a Hellenist, it is not surprising that as a Christian, Stephen was challenged by fellow Hellenist Jews of the Dispersion (Acts 6:9) who wished to retain their association with the traditions of Israel. They provided the strongest opposition to the growing church through the whole apostolic age. Stephen was charged with speaking against the Temple and the Law. This was in order to secure his conviction by the Sanhedrin, which was dominated by conservative Sadducees (Acts 6:11-14). But in his speech (Acts 7:2-53) Stephen hardly addresses these charges, except to argue that the Temple should never have been built (Acts 7:44-50). Rather he shows that the Jews right through their history have been disobedient to God’s law, just as they have now murdered the “righteous one” (Acts 7:52f.). Stephen’s speech is no defence, but rather a prosecution of the whole Jewish nation. It is an attack on “the people” as well as the elders and scribes (Acts 6:12), anticipating the Jewish rejection of the gospel. This is an idea that runs right through the book of Acts.
Stephen’s speech is followed inevitably by his martyrdom. Because Luke understood Jesus as the supreme example for others of living and dying, Stephen’s death is presented as following the pattern and fulfilling the promise of the passion of Jesus (Acts 7:55-60). So, like Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), Stephen sees the Son of Man at the right hand of God as Jesus promised he would be (Luke 22:69). Outside the city of Jerusalem, he is stoned, as Jesus had indicated was the fate of those sent by God (Luke 13:34). He commits his spirit to Jesus, as Jesus commended his life to the Father (Luke 23:46). Not being physically constrained by crucifixion, he kneels down like Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:41), and also prays forgiveness for his executioners (cf. Luke 23:34).
If Jesus himself is the first martyr of the Christian era described by Luke, Stephen is the martyr who now stands closest to him in God’s heavenly glory (cf. Acts 7:55).
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