While the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus
Christ is August 6, the Last Sunday of the Epiphany (February 7) is often referred
to as “Transfiguration Sunday” because of its Gospel reading each lectionary
year. I think Last Epiphany is one of the “fun Sundays” for music.
This Gospel reading (Luke 9:28-36) is a certainly a
significant one for various reasons. Jesus’ manifestation is identified again
(“This is my Son, my Chosen”), confirmed by the prophets of old (Moses and
Elijah) and revealed to only the prophets Peter, James and John. What a
dazzling sight that must have been for them… literally.
The Transfiguration event has inspired composers for
centuries and continues to do so with modern composers today. The anthem at the
10:30 service this Sunday is a setting by Louisville native Craig Phillips (b.
1961), who is parish musician at All Saints, Beverly Hills, and one of the most
successful composers in the country today. This anthem was commissioned by the
Association of Anglican Musicians 2004 national conference in
Cincinnati/Lexington, which I attended. And as Craig is a friend and colleague,
research on this Sunday’s anthem composer was not difficult.
Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1294), writer of the anthem
text, does require a little research, however. Mechthild was a Beguine, a
Christian lay order active in Northern Europe in the 12th through 16th
centuries. The Beguines lived in monastic community but did not take religious
vows; they were part of a larger 13th-century spiritual movement of
people who sought to live as Christ did through voluntary poverty, care for the
sick and the poor, and religious devotion.
Also called a Christian medieval mystic, Mechthild was born
into a noble Saxon family. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at age
12 and “renounced her worldly honour and worldly riches” shortly
thereafter. She became acquainted with the Dominican friars, and it was her
Dominican confessor Henry of Halle who encouraged and guided her to write down
her visions of God in her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The
Flowing Light of Divinity).
Mechthild’s works were revered during her lifetime, as they were
translated into Latin and widely known. Her writings were largely forgotten by
the 15th century but rediscovered in the late 19th
century. Today they are studied, highly valued and widely available in print.
In this Sunday’s anthem, intently listen to Craig’s treatment
of the text. The harmonies are close and occasionally dissonant. Pay attention
to the words upon which the music lands on a dissonance (sun, moon, height),
after which consonances are heard (well, light, measure).
mountain, O chosen sun,
moon, O fathomless well
height, O unattainable light
beyond all measure, O wisdom without end
without all limit, O strength beyond resistance
O crown of all
humbly sings your praise
Depths of the
seas, rushing waters
break into song at heaven’s proclamation:
This is my
Son, My Beloved, My Chosen One. Alleluia.
(Mechthild of Magdeburg, with Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35)