Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Today's Sunday liturgy of the 9th Sunday after Pentecost is eclipsed by the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. St Matthew relates the event in his Gospel here in the first 9 verses of chapter 17.

The Blessed Cardinal Schuster gives this background on the feast:

A special reference to this great divine manifestation, which the Fathers justly regard as one of the chief miracles wrought by God for a testimony to the Messianic character of His Christ, is to be found in the ancient Roman Liturgy on the solemn vigil of Ember Saturday in Lent. On that solemnity, St Leo the Great delivered several striking homilies on the Gospel story of the Transfiguration; homilies that were all the more effective from being delivered during the nocturnal synaxis which was held at the tomb of Peter, one of the three witnesses of the miracle of the Transfiguration.

When, moreover, the people had ceased to have a clear understanding of the Liturgy, and consequently entered less into the traditional treasures of the Roman Missal, it was felt to be necessary to supply that which was lacking by instituting a new feast in honour of the Transfiguration, with the object of arousing popular devotion to this mystery.

In addition to this, as for many centuries the Greeks had celebrated on August 6 a special festival entitled “H ‘ agia Metamorphosis ton Kurion”, on which day the Christian forces won a famous victory over the Turks, so Callixtus III instituted in 1457, on the same day, the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord as an annual act of thanksgiving to God for the favour received..

The ancient Roman festival of St Sixtus II and his six heroic deacons was in consequence almost obliterated, being reduced to a simple commemoration.

Since the Blessed Cardinal has brought up St Sixtus in his commentary on the Transfiguration, perhaps his remarks on the saint himself and his companions, whose great feast day this once was, will be worth quoting:

On this day there were two Masses at Rome: Sixti in Callisti et in Praetestati, Agapiti et Felicissimi. We must go back to the year 258, when the persecution under the Emperor Valerian is raging. Pope Sixtus, notwithstanding the decree forbidding it, is holding a synaxis in an oratory at the cemetery of Callixtus. He is surprised by the police, and is hardly allowed the time necessary to finish the Mass when he is beheaded as he is seated on his throne.

With him are put to death four deacons who stood around the altar, Januarius, Magnus, Vincent, and Stephen; two other deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus are decapitated on the same day, whilst the archdeacon Lawrence is reserved in order to die a more cruel death three days later. The persecution of the Christians receives fresh impetus from this slaughter, so much so that the Roman clergy are obliged to wait several months before they can choose a successor to the martyred Pontiff.


Station at the Cemetery of Callixtus

Sixtus II was buried in the papal crypt in the place of honour, in a loculus excavated in the end wall; the four deacons who were beheaded with him shared with him also the honour of being buried in the papal vault; whilst Felicissimus and Agapitus, for some unknown reason, were laid to rest in the neighbouring cemetery of Pretextatus on the other side of the Appian Way.

The tragic death of the Pontiff and of his seven deacons deeply impressed the minds of the faithful, so much so that the name of Sixtus II was not only inserted in the Canon of the Mass, together with that of St Lawrence, but it may even be said that his memory dominates the subsequent history of the entire necropolis of Callixtus.

In the Itineraries, indeed, we see the devotion with which the pilgrims of the early Middle Ages, before going down into the subterranean labyrinth, visited the ecclesiam parvam ubi decollatus est sanctus Xystus com diaconibus suis -- as the Salzburg Ininerary attests.

. . . . . .


Station at the Cemetery of Pretextatus

Felicissimus and Agapitus were either not made prisoners with Sixtus or else were dragged before the judge previously to being executed, as was also done in the case of Lawrence the archdeacon. It is certain that they perished by the sword on the same day as the Pontiff; but as it was not any longer possible to bury them in the cemetery of Callixtus, the access to which was perhaps guarded after the massacre, they were honourably interred in the neighbouring cemetery of Pretextatus.

Their earliest burial-place has, in fact, been discovered near the speulunca magna mentioned in the Itineraries. There, also, Pope Damasus had placed the following. . .inscription:

”Behold this tomb; it contains the sacred relics of two saints whom heaven suddenly called to itself. Followers and ministers of the invincible cross, they shared the faith as well as the merits of their Pontiff, and thus attained to the eternal mansions and to the kingdom of the blessed. It is especially the people of Rome who rejoice in this, since the two martyrs led by Sixtus have merited from Christ the highest honours..
Damasus to Felicissimus and Agapitus.”

The tomb of the two deacons is full of graffiti inscribed by priests who said Mass there in early days, and by devout pilgrims who begged the prayers of the martyrs.


Post a Comment

<< Home