O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair

This hymn may not be the most familiar–it is only sung once a year, on Transfiguration Sunday. Singing just once a year doesn’t allow a hymn to gain much currency, but it does reinforce the connection between the hymns and the liturgical year. Consider its text, based on the account of the Transfiguration which, among other places, we may read in Matthew 17. This poetic and faithful retelling of the Transfiguration narrative originates from the Sarum Breviary, a late fifteenth-century liturgical volume established from a particular liturgy developed in the 11th century in England, most notably in Salisbury. The Sarum Rite, even though originating several centuries before the Reformation, provided a liturgy unique to the English people, although of course still in Latin. This hymn text provides the first evidence that the Feast of the Transfiguration was being celebrated in England; although it was a common festival on the Continent, it had not yet become established in England. Even though we often think of Latin hymns as objective, perhaps even coldly doctrinaire, consider the warm subjectivity of the final two stanzas:

And faithful hearts are raised on high by this great vision’s mystery,

For which in joyful strains we raise the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.

O Father, with the eternal Son and Holy Spirit ever one,

We pray Thee, bring us by Thy grace to see Thy glory face to face.

This text does not simply recount a biblical narrative but personalizes it whereby we pray to see “Thy glory face to face,” acknowledging that the fear, wonder, and awe experienced by the disciples was not simply a forgotten historical occurrence. It should be our response when we encounter Christ through Word and Sacrament. Christ is less tangible, that is true, but He is no less real.