The Radiance of His Body
The Feast of the Transfiguration. Fr Toby Lees preaches on the importance of bodies.
August is a month of holy days and holidays, although, for most of Christian history, we wouldn’t have distinguished between the two. The word holiday derives from holy day and gets its contemporary meaning from the fact that these special holy days were days to set aside work and labour, a bonus Sunday, so to speak. It would be good for us to make the link once more even though the Feast falls on a Sunday this year, so no bonus!
For most of the Church there are two great feasts this month, the Feast of the Transfiguration and of the Assumption, and, for Dominicans, there is a third, that of St Dominic, our founder.
One theme that might be seen to unite all these three holidays is the holiness of the body. That’s a very necessary theme to proclaim in our world where we worship the body; degrade the body; objectify the body; surgically modify the body, but rarely consider it holy.
There’s an old joke about which is the greatest religious order. A questioner asks whether it is the Jesuits or the Dominicans, to which he receives the reply, ‘Well, the Dominicans were founded to counter the Albigensian heresy and the Jesuits to counter the Protestant revolt.’ The questioner, confused, says, ‘But, which is the greatest order?’ and the respondent says, ‘Well, have you ever met an Albigensian?!’
And, while, as a Dominican, I’d love to say, ‘Well, yes, that settles it!’, the reality is that there are many more Albigensians then there are people in Albi. Because Albigensiansm is the heresy that says that the body is not truly good, that only the spiritual truly matters. It got its name because so many people from Albi bought into this lie; I’ve no idea whether many in Albi do now, but certainly around the rest of the world they do. Have a look on Mary Harrington on the body as ‘meat lego’ for a contemporary reflection on a modern form of Albigensiansm, or just think of the way the body is a pleasure vehicle for so many, while any inherent language of the body, any inherent meaning to sex, is dismissed.
In the life of St Dominic and subsequent generations of Dominicans there has been a real emphasis on preaching the holiness of the body, not least because to do so flows out of the centrality of the Incarnation in our preaching. All of creation is good and it was not rendered utterly corrupt by sin. It was worth redeeming and the Word that is God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Both the feast of the Transfiguration and the Assumption can be seen as affirmations of the goodness of the Incarnation and importance of our belief in a bodily resurrection.
In the Transfiguration we see the divinity of Jesus manifested in the radiance of His body, not the escape from it, and the Assumption shows us that He came to save us completely and not just spiritually: Mary is assumed body and soul into heaven. This, surely, corresponds to our deepest longings? Which of us when we think of those we have loved and lost would be content with just the idea of a spiritual reunion?
As Christians we need to imagine what a world might look like where the body was considered holy again, where sex became sacred once more. We need to imagine a world in which the body was no longer objectified, no longer mutilated, nor worshipped, but, instead, was once more seen as the sacrament of the human person, the visible manifestation of the human person made in the image and likeness of God: the human person made a partaker in the divine nature. Imagine if we thought of ourselves like that, imagine if we thought of others like that?
In such a world there is no place for pornography, no place for the human trafficking that is the subject of the important recent film Sound of Freedom, no place for the reductive vision of women that the Barbie movie rails against. Instead, just as we venerate the relics of saints, we might see holiness in the entire person of the communion of saints we walk amongst. There is a passage at the end of CS Lewis’s brilliant Weight of Glory sermon that encapsulates all that I have been trying to say:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.