Transforming Rituals
The Radiance of His Body

Transforming Rituals

Second Sunday of Lent. Fr David Goodill finds parallels between the Transfiguration and the sacraments of the Church.

In On the Mysteries St Ambrose offers instruction to catechumens on the meaning of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. These are the mysteries that Christians share in through the action of the Church. This action involves the use of liturgical rites that initiate Christians into the mystery of the Church, the mystical body of Jesus Christ. Through Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist Christians come to share in the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Ambrose is aware of the gap between the outward appearance of the rites and the realities they signify. He advises the catechumens not to consider the bodily forms of the deacon, priest and bishop who carry out the rite, but the grace of the Mysteries. Here we can see an important difference between rituals and theatre productions. Both rituals and productions require a level of competence from those who carry them out, but a theatre production requires the skills and normally the outward appearance to play a character. An eighty-seven-year-old priest with an arthritic hip acts in the person of Christ when celebrating mass equally as a thirty-three-year-old in perfect health. A casting director, however, will generally go with the thirty-three-year-old actor for a film on the life of Christ.

Whereas theatre involves pretense, ritual does not. A priest is not pretending to be Jesus in the Mass, he is acting in the person of Jesus; which is to say that Christ acts through him. When an actor plays Julius Caesar he uses his skill to create the pretence that he is Caesar, but his actions are not Caesar’s actions.

In today’s Gospel we are given St Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. The dramatic nature of the event and the vivid picture Mark paints may incline us to think of this as a grand piece of theatre. Jesus, the Son of God, showing Peter, James and John who he really is. The main difference between this and normal theatre being that here Jesus is not pretending to be someone else, but appearing as his true self. A brilliant performance we may say, and applaud loudly. While it is true that Jesus does manifest his true glory and that this is (literally) a brilliant performance, viewing the Transfiguration as a piece of theatre fails to understand what is happening here. Once we see the Transfiguration in the context of ritual, we can gain a deeper insight into the mystery Mark narrates.

The ascent of the high mountain and the transformation of Jesus bring to mind Moses’ ascent to receive the law of God. Peter’s reaction in offering to build three tents recalls the Jewish feast of booths, remembering when Israel dwelt in tents. The cloud descending and covering them in shadow also recalls Israel’s journey through the wilderness, led by the cloud that was the presence of God. These are all made present in the Transfiguration through the person of Jesus Christ. Whereas other priests enact rituals to make a reality present, Christ is the reality made present through the sacraments. He is the source of all true ritual. When Christ manifests his glory in the Transfiguration, he is doing more than just showing us who he is; he is making himself present to each one of us. Through participating in the sacraments of the Church Christ is made present to all his faithful.

As they come down from the mountain Jesus warns the three disciples to tell no one of what they have seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. The disciples faithfully observe this warning, but among themselves discuss what it meant. It is only after the Resurrection, and through the Resurrection, that the disciples come to understand that Jesus, in his life death and Resurrection, has made present the saving power of God. In Mark’s account the Transfiguration provides a foretaste of the mysteries Christians come to share in through the rituals of the Church. As St Ambrose urges, look not on the outward appearance of deacon, priest and bishop, but on the grace of the Mysteries we share in through Jesus Christ.

Readings: Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18 | Romans 8:31-34 | Mark 9:2-10


fr. David Goodill OP is Provincial Bursar of the English Dominicans, and teaches moral theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Comments (3)

  • Frances Flatman

    Really helpful and an important point to make to detract from the over importance of clergy!

  • Seán O'Seasnáin

    I like the focus on the mystagogical – nicely weaved into your homily. Thank you.

  • Fr. John BURKLEY

    I always appreciate your insights into the readings. Every time I think we all try to open the hearers to another “aha, now I see” moment. You so often make that easy!


Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.