The Transfiguring Magic of Ritual

The chaplain invited me to give the sermon at our University’s weekly chapel service the Sunday before Lent. This is Transfiguration Sunday in many Christian traditions, where the Gospel reading is Matthew 17:1-9, which recounts an episode where the disciples see Jesus transfigured in divine glory on a mountain. Even though I am not a Christian, it proved to be a great opportunity for reflecting on vocation and how we can collectively examine shared patterns of meaning and purpose in a pluralistic society, where many of us strongly disagree about the ultimate sources of meaning and purpose.

Why was I invited to give a sermon at a Christian worship service? The short answer is because the chaplain thought that whatever I was likely to say would be appropriate in such a worship service, or at least not wildly inappropriate. That’s because we share a basic conviction that human life does have a real moral orientation. There are good things, and they really are good, and there are bad things and they really are bad. In other words, there is an “up,” and there is a “down.” Human life is not just sound and fury, but has the potential, for every single human as a human, to be better, more noble, more filled with light and life and joy and connection.

One of the most important parts of the chapel ritual is the reading and reflection on a passage from the Gospels. Matthew 17:1-9 tells the story of a time when Jesus appeared to some of his disciples transfigured in divine glory, along with the prophets Moses and Elijah, and how that vision affected the disciples. The passage prompts me to about how ritual functions to transfigure everyday experience to enrich our lives and fortify our relationships.

The Transfiguration story does not itself describe a ritual exactly, but powerfully depicts an instance where Jesus explicitly showed Peter, James, and John exactly which way was “up.” They see the vision of the Transfiguration and Moses and Elijah with Jesus, and Peter immediately recognizes that something super important is happening. But, just as he starts running his mouth, a cloud of glory descends and God tells them even more explicitly that Jesus is leading them straight up. Their minds are blown apart and they fall down in fear. Luckily, Jesus brings them back around and they can get on with their work together—and this part is also super important. I think the point is that, as important as it is to see and to know which way is up, as regular humans we can’t handle staring straight up. We also need to look around at those nearby, with whom we’re sharing our work in the world, and to whom we have more mundane obligations and ties.

The Transfiguration

Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520)

Pinacoteca Vaticana

The point of ritual is to remind ourselves and each other about which way is up. But, it’s also about reminding us that we are not alone, and that if we are to live together productively, we have to avoid crashing into each other. So ritual has two functions: to give us a chance to remember which way is “up” and make sure we’re still generally pointed in that direction, and to provide guidelines for living well with each other so that we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, but even more that we are actively helping each other to get better.

My appreciation for how ritual works in our lives has been shaped by my study of Confucianism or Ruism, the tradition of classical Chinese learning in which Confucius or Kongzi was the most important (but not the first) ancestral teacher. Confucianism has a very robust theory of ritual, and it plays an absolutely central role in all parts of the tradition. They think of ritual as things like a worship service, but also all the daily interactions that make up social life: greeting an old friend or being introduced to a new one, saying “please” and “thank you,” giving a compliment or a congratulation, delivering just criticism or enforcing personal boundaries.

These rituals together give us the tools or the language to express our common humanity; they are the medium in which we are human. If they are functioning well, they facilitate by the very same means the dual action of pointing the way to what is best and most important in life, and ensuring we avoid the myriad ways humans can take advantage of and hurt one another.

The American philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who passed away late last year, noted how special and important this appreciation of ritual is in early Confucianism by calling attention to how it seems to enchant and elevate even ordinary human interactions into a “holy rite.”

Fingarette points out how Confucius particularly appreciated the extraordinary power of ordinary ritual as something literally magical. We usually think of magic as a mysterious force by which individuals can accomplish their will simply by saying the right words or making the right gestures, without expending any other physical force: “Wingardium Leviosa“—and the feather begins to float, without your having to touch it! But, in almost exactly the same setup: “please pass the salt”—and the salt shaker mysteriously appears in your hand! Through the basic functions of human relating, we can communicate needs and desires, and when rituals are well maintained and effectively implemented, all involved have those needs and desires satisfied while also recognizing and being recognized in a subtle web of relating to other human beings.

You may be thinking, that’s a little extreme for just passing the salt. You need something, you ask for it politely, you get it—it’s not magic, just reciprocal concern. But what if the Confucians were right? What if ordinary ritual really could be that profound? What if looking a person in the eye and asking “how are you?” when you make yourself open to actually caring—to communicating genuine human concern and hearing how they really are, even if it’s sad or scared or upset, and trusting that your simply being with them as a fellow human and sharing that common humanity for a moment is enough. That you, just as you are, and them just as they are, were enough to make that moment magical and meaningful? What if that simple thing is actually the highest, most sacred act that you can partake in? Would such simple moments not be transfigured into something sublime and holy?

Herbert Fingarette reflects on old age, grief for his wife, and impending death.

We tend to focus on stories like the Transfiguration for the grounding of authentic “callings” because they seem explicit and relatively easy: the glory of God transfigures the entire scene, and there can be no mistake! What is important is totally clear, and although it may be completely overwhelming, you know exactly where to look to see what is most meaningful and important. Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually happen most of the time, and calls don’t usually work that way. So, we need to make do with the ordinary kind of transfiguration available through the “technology” of ritual.

Attending to ritual, if we take it seriously, allows us to calibrate our experience with those around us to transfigure ordinary reality into something extraordinary. It may not be as sensational as hanging out with the prophets in a cloud of glory, but it’s reliable and human and solid.

On a related note: For more on ritual and vocation see “Ritual, contest, image.” For another example of connecting Confucianism with the Gospel of Matthew see this recent sermon by Dr. Su Yon Pak (Union Theological Seminary) on mending conflicts between calling and duty in discerning authentic vocation, drawing on her Korean Confucian heritage of filial duty to illuminate another passage in Matthew.

Matthew Duperon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University. He studies and teaches comparative religious ethics, specializing in early Chinese religious thought and American Pragmatism. Matthew is a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Matthew Duperon, click here.

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