RELIGION: It was considered important that people experienced the rite of Baptism


By Canon Gerry Conroy

It has always surprised me that in the early Church those receiving Baptism did not know what to expect and what they experienced during their Baptism was only explained to them afterwards. Perhaps the practice was borrowed from the mystery religions who followed a similar practice. The period of instruction after Baptism was called mystagogia. It was considered important that people experienced the rite of Baptism; the experience itself, without understanding why everything was happening, was important. I’m not sure why that was the case, perhaps it was something to do with a realisation that there is an understanding of things that comes not simply from our ability to comprehend those things; a realisation that relating to reality is more than something our intellect can give us, that the whole truth is grasped by more than our intelligence. When we use the word mystery we tend to think of it in terms of something we don’t understand or can’t understand; the approach of the early Church would tend to say it was something we understand but find difficult to put into words, something we grasp with our whole being, even if we were lost for words. Sometimes there are no words but our intellect seems to work with words more than anything else. Is that a limitation?

When the language of the Church moved into Latin, they translated that Greek word ‘mystery’ by the Latin word ‘Sacrament’. We have, I think, lost something of the richness of that word. In speaking of Sacrament, we tend to think immediately of the 7 Sacraments of the Church, perhaps even of the word’s meaning as something we see or hear, something ours senses grasp but that what our senses show us points to a deeper truth, such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist that are in reality the body and blood of Christ. I like to think of the Transfiguration in today’s Gospel as a kind of revelation of Sacrament: the mystery of the incarnation where the humanity of Christ contains the greater truth of his divinity. At the Transfiguration, those three disciples were allowed to see the greater truth of Christ’s identity, but the truth is revealed by the mystery of the incarnation. They experience the wonder of it and the voice of God reveals the truth of it.

The catechism refers to the Transfiguration as the sacrament of our second regeneration that is the sacrament of our resurrection. The difficulty however is that we immediately seek to understand it, we seek to grasp it with our intellect as if that were the only way to approach it, or perhaps better to own it as ours. The one thing those apostles weren’t able to do was own it, control it, tame it. St Peter, perhaps tried to do that by suggesting he should build three tents. That reminds me of King David’s desire to build a temple for God, but God replied that it was He who was doing something great for David, not the other way around. We seem to lose something of the wonder of life, perhaps even of the truth of life, certainly something of the richness of life when we think everything is about understanding, owning it. Sometimes it’s better just to enjoy the wonderment and realise we are blessed in receiving something. But then we already know that: you don’t try and possess those you love, you just enjoy them for who they are and are happy and grateful they are in your life. The Transfiguration invites us to look beyond the everyday and see the hand of God is there and give thanks for the great gift of life he has given and the even greater gift of eternal life he has promised those who put their hope in him. Prayer finds its completion in contemplation. Knowledge in the wonder of God and his works.

Canon Gerry Conroy is the Catholic chaplain at Glasgow University

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