Monday, September 17, 2012

The power of sign, symbol, and ceremony....

We are constantly told in the Church that people have outgrown the tired old signs, symbols, and ceremonies that once accompanied the worship life of God's people.  Whether it is the allure of technology or the desire for pleasurable entertainment or the comfort zone of being a spectator instead of a participant, we are ever reminded that this is not your grandfather's church (as if that were the worst thing of all).  Yet people remain enamored with signs, symbols, and ceremony.  If not in religion, then in sports or patriotism, among other places. 

Think for example.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday are a throw back to an ancient and irrelevent symbol of inward repentance and, yet, they are still so popular that people who never come to church any other day come to receive the mark of the cross in ashes traced upon their foreheads.  Their penance and conversion from sin may not be all that front and center but they remain connected simply through this ancient sign and symbol. Bishops still carry pastoral staffs (crosiers), wear purple clericals, hoist a miter upon their heads, and have a pectoral cross around their necks and episcopal ring upon their fingers even though we live in an egalitarian age in which rank and heirarchy seem to be the antithesis of the modern mind. We still have candles in church (and at home and restaurants) even though we do not need their light.  We buy little battery tea lights that mimic the dancing flame of real candles. We still use water for baptism even though the modern symbol of cleansing has long ago been replaced by a squirt of hand sanitizer and the familiar aroma of its fake scent.  We know instinctively the common fare of bread and wine even though we have an array of choices never before known to us that we might use as substitutes.  I could go on and on.

The power of sign, symbol, and ceremony is that these things bring to mind that which they sign, convey a wealth of information, perspective, and feeling even though they are mere symbols, and give us both comfort and identity even though they remain external gestures, rituals, and ceremonies.  Far from outliving them, we seem to live at a time when they are in greatest demand.  Amid the changes and changes of this mortal world and the press of modern life, we long for that which connects us to a past of fond memory and which comforts us with the certainty of those things that do not change.

Recently there has been a buzz about the addictive character of worship which capitulates to the diety of change.  The experience itself can become the same kind of rush which other experiences and substances also deliver.  The answer is to return to sign, symbol, ceremony, and liturgy.  I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”.  So says one recovering worship addict.  These things can certainly become ends in an of themselves -- no one is denying this -- yet they sign, symbolize, and point to that which is beyond and yet accessible sacramentally -- the God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  This is the God whose steadfast love endures forever and the familiar and ancient signs and symbols which accompany the ceremony and ritual of liturgical worship convey this never changing grace and mercy in ways that newnesss, novelty, and change cannot.  Far from moving away from these, we need to reclaim what we have already lost and relearn what has become strange to us.  Not because these are ends in and of themselves but because these are subtle yet powerful reminds of the God who changes not and this God does not constantly reinvent Himself but delivers Himself and His grace to us in the places were He has promised.  We dare not miss this.

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