Friday, August 29, 2014

Awkwardness with ritual. . .

It is not untrue that the reason ritual has suffered is that we are less comfortable with ritual as a whole than we once were.  We are awkward with ritual precisely because we are not sure what to do with it.  We feel the need to announce the rituals we do, to explain what we are doing, and then to interpret what we have done.  All of this destroys the ebb and flow of liturgy in which ritual is essential.

I became aware of this only over time.  Watching the funerals of popes, papal masses on Christmas and Easter, and other large liturgies reported in the news, I heard commentators attempting to do just that -- to announce what was being done on the screen, to explain what was done, and then to interpret it to those unaccustomed to Christian ritual and ceremony.

By its very definition, ritual is repeated action.  Indeed, if we try ritual or ceremony only once or twice or even a half dozen times to see how it feels, to see how it works, or to see how it will go over with the folks in the pews, it is not yet ritual.  Ritual is repeated action -- repeated so often that it is no longer novelty and does not draw undue attention to itself or to us doing it.

Ritual is when you instinctively reach for the light switch even when you know that the electricity is off.  In other words, when the action is so ingrained within you that it no longer is something you think about or even decide to do.  It happens.  For many Lutherans this is the power of the salutation.  The old joke is that when Lutherans first saw Star Wars and heard the line from onscreen "The force be with you" they responded in unison and out loud "and also with you."

In some respects we find Jesus' ritual actions strange to us (such as making a poultice of spit and clay and applying it to the eyes of the blind) because the ritual acts instinctive to His day and culture are no longer repeated among us or familiar and significant to us.

The sign of the cross is for the Christian one of the most instinctive and evocative rituals.  It draws our attention to the Trinity or the cross of Christ but it also had an earlier significance.  In an earlier time the T or tau was associated with Ezekiel 9:4-6 where God command that citizens with a tau on their foreheads and repentance in their hearts be spared His judgment.

Those suspicious of worship have forgotten Romans 12:1-2 where St. Paul ties true spiritual worship to the body -- loving God is not merely a function of the pneuma (spirit) or the nous (mind) but also of the soma (body).  Spirit and truth includes and even implies bodily ritual (present your bodies as living sacrifices).

Our familiarity with ritual happens when the rituals themselves are so familiar to us that they no longer draw attention to themselves but proceed from within us as instinctive gestures that reflect the inward direction of the heart and that which occupies the mind. 


Anonymous said...

Just a few minute ago, I finished my regular Friday morning Mass. I have said it hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but I was struck once again by the words.

At the Offertory, "... which I, thine unworthy servant, offer unto thee, my God the Living and the True, ..."

Yes, that's me - the unworthy servant - offering bread and wine to the Almighty God, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. Am I up to this? I wonder ...

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

Pre Vatican II Lutherans said instinctively, "And with your spirit."

Ian said...

No, pre-Vatican II Lutherans said instinctively, "And with thy spirit." :)

Actually, I was born in 1982 and that's what I still instinctively say. Guess it depends on which hymnal you grew up with.