The Necessity of Ritual

Last night was Maundy Thursday.  We celebrated the true Passover.  We chanted the twenty-second psalm.  We stripped the altar.  My little girl cried.

She’s three and a half years old.  She doesn’t know the 22nd psalm or it’s significance. She doesn’t listen to her dad’s sermons.  She plays in the pew; sometimes quietly, sometimes with vigor.  But last night she cried.  She watched in confusion and distrust as the altar was stripped, the paraments removed, the cross gone.  “Mommy, why are they doing that?  Where are they taking it?”  “They’re stripping the altar because tomorrow is Good Friday, the day Jesus died.”  “I don’t want Jesus to die!”  My little girl cried at the death of Jesus.

There was no band, no emotional music.  The lights weren’t dimmed.  No heart-felt pleas from a breathy minister pleading with the congregation to emotionally connect to Jesus or the cross.  There were no “mourners” to set the mood. No in-the-background gimmicks to move the heart.  Nothing but a congregation laboriously chanting a psalm and two men stripping the altar.

The worse thing I could do would be to correct her and tell that Jesus isn’t dying today.  Of course He’s not.  But if I always explain the parable then the hearer never engages the word.   Worse, though, are those who never let their sons and daughters hear or see the parable.  Let her think Jesus is dying today.  She’ll ask why.  I’ll tell her.  She’ll be sad.  I’ll let her.  It is sad.  But not for Jesus.  He says, “Do not weep for me.”  She’ll live like Mary, sad at the tomb.  Then she’ll live like Mary, joyful at the resurrection.

We shouldn’t forget that Jesus is raised from the dead so that we can relive holy week and Easter in some play-like remembrance.  Preachers shouldn’t preach during holy week as if Jesus were dead.  He is risen, that’s the good news.  We shouldn’t employ ritual simply to tell a story; that’s a play, not ritual.   The point of ritual is not to tell the story as if we’re putting on a play.  The point of ritual is to confess.  Ritual confesses.  The ritual of stripping the altar confesses that Jesus died.  When ritual confesses then it does its job.  When ritual confesses then we confess with it and learn by its confession.  That’s what happened with my little girl.  She heard the confession.  When she is older the ritual may or may not invoke the same emotional response.  But it will confess the same confession.  The ritual will speak, guided under the words of Scripture, the ritual will preach.  Ritual is louder than our attempts to impress upon others what we think they should be feeling.  Ritual is clearer than our muddled ideas about when this emotion should be at the fore and when it should be subdued for another to take it’s place.  Ritual affects emotion as a side effect, not as the purpose.

Don’t replace ritual with plays, they’re fake and fading.  Don’t reduce ritual to pragmatic ideas based on telling the story.  Confess, in word and deed confess.  That’s ritual.  Bring your sons and daughters to participate in the ritual, not like characters in a play, but as hearers and doers of the Word.  Let their emotions be affected, but don’t work for an emotional effect.  Then emotions become the target instead of the will, which is the heart.

My little girl will most likely grow out of this bare emotion at Jesus’ death.  Or at least she’ll learn that He died nearly 2,000 years ago and not on every Good Friday.  But she will never grow out of the confession that He did in fact die, and that He is indeed raised from the dead.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  Ritual, indeed.

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