HUMAN LIFE is full of rituals. The national anthem is played on television and radio at 6 am. Students sing the school song at morning assembly. Couples have their ritual goodbye kiss in the morning before departing for work.
Protestants have traditionally been wary of rituals that seemed unbiblical or erroneous. Yet rituals have been making a comeback in Protestantism, especially among so-called “Emerging Churches” that use candles, incense and sacred images in worship.
What is a ritual? Rituals are prescribed, customary sets of words and actions that convey religious or cultural meaning. Technically speaking, a ritual is a set of words, while a ceremony is an action. The act of exchanging rings is a ceremony, but the spoken words “I give you this ring … ” is the ritual.
Rituals serve three purposes. First, they are regulative. A set ritual for baptism means that a Christian community will always be able to identify
a certain set of words accompanied by a certain action as constituting baptism.
When the prescribed words and actions are performed, there will not be any question that true baptism has taken place. Second, rituals are efficient. With a set ritual for baptism, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we baptise.
Third, rituals are meaningful. Christians believe that baptism expresses a person’s rejection of sin and Satan, and their being joined to the God of Jesus. Every time a baptism is celebrated that same meaning is conveyed not only to those receiving baptism, but to those attending the baptismal service as well. In sum, Christian rituals both express and reinforce the church’s most central beliefs and values.
Rituals convey meaning through symbols, which are a means of representation. rough a symbolic bath, baptism expresses death and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6) as well as rebirth (Titus 3). By means of a symbolic meal, Holy Communion expresses fellowship among Christians and the church’s participation in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Many Christians believe that as symbols, the sacraments do not merely portray a reality but offer participation in the reality that is signified.
Baptism not only signifies an individual’s death and resurrection with Christ, but inaugurates that reality because baptism is bound up with God’s command and has divine promises attached to it.
Because rituals are symbolic, we need to grow into them so that we might grow through them. None of us are born innately understanding our culture and its symbols and rituals.
We have to learn what our flag means, and that meaning is reinforced through a ritual salute or pledge to the flag that expresses our country’s values.
Analogously, we are taught what the Lord’s Supper means, and then we participate in it over and over again.
The constant participation helps us to appropriate the Supper’s meaning, namely, that we are God’s redeemed people who feed on the Bread of Life, Christ.
But as people who constantly struggle against sin and the flesh, we might lose touch with the church’s rituals and symbols.
The world’s symbols and rituals compete for our attention and allegiance. We might have been clothed with Christ in baptism, but we obsess about clothing ourselves with Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The Lord’s Supper might offer the love of God, but MacDonald’s offers the Big Mac we love – with super-sized fries, too, if we want! We might be called to gather in a Christian assembly to worship the God of Jesus, but the world calls us to gather in stadiums to worship the great Sports Gods! If our worship rituals have lost their meaning, seem remote, or appear to be unnecessary, the problem might lie in us, rather than in the rituals themselves.
The challenge for churches today is to off er their members strong grounding in the central rituals. We must teach converts and children the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and reinforce that meaning through strong preaching that expounds the sacraments in light of the day’s biblical readings. We must sing hymns that support and extol the sacraments, the liturgical calendar and other ritual aspects of our worship life. We must celebrate the rituals in meaningful ways, for example, by using water abundantly in baptism so that the ritual resonates with biblical language about “washing” and “drowning” and by using real bread and offering a generous sip of wine in the Supper in order to suggest a meal. Strong, careful ritual practice will build a strong ritual understanding.
May God help us achieve this!
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The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.