Friday 21 February 2020 | Open Table
Needled by Michael Leunig’s cartoon “So You Believe in This?” and imaginatively entering the multilayered drama of Exodus 12:1-13:16 (the Passover; echoed in Luke 22:7-20 with Jesus’ Last Supper), we launch Open Table 2020 with a night sharing stories on the theme of RITUAL.
In a culture fixated with the here and now of this immanent frame, any kind of ‘ceremony’ seems suspect and superstitious–empty and easy to knock down. And yet, these richly symbolic and habitual practices tie us into a greater story and a deeper identity–a kind of tactile memory hook re-narrating who we are and what we’re called to do. SO, what rituals are most meaningful to you? What’s involved, how does it work, and to what hope does it point? And how might we discern between living sacrament and stale liturgy?
This exploration leads well into our first Open Book series, dialoguing with Eastern Orthodox scholar-priest Alexander Schmemann, considering his sacramental theology in the classic, For the Life of the World.
Join us, 7:00pm for a 7:30pm start, at Nik and Dave Benson’s place, 152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs, with bring-your-own pot-luck mains to share (dessert provided), and beautiful conversation in community to follow this graced meal. All are welcome (invite away!), whatever your identity, practice, creed and belief, or lack thereof. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.
Text & Reflection | Exodus 12:1-13:16 (Passover Ritual) esp. 12:21-27, and 13:9-10, 16, as a precursor to Luke 22:7-20 (echoed in the Last Supper/Messianic Passover, itself foreshadowing the greater deliverance through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross):
Moses said, “When you enter the land the Lord has promised to give you, you will continue to observe this ritual. Then your children will ask, ‘What does this ceremony mean?’ And you will reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he struck the Egyptians, he spared our families.’ … This annual festival will be a visible sign to you, like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. Let it remind you always to recite this teaching of the Lord: ‘With a strong hand, the Lord rescued you from Egypt.’ So observe the decree of this festival at the appointed time each year.” (Ex 12:21-27, 13:9-10, 16)
Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread arrived, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed. … Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” (Luke 22:7-20)
Further thoughts to prime your narrative pump …
Recently we attended some friends’ citizenship ceremony, as they were naturalised as Aussies. I must confess, I was caught out by how similar this service was to an evangelical ‘come to Jesus’ rally.
We stood for the entering of the flags; we sang our national anthem full of antiquated words like ‘girt’; a sermon was delivered by a (Government) Minister decked out in robes, honoring Australian heroes like the ANZACs, and retelling stories of what it means to be called to this promised land; a creed was recited and the penitent stood to acknowledge their serious commitment. “Remember, when you stand and say the pledge, this is the moment when you become a citizen.” For the denoument, the converts walk across the stage to receive their certificate–all set to rapturous applause as these foreigners became part of our extended family–even as this official document was merely the outward sign of an invisible grace that transformation had truly taken place. Afterward we ate a sacred meal of lamingtons and vegemite-smeared bread rolls while sipping lemon tea, all heading back to our homes reminded of our shared identity that binds disparate individuals in a modern democracy.
This elaborate event functioned as a sacrament of sorts. When looking for a picture to accompany the preceding prose, I came across a book by scholar Bridget Byrne (2014), the title of which captured it perfectly: Making Citizens: Public Rituals and Personal Journeys to Citizenship (from the Palgrave “Politics of Identity and Citizenship” Series). So, what am I to make of such a ‘religious’ event in this 21st century ‘secular’ western society? Haven’t we moved past all this clap-trap?
There is something in the post-Christendom mind–even present in pastors and theological educators like me–that is prone to scoff at such symbolic action. It can seem so contrived, artificial, put-on, even pathetic. “So, you believe in this?” Can’t we just talk about these ordinances rather than going through the motions; why not simply agree that it’s merely a mental game, and move on?
Worse, to the uninitiated, it seems like a gateway to dangerous jingoism, religious fanaticism, and perhaps even distorted occultic fascination among the growing ranks of the ‘spiritual but not religious’. I’m reminded that some of my Protestant forebears had the same attitude shortly after the Reformation to their Catholic brethren, for whom the Communion ritual remains so dear as the place the veil is removed and heaven comes to earth, as captured in this seven minute film.
Juxtaposed with this reverence above, picture the Monty Python Life of Brian scene, when the intelligentsia mishear our Lord’s sermon on the mount to promise that “Blessed are the cheesemakers”–they guffaw, “what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
Well, overhearing the Eucharist in Latin, “hoc est corpus“–“this is the body of Christ”–and observing that with the ringing of a common bell the bread apparently transubstantiated into the sacred body of Christ, the Protestant intelligentsia (foreshadowing postmodern deconstructionists) guffawed,
“Hocus pocus! What’s so special about the bread and winemakers?”
We wonder out loud, how is this different to a magic trick, a meaningless ritual best left in the dark ages? Pagan cultus and religious superstition apparently collide, both readily dismissed as pure ignorance in an enlightened era.
And yet, sometimes growing up as individuals and as a culture means entering, in philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s beautiful phrase, a “second naïveté” where these rituals take on fresh meaning, even in an age allergic to religion and far from amused by metaphysics. It’s no virtue, intellectual or ethical, to be so literally minded that we conflate the symbol and its referent, thereby dismissing both as an illusion. Like the Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, conquering Jerusalem and entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple, to declare it “empty“, perhaps we are all too quick to mock a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, thus avoiding the divine who takes on flesh to accommodate his presence to our senses, in place of a crass and localised idol.
Perhaps we can get at the human aspect of ritual through the great Rafael Nadal, consummate tennis great and man of many habits. To be sure, his rearranging of water bottles, stepping across the line leading with his right foot, and repetitive pick of his pants before serving another ace, looks very quirky to the uninitiated. And yet, our performance as human beings is premised on stringing together numerous routines and habits–collectively comprising rituals–hard-wired through our bodies into neural pathways that gear us up for whatever comes next.
This is how we learn, how we grow, and how the human animal fairly short on instincts is able to accommodate so many foreign environments and thrive. It’s a fine line between superstition and sport-stars having a rich pattern that ties them into a stronger psychological game, reminding them of where they’ve come from, who they presently are, and where they’re going. Again, this is a fundamentally human activity, not a peculiar predilection of ‘religious’ people. (Though, Paul Tillich would argue that to be human is to be religious, in the sense of religare–bound together like ligaments by our ultimate concerns and liturgies to keep what matters most at the centre.)
Anthropologists assure us that every culture across time draws on ritual: “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” Whether it’s for birth or death, coming-of-age or getting hitched, work or worship, we draw on rich symbolism and repetitive actions to form new habits that enshrine a particular identity and trace the contours of the cosmos.
Jamie Smith captures this well in his “cultural liturgies” trilogy, which we explored in one of our first Open Book series:
Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of “intending” the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily senses. [Desiring the Kingdom, pp62-63. Or for the hoi poloi readable version, see You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit]
True, this is pivotal for religious people gathered together as the church. We are called to be a foretaste of when God sets the world right; we are a sacrament for the life of the world, extended through our practice of multi-sensory rituals such as communion and baptism, embedded in the ongoing story of redemption tracing back to Passover and walking through the Jordan into the promised land. Our past identity and future vision of hope directs our rehearsing—for truth, justice, beauty, and healing—in the present. Ceremony is central to it all, orbiting around God-become-man in the Christ, and climaxing with the bloody cross.
But, there is a growing recognition among the non-religious–both spiritual and secular alike–that our ephemeral age has not ceased to be human, needing richer liturgies to remind us of who we are, and empower our actions in the search for justice. “Beautiful Trouble“, for instance, is a disparate band of activists seeking a more just world. There’s hardly a Christian among them, but they advocate for leveraging “the power of ritual” to add meaning to their protests–symbolic action capturing what it’s all about.
Bringing these meandering thoughts to a close, “practices are not passe.” We should be cautious before rubbishing ritual. Even as we are right to deconstruct empty man-made customs where any repetitive action is believed to automatically achieve some transcendent result, we are wrong to seek a purely intellectual way in the world, where words alone (sola verbum) empty life of symbol and sacrament. There is a deeper magic in the ways of God, where re-membering the mystery of Christ’s blood shed may be the only balm for a hopeless generation bent on cutting words of shame into their skin. Not merely a memory trick, God is pleased through our everyday motions and the material stuff of bread and wine to redeem and form those who humbly trust this intervention. As we grow up to better grapple with the shape of the universe, let us not be offended that the Creator was pleased to make humanity from the humus of the earth, and draw us into the divine life through such fragile rituals that speak poetically of greater things, embodying the good and directing our gaze upward to the source of grace.