The Fullness and the Emptiness of Ritual

When I think back on the worship experiences of my youth, specifically those that took place in the little Baptist church I attended with my parents, I can picture a lot of meaningful moments. I recall the way the pews creaked beneath the weight of the parishioners, the trembling warble of the organ during communion, and the sound of congregational hymns belted out loudly in that diminutive sanctuary, the old men loudly grumbling, “Hasten so glad and free-ee-ee!” while the rest of us sang the melody. When I think of all these things, I smile. For the most part, my church upbringing was a good one. I’m aware not everyone can claim this, of course, so I am exceedingly grateful that I can.

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Yeah, this place doesn’t exist.

And yet, there are some things that I can’t remember, not because my memory has been clouded by the density of years, but because the memories simply do not exist. For all the pleasant aspects of that worshipping community who molded me, there were some important elements nonetheless missing from my experience.

For instance, I can’t remember candles in the sanctuary, aside from those stubby ones we used on Christmas Eve – not a single wick burning in a votive or candelabra on any Sunday of year. Neither do I remember the aroma of incense ever filling the room. I have no recollection of a soaked rag on my bare feet, or a thumb tracing a gritty line of ashes upon my forehead. And I can’t even remember a moment of silence – an intentional one, that is, as opposed to those fleeting, quiet moments spent waiting  for an usher to climb the stage to give the offertory prayer.

I can’t remember going to a Good Friday service. I do not recall participating in a Maundy Thursday observance. And it wasn’t until graduate school that I dared set foot in an Ash Wednesday service.

Now, it’s not that these worship elements or “holy day” observances were explicitly condemned in my little Baptist church. However, as far back as I can recall, none of them were sanctioned either. (We did get Fridays off of school back then, along with the Monday after Easter, but I think that had more to do with training workshops for teachers than anything religious.)

When it came to these sensory components, and special worship services, a pervading sentiment existed within the majority of church-goers among whom I grew up that such things were extraneous to true worship. Unnecessary. Some went so far as to imply they were detrimental to our faith, possibly even dangerous.

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“Pentecost Sunday sounds like it’s for the Pentecostals, boy! You wanna celebrate a feast day, Christmas’ll be here in seven months.”

Just about every person I heard say such things would cite the same reason. They would say things like candles and silence, Ash Wednesdays and Maundy Thursdays, were “empty rituals.” What this meant, it seems, was that such institutions which hailed from past eras and periods of history, if ever they were worthwhile to begin with, were wrung dry of real meaning long ago. This, it seemed, was our community’s predominant holdover from the Reformation, in which Protestant viewpoints challenged the 1000+-year teachings of the Roman-Catholic Church: the numerous conventions, traditions, and customs established during those years were just desolate echoes of significant spiritual devotion. They didn’t – couldn’t – mean anything anymore. They were bankrupt of any eternal weight.

That same sentiment acidified the conceptions and sharpened the tones many of my fellow church-goers held toward other denominations, too. Whenever talk turned to another congregation’s worship, especially those considered more “high church” (translation: different than our own), their brows would furrow with ever-increasing concern. The Lutherans and Methodists down the street were fine… I guess. The Church of Christ folks were tolerable, sure, but they probably needed to get over that whole no-instruments-in-worship gaffe. The Presbyterians a few blocks away were troubling, what with all their sitting, standing, and responsive readings. Then there were the Episcopals who gathered a half-mile further down the road – they were as disturbing as their church building’s maverick architecture. And as for the Catholics on the other side of town, well, how could anyone really worship “in spirit and truth” with the stench of sulphur and brimstone stinking up the place?

Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply thankful for the Reformation, for the courageous and brilliant teachings of men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Cranmer, Melanchthon, and Simons. And I think in some ways their critiques of worship – differing from one another as they might have been – were necessary indictments of a system that, in a variety of ways, had become sacramentalized into triviality (that is, over-ritualized to the point of folk superstition). Indeed, the Western Church was long overdue for a thorough spring cleaning, and Protestant theology and ecclesiology was the steel wool to the Holy Roman Empire’s tarnishes.

But in the righteous fervor many denominational traditions  have exhibited over the last four-to-five centuries to “do church” the right way – free of the constraints of a once-corrupt and power-drunk system – we made the tragic mistake of throwing innocent babies out with the sullied bath water. In other words, rather than carefully demarcating ourselves only from the specific beliefs and policies we found wanting, instead we gathered up everything bearing even a whiff of the other side and chucked it atop the trash heap. So it was that numerous disciplines, practices, and devotional observances, which continue to bear eternal significance, are often nowhere to be found in many “evangelical” churches today. We considered sensory disciplines like silence, visio divina and centering prayer too mystical, liturgical feasts like Epiphany, Annunciation, and Christ the King too obscure, and symbology like ashes, incense, and iconography too esoteric. Generation after generation of Protestant and evangelical pastors decided against teaching how these diverse elements offered deeper perspectives and unique pictures of the mystery of Christ. Instead, we chocked them up to being less effective communicators of the gospel than our preferred worship elements like baptistries and choir lofts, or church observances like sunrise services and Christmas Eve candlelights.

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How did folks get by without these back in the Middle Ages?

It’s a shame, really. Because, when freed from the chains of rote tradition, these less modern forms of worship still sing with substantial beauty and depth. Baptists are certainly among the “low church” traditions who, over the years, have tenaciously avoided any activities or practices that looked, sounded, felt, smelled, or tasted Catholic (which more often than not is simply our catch-all synonym for any “mystical,” “obscure,” and “esoteric” worship experiences). And while there may indeed have been some healthy reasons for this kind of distancing a couple hundred years ago, those reasons are head-scratchingly flimsy today.

Because here’s the thing about “empty ritual” – the ritual itself does not choose to become vacant. It is the flesh-and-blood worshippers who, year after year, generation after generation, misuse ritual. We are the ones who drain our rituals of their original meanings, because we have the instinctual, bad habit of taking our eyes off the marvelous views they offer.

It is not unlike living in a small, remote cottage by the sea. When you first move in, you pull your best chair up to the wide rear window and, with a steaming mug of coffee in your hand, sit down each morning to gaze out at the gorgeous scene, and watch the waves tumbling into shore, the cormorants spiraling in the dawning sky, and the sun gilding the surface of the water as it climbs atop the horizon.

But, the longer you reside in the cottage, you cannot help growing used to all this. That ocean view becomes more and more normal and common. Little household responsibilities begin to draw your attention. There are house plants to water, dishes to wash, clothes to hang on the line, not to mention an ever-increasing Netflix queue beckoning you from the other room.

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What? Did you think you could really survive out here without an Internet connection?

Now, you’re not so callous that you would ignore the view altogether. After all, that is what makes this little cottage so special to begin with. But the demands and distractions of life bear no respect for morning meditations in front of that window, and after a while not only are you pouring a smaller amount of coffee and spending less time in the chair, but the time you are putting in is no longer coming from a place of inward captivation, but outward obligation. The view from the window never changes, but your reverence for it does. It becomes, in your mind, merely a holdover from earlier days in the house, something devoid of power, even though it is you who no longer submits to its power.

More often than not, this is what becomes of ritual in the Church. Some hold onto it tenaciously even as they lose their own reverence for it, while others reject it outright because they have been told there is no power – no truth – in it. Not anymore, at least. But that is not the case! These disciplines, observances, and symbols established in ancient days by our great cloud of witnesses never lost their power. No, the problem lies with us modern worshippers. We just got lazy, or we got overcritical, or both.

Here’s the kicker: I’m writing this not as an intellectual observation, but out of my own experience of (re)discovery of these ancient, often maligned, practices.

I spent several of my initial years in the ministry searching for a fresh, genuine experience in the faith. I went to a plethora of conferences and festivals, visited churches who promoted and boasted the latest in modern worship methods and styles. I read book after book by pastors and evangelists trying to “repaint” the Christian life in vibrant, innovative terminologies and metaphors. I bounced from worship service to worship service in search of a new, restorative buzz.

But I came up empty.

Then came a single spring in which I unintentionally wandered into experience after experience of ancient, historical worship practices. Out of rebellious curiosity I sat in on an Ash Wednesday service. I read a book about how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I explored the Revised Common Lectionary and the Book of Common Prayer for the first time. I even took a week-long field trip to a Benedictine monastery. All of these things would have found most of the members of my small town church furrowing their brow and shaking their heads. I could even hear some of their concerned voices in my head. “Be careful,” they warned. “That stuff looks kind of Catholic-y.”

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“They grow their own food?! Looks kind of Communist-y, too.”

Maybe it was. Silence, fasting, and lectio divina are certainly mystical experiences, but that is only because each one is a door into the endless, overarching mystery of the praying life. Anyone who says prayer does not hold a mystical quality should rethink what, at its core, prayer is.

Ash Wednesday, Pentecost Sunday, and All Saints Day were shockingly foreign to my view of what a worship service should look like, but, then again, my view of what a worship service looked like had been the very thing that left me feeling dry. My biggest adjustment to worship style, at that time, was trading three hymns for three praise-and-worship choruses.

And, it turned out, the Benedictines did exactly what I had always imagined monks do, and yet my conversations with them revealed that not only were they otherwise completely normal people, but their own sense of faith and devotion to God was radiant. Evangelicals can say what they want about Catholics, I suppose, but until you spend some quality time with them, you speak more from ignorance than understanding.

So it was that I learned life-renewing lessons that have shaped the way I teach and minister in churches ever since. When it comes to our modern culture’s seeming obsession with the “next big thing,” Christians need not always follow. Sometimes, it’s better to hark back than to leap forward. While the Church must indeed engage and interact with the trappings of modernity, ours is a wealth of fascinating, captivating, and entralling practices and traditions that, while tragically ignored by many believers, still possess untold significance, which the Holy Spirit can and will use to strengthen our faith and sanctify our souls.

The view from the window never changes. The same sea laps the shore, the same birds dance at dawn, and that same sun rises just as glorious as ever. So let us not neglect such undeserved grace. Let us instead dust off and straighten the chair, brew a full pot of joe, and settle in for a fresh gaze upon an age-old view.

Epiphany

There was a time when I took pleasure in ruining Nativity scenes.

Setting aside the lack of biblical evidence for Jesus’ birth taking place in an actual stable (a blog post for another time, perhaps), one aspect of Nativity scenes that irked me the most was the standard inclusion of the three wise men, bearing their fancy gifts and mingling among the lowly shepherds and the lowing cattle. Surely, I thought, everyone knows these mysterious magi did not happen upon Joseph and Mary at the exact same time the shepherds did! So, eventually I started doing something about the blatant misrepresentation of Scripture. When nobody was paying attention, I would often purloin the wise men from a Nativity scene and then set them somewhere else in the room, preferably east of the main arrangement.

Yeah, I did this all the time. And not just in my own house, but also in department stores, church lobbies, and other friends’ homes. It was my immature, passive-aggressive way of  nudging people to take another look at the Gospels. You can imagine how appreciative people were.

Nativity scene

PICTURED: An overlooked example of the War on Christmas.

Around the same time I was perfecting my slight of hand with Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar’s location, I was also learning more about the liturgical Christian year, something I was not aware of growing up (unless you count celebrating Halloween, Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter). I was exposed to other important feast days like the Annunciation, All Saints, and Christ the King. I learned about the different seasons of the traditional Christian calendar, how they were created so as to continually proclaim the full story of redemption in Jesus, and thus uniquely flow into next, like Advent into Christmas, Lent into Holy Week, and Easter into Pentecost.

So it was that I found out about January 6 and the Feast of Epiphany, an ancient commemoration that predates even Christmas. The word derives from the Greek epiphania, meaning “manifestation,” “appearance,” or “unveiling.” The purpose of the feast was to celebrate the revelation of the Incarnate Son of God to the world he came to save. As it turned out, the story of the wise men is considered, at least by the Western traditions of the Church, to be the focal passage for Epiphany, because these gift-bearers represent, at least in part, international recognition and adoration of God’s Son.

Vindication! I had been right all along. My vandalism of traditionalist depictions of the Nativity was not only backed up by close exegesis of Matthew’s Gospel, but also by 1700 years of Church history. In other words, the beloved stories of Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds need not share space with the magi; from a perspective of worship and reflection, I could sit with the actual Nativity longer.

Oh, I became utterly insufferable after this discovery! I began fussing about the singing of Christmas carols prior to December 25 (because Advent was about long-suffering expectation and we were rushing right past that). I started boldly greeting people with “Merry Christmas” on Decembers 26, 27, 28, and so on in hopes they would try to correct me (so I could smugly explain that, no, Christmas is a 12-day season and what do you think that whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” song is all about?). And, I casually shamed people who took down their Christmas decorations before Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany (because, for centuries, this had been the accepted custom).

What an ecclesiological butthead I was! I reveled in my knowledge of liturgy and ancient tradition as if I was the only Baptist minister who knew about it.

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“And another thing! Shepherds weren’t outcasts. For crying out loud, King David was a shepherd! I mean, of all the ridiculous, uninformed – Hey, wait, where are you going?”

This went on for several years until, one holiday season a few years ago, I found myself lamenting, as I often do, how quickly all the festivities and observances passes. Like many people, I always feel saddened that while malls and grocery stores start playing Christmas music on November 1, the actual season nonetheless races by and seems to conclude before we can even finish our bottle of eggnog. But as I wallowed in the seeming brevity of the season, suddenly the personal desperation that underscored my pharisaical adherence to the liturgical year was laid bare. I realized one of the main reasons I had been leaning so heavily into the full Christian year was out of a misguided attempt to preserve the longevity of the season’s sentimentality. I just wanted a longer Christmas any way I could get it.

So, I had to ask myself, “Why is it so important to me that Christmas not end so quickly?”

Deep down, I knew the reason. I desperately craved more time for reverence, as if reverence of the Christ Child must be confined to Christmas Eve and Day. I wanted more time to slow down, to sit in the quiet candlelight of Advent’s hope and Christmas’s joy, because, truth be told, I rarely emerged from the holiday season carrying those virtues with me. No, like the ornaments and the garland and the Nativity scenes that I sadly boxed up at the end of the season, I was also ignorantly stuffing those soul-shaping elements of the faith into their own cardboard box to store away for another eleven months.

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All right, that’s all finished. Now to set the tree on fire.

I had found solace – and an excuse to revel in those virtues slightly longer – by turning the beautiful story of the Christian year into a legalistic exercise. I held the liturgy up to my eye like an aristocrat’s monocle, and I looked down on those who allowed the holiday so thin a margin of time and commemoration in their own lives. Somehow, doing this made me feel a little better, at least for a little while.

But it wasn’t enough.

Discovering Epiphany – that wonderful, ancient feast – had set me down that wayward path of observance. But Epiphany, ultimately, brought me back again. Because, after realizing the motivations that perpetuated my legalism, before I could finish my eggnog, January 6 marched into the foreground, and, out of my newly adopted obligation to a legalistic observance of liturgy, I set out to commemorate the day correctly. This included reading the story of the magi in Matthew 2. At first, I read it with that righteous confidence I had developed and nurtured over several years. The wise men’s arrive in Jerusalem after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and only after consulting with wicked, scheming, severely manic-depressive Herod do they then set out for the little illage six miles south. And they arrive not at a stable, but at a house (oikia in Greek), thank you very much. And they bow before a child (paidion), not an infant (brephos). And, they enter that house and…

Well, it says here they… um… fell down and worshipped him.

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“Psst! Guys, show some respect.”

Worshipped the Christ Child.

The truth of the passage stared back at me with a knowing smile. It seemed to have been waiting for this moment for years. These foreign dignitaries worshipped the Christ Child, whatever his age, with a wonder and a joy in much the same way that the shepherds of Luke’s Gospel did (and perhaps even more reverently, since the shepherds seem so overcome by their discovery of the baby in the manger that they don’t stick around very long at all, and instead immediately begin relaying their experience to the rest of their countrymen). The magi may not have shown up on that silent night. They may not have ducked their turbanned heads carefully beneath the ignoble rafters of an animal pen. They may not have opened up their treasures chests upon a bed of straw, while the soft bleating and shuffling of sheep cast a humble, bucolic backdrop to the whole affair. But worship still happened. Recognition of the glory and outlandish wonder of the Incarnation still took place. Hope was revealed. Joy experienced.

It would be the same many times over. Jesus would not stop being that miracle child in the manger any more than Epiphany or Lent or Easter or Pentecost would cease to be a celebration of Immanuel, God with us. We were never meant to leave the seasonal wonder of Christmas in a box marked “holiday decor.” On the contrary, we are encouraged to deck the halls of every season, every month, with the glad tidings of his Incarnation. As Jesus would later remind his disciples, we remain in him just as he remains in us, always, season upon season, liturgy or no liturgy.

So, I don’t move the figurines of the wise men anymore. Rather, I allow them to freely worship the Christ Child. And I remind myself to do the same, today, tomorrow, and the whole year through.