Happy Super Bowl Sunday! Growing up, I had absolutely no interest in football… until I met my wife. Cherise is obsessed, so in the blush of love, I devoured the arcana of “strong safeties,” “touchbacks,” and “quarterback sneaks.” Today, I can actually “pass” as a fan. When we watch, she notices every play call, while I’m focused on the complex rituals – kickers with odd shoes, or socks, or even barefoot; quarterbacks licking their fingers, tugging at their sleeves, receivers looking up to heaven, or falling on one knee.
We’re no different – whether it’s the “lucky scarf” we wear to a crucial meeting, a special hard hat with game – winning properties, the rubbing stone or prayer beads in our pockets – we’re all creatures of ritual – it’s just a question of what the ritual is for, and where it leads us in the end – to a “lucky charm” kind of security, or a bit more confidence for a test, or maybe, if we’re smart, to an awareness of God’s presence in our life.
Drinking deeply from the draughts of our Jewish roots, and more recently from our Catholic and Protestant ones, Anglican worship is steeped in ritual, a rich opportunity to experience, and debate, the combination of elation and discomfort our rituals can inspire. Ask Tommy.
Ritually, today’s a twofer. It’s the Feast of the Presentation, but it’s also when we celebrate Candlemas. Tonight’s procession and ritual blessing of candles, stems from the 4th century, and symbolizes God’s continuing revelation in every generation.
The Presentation is a ritual required for Jews after childbirth in Jesus’ day: redeeming the first born child through a symbolic sacrifice in the Temple, echoing Exodus. Typically, a lamb was sacrificed, but poor people like Mary and Joseph could substitute turtledoves or pigeons. This was among the most common of rituals[i], repeated over and over in the Temple.
It starts so simply. Arriving in the bustling city, Mary and Joseph are among a crowd of couples, faces shining with anxiety and excitement. Their turn finally comes, and Mary hands the child to the priest on duty. For just a moment, Jesus is held high over the altar’s fire, then placed back in Mary’s arms. Turning to Joseph, the priest accepts the two pigeons, cuts their necks with a single stroke of the knife, spills the blood onto the altar surface, and the child is redeemed.
But before the priest can say, “Next…,” the extraordinary breaks through. Old and bent, Simeon and Anna, half hidden by a great pillar, had lurked around the edges of the Temple for God knows how long, checking out babies one by one. Is this the one? Is that the one?
As Mary passes, Simeon reaches out and takes Jesus into his arms, and the old man is instantly transformed. Now erect, he starts to sway, maybe even dance, and begins singing a prophetic song, “Now you may dismiss your servant in peace…” Spent, he hands Jesus back, stares into Mary’s eyes and declares, “A sword will pierce your soul.” Then Anna appears, comforting them – especially after this disturbing prophecy – and begins to sing of the greatness that awaits Jesus. The extraordinary power of ritual.
How the world has changed since our Jewish ancestors routinely expected to experience God’s presence in rituals like this one. As one scholar puts it: “The observance of religious rituals has fallen on hard times… Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all life… (to honor God) in one’s rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate… Today… rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday (are) practically extinct… The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many (now) assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons…” [ii]
Yes and no. While formal Christian ritual has declined, I’d argue that we’re inundated with rituals – for birth, death, coming-of-age and marriage; rituals to mark the harvest or new year; rituals to inaugurate a president or to salute the fallen. Rituals like yoga and meditation retreats, unchained from religious beliefs, but fostering a sense of spirituality and community. Large gatherings like the “Burning Man” festivals held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, or mass marches and protests.
For rituals that make meaning, look no further than the rash of apocalyptic movies that seem to constitute most trailers in today’s movie theaters. Nearly all avoid any God – language, especially about the God we know, whose nature is loving kindness. Yet this extravaganza of post – religious ritual is as religious as that of old – pitting good against evil, the powers of darkness against light, vividly portraying the deep hunger, even the desperation we feel as a people for rituals that will make sense out of a chaotic and self – destructive world.
These rituals can be a rich resource for a new kind of evangelism, especially with young people who no longer frame these basic moral dilemmas in terms of institutional religion. Skeptical? Just ask Matt about Star Wars.
So maybe the real question is, How much is Christian ritual alive and well in your life? How are you opening yourself to God’s grace and to God’s presence, so that you might glimpse the extraordinary in the ordinary?
How do you open your eyes to the gift of a new day? With a smile and a prayer of thanksgiving? How do you say “Goodnight” to God? By lighting a candle, and prayerfully reviewing the joys and concerns of your day?
What’s the mix of gratitude and grace with which you greet the miracle of another meal – who made it, how it looks and smells, that first taste on your tongue? God invites you to create new rituals to mark important transitions in your life. Large ones like reaffirming your faith at Easter Vigil, or smaller ones like coming more faithfully to Compline, or reading a passage in the Bible each day. Or during Epiphany, the season of manifesting Christ to others, inviting a friend to church.
Each simple ritual you adopt represents a consent to the reality of God’s presence in your life, and God’s action in our world. Each is a doorway through which you can actively choose to pass from the ordinary into the extraordinary at any moment.
My beloveds, rituals are like the candles we just blessed. Lighting them, we discover not only new light, but new shadows; they expose not only beauty, but also the faults that need our attention. Their light reveals our gifts, like our capacity to be prophetic in a world that so desperately needs Christ’s word. And at the same time, they illuminate our fears to fully embrace the transforming power of the God who loves us.
Today we meet two couples and an infant who, through ritual, open themselves to the extraordinary work of God in the ordinary moments of their lives. Through their inspiration, may each of us come to discover rituals that draw us closer to the God who creates, sustains and redeems us, every moment of our lives.
[i] I am indebted to Herbert O’Driscoll for his wonderful re-telling of this story (see For All the Saints: Homilies for Saints’ and Holy Days (2000??). Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, pp. 36-40) which has influenced my re-telling of it as well.