Religion is not a bad word. Neither is ritual.
Last weekend, someone at church prayed that our worship might not be a ritual.
His intimation was that ritual is mindless, heartless, rote repetition, an external piety that had no inner foundation in the heart.
But ritual is not a synonym for thoughtless, empty activity.
I was in a fraternity in college. We were given a quiz and the question was, “What is the greatest inheritance given to us by our founders?”
None of us got the question right. The correct answer: ritual.
The traditions of the organization are what defined us, what distinguished us from other fraternities. The meaning and the symbolism we had was unique to us.
True enough, ritual can become thoughtless, insignificant, hollow gestures (and God rebuked people in the Bible when it became so), but it doesn’t have to be.
Good habits may not require much thought, but they are valuable practices nonetheless. They may be routine, they may occur often, regularly, expectedly, but that doesn’t make them worthless.
Ritual goes beyond habit: the predictable action often associated with ritual invites the opportunity for extra mindfulness, since focus can move beyond getting the outward elements right.
As a result, ritual actually gets better–not more stale–with repetition and practice. Each event is a new opportunity to contemplate the depth and nuances of the words, symbols, and actions.
In past years, I used to attend services at a Greek Orthodox church on occasion–I loved the ritual, the reverence, the symbols and imagery that are present in worship in an Orthodox church.
I recall a friend of mine visiting the church once and commenting: “How can a God who likes our [modern, nondenominational, contemporary style of] worship be pleased with that?!?!”
She too had a sense that there must be something wrong, unworshipful, in such ritual-based (liturgical) worship.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with ritual. We may make it a waste when we become passive practitioners, mere spectators of the events taking place. The ritual itself invites us to become more intentional, more involved, more deeply entrenched in the depth of significance.
In Ancient Greece, the Eleusinian mysteries were religious rituals that had to be entered into, enacted, participated in to be understood. They were kept secret from outsiders who had not experienced them; they would not be able to understand them through mere description alone.
Within Christianity, we also have the opportunity to engage in the richness of ritual, although many modern contemporary churches shy away from the notion of tradition, liturgy, symbol, and corporate experience. Whether it’s through engagement in a congregational responsive reading, the celebration of the Eucharist, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed, the Rite of Baptism, or a marriage ceremony, there are opportunities for us to engage in deeply meaningful, worshipful ritual.
Christian worshipers needn’t fear the inheritance of ritual that has been passed down to us through the centuries–even if many individuals and leaders still live and speak as though ritual has nothing to offer.
Let us not be careless in decrying the richness of ritual. Let us redeem ritual as another opportunity for understanding the depth of who God is.