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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Rituals of Faith

Texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20

Today I want to talk to you about the importance of ritual.   Now that might sound strange coming from the mouth of a Protestant minister.  One of the concerns which Protestants have always had with the Catholic and Orthodox churches is that they have been ritualistic churches – concerned too much with ceremony and ritual, and not enough with living out the faith in more practical ways.  But I have come to believe that many Protestant churches have made a great mistake in trying to do away with rituals.  Because rituals perform a very important function for all of us. They help us to celebrate, to mourn, to remember, and to move on in life.  In short, they help us to grow up and grow wise in our faith.
Today’s reading from Exodus underlines the importance to Jewish people of a particular ritual known as the ‘Passover’.  All over the world, Jewish people celebrate this ritual together on the 14th of Nisan, which falls within the first few weeks of April by our calendar.  Here the family gathers to share a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, wine, and bitter herbs.  Words are said over the meal, and prayers are said, which remind the people that they are loved by God, who liberated them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to a land of abundance in Israel.  According to the Exodus passage, the Passover ritual was instituted by God’s own command to Moses.  On the night of their liberation, the people of Israel were told to gather in their households and cook a lamb without blemish or defect.  They were to eat this lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in readiness for the flight from Pharaoh to freedom.  They were to eat the meal with their travel clothing on, and their bags packed.  And they were to spread the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorposts of their houses, so that when the Lord came to kill the gods of Egypt, he would pass by that house.  Today when Jews eat their Passover meal, they do so with a great sense of thankfulness for the mercy of God.  The slaughtered lamb is understood to symbolise an offering for Israel’s sin.  The herbs remind them of their terrible suffering under the Pharaoh.  The unleavened bread is a reminder of their haste in departing.  And the wine represents the blood by which God spared their lives, even as judgement was visited on the strongest in the oppressor nation.

For Jews, the eating of a Passover meal is essential to their faith.  It is a ritual by which they both remember their liberation and express the hope that an even more wonderful liberation might be theirs in the future of God.  For Jews, the Passover is a ritual which tells a story, the story of a people and their faith.  But it is also the story of each life captivated by that story.  In the celebration of the Passover, individual worshippers come to see how it is that God has wrought mercy and rescue in their own lives.  And they are called and empowered to live out that liberation within the concrete facts of their own bodies and relationships.  By participating in the Passover rituals, individual worshippers learn how to leave the slavery of Egypt behind and enter into the journey towards life and hope in the ‘Land of Promise’.

Christian rituals function in exactly the same way.  The Christian equivalent to the Passover meal is the Easter Vigil – which happens during the night before Easter dawn.  Here the Christian community gathers around a fire outside a darkened church.  The Easter candle is lit as a sign of the promise that Christ shall be raised, and the community follows that light into the darkened church, where is placed in the centre of the sanctuary.  In the liturgy which follows, the whole story of God’s salvation is told through a series of readings from the Scriptures, beginning with the creation in Genesis and ending with the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.  As the story unfolds candles are lit, one by one, to bring joy and a future into the lives of all present.  The church grows brighter, the shadows retreat, and hearts grow warm with hope.  Then, at the very moment when the crucified Jesus is acclaimed as the Risen One, those who have been preparing for baptism come forward.  You see, the season known as Lent, the forty days that proceed Easter, was originally designed to teach baptismal candidates about the way of Jesus Christ, and to encourage them in the solemn vows that they would be making at their Easter baptism.  Now, in the midst of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, those vows are made.  Having heard the whole history of God’s salvation, each candidate now owns that story for themselves.  They are ritually submerged in the water of the red sea and of the Jordan, and emerge to their inheritance in a land filled with milk and honey, the ‘promised land’ of God.  They are crucified with Christ and buried in the tomb, and then raised to life with Christ.  They put off the clothing of their old allegiances and ways of life, and are clothed anew with Christ himself, the garment of their salvation.  In the joy of that moment, the whole community reaffirms its baptismal vows, and shares in the Eucharistic supper, thus taking to itself, once more, the Christ who lived, and died, and lives for ever to pray for our release from slavery.

In the Great Vigil of Easter, Christian worshippers are reminded of who they are, and to whom they belong.  There they experience a renewed call from the Spirit to live after the way of the crucified and risen Christ, to follow his way in the concrete relations of their daily lives.  The Great Vigil is Christianity’s most powerful ritual, because it tells the story in full that other rituals tell only in part: the story of God’s transformative love, in Christ, for all the world.  It is there to transform our lives and renew us in the faith of Christ.  What a shame, then, that while the service is in our own Uniting Church worship book, that so few actually do it!

When Paul talks, in the reading from Romans, about clothing ourselves with Christ in readiness for the day of our salvation, he is recalling the experience of baptism, and inviting us to live out of that ritual in an imaginative engagement with the everyday.  Here Paul asks us to imagine that we are awake in those moments of darkness before the dawn arrives, those moments of stillness and anticipation when the night has not yet passed, but the day is at hand.  We are invited to take the opportunity afforded by that quietness to reflect on a particular question:  how may I be ready to live the day which is coming for all its worth?  How may I cast off the deeds of darkness and embrace the light that is in Christ?  Paul suggests to us that we live in a time where there is no time to waste.  We are called to stop living for ourselves, and start living for God.  Can you see the potential for powerful, transformative, ritual in the association Paul draws between salvation and the coming of the dawn?  Each dawn signals the arrival of new possibilities.  Could we not use the newness of each dawning day to renew ourselves in the vows we have made to Christ?  Could we not, as we put on our clothes in the morning, immerse ourselves in a prayer of recommitment?

I know of no-one who seizes these possibilities for ritual more fully and enthusiastically than the monks of St. Benedict.  They rise before the dawn and put on the simple habit of Christ’s poverty.  Then they gather to chant the Psalms, and to invite the Lord to weave his salvation into the simple but demanding work of their day.  I aspire to be a monk too, albeit one who has chosen to live in the midst of this messy and complicated world.  I want to be one who weaves daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals to remind me of who I am in Christ, and what I am called to be in Christ.  I want to be one who remembers the story of faith each day, and makes that story my own.  I want to be one who daily finds ways to embrace the transformative power of the deepest ritual of all:  the ritual of dying with Christ, that I might be reborn to his love.

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus says ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’.  What did he mean?  Well, amongst other things, he wanted us to know that rituals change things, that rituals change people’s lives.  For rituals are vows.  They are a binding of earth to heaven so that the Son of God may become flesh amongst us and carry us home to God in his risen power. 

In these days of terror and war, our secular society needs the rituals of faith more, perhaps, than ever before.  How is one to make sense of what is happening unless one is able to place it within the framework of suffering, slavery, and the longing for justice expressed so powerfully in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions?  If September 11 is able to teach us nothing else, I hope it will teach us that there is no such thing as a ritual-free space.  What our secularized political leaders still do not grasp is this:  that the attacks on New York and Washington were driven by a sense of the religious and of ritual, albeit a perverted form of the same.  In that perspective, the question the world ought to be asking, ten years on, is not “How do we capture, kill or lock up the terrorists so that they can’t do it again?” but “How do we successfully undo the power of this ritual, so that the desire to do it all again is displaced into something more life-affirming?”   Why did Bush and Blair bomb Iraq back into the stone-age?  Because they asked the first question rather than the second.  They didn’t understand that to take that course of action would achieve nothing by way of a real solution.  It is clear now, is it not, that the campaign against Iraq played right into the evil ritual’s logic, absorbed into that story as a demonic event by which the desire for revenge against the West would be multiplied a hundredfold.  

Let me suggest to you that the only effective way to confront such rituals is to enter deeply into the human roots from which they spring, to know the pain and darkness of that people’s experience, and then to gather it all up into the weaving of a more redeeming ritual, a ritual that has the power to transform darkness into light, and pain into praise.  The Easter Vigil (along with the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist from which it springs) does exactly that: teaching, explicitly, that the logic of ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ must come to its termination in us, within the dying of our sin-saturated selves, if there is ever to be a real basis for justice and peace.   My earnest prayer is that the ritual practice of this power-in-powerlessness would spread even into the corridors of the Whitehouse, and of the Israeli Parliament, and of Hamas and the Taliban, so that their inhabitants may learn the way of peace by which the world may be transformed in love.

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