All of my life, ritual has been some kind of unspoken enemy (and sometimes even a spoken one). For a long time, I thought that the definition of the word included words like “dead” and “empty”. It was just a mindless, obsessive compulsive set of actions at best, a set of actions that claimed to be able to affect the spiritual world, like magic, at worst. Ritual is magic. Ritual is idolatry.
The more time I spent in church, the more I saw that there were rituals even in those churches who were most against liturgy. We just don’t call it that; it’s just the order of service, it’s not liturgy. It’s just the acts of worship we’re most comfortable with, it’s not ritual. Over time, I’ve come to understand that ritual is a part of everday life, and everyone has rituals. Some people have rituals about sports that are slightly superstitious, and almost all of us have rituals that get us ready to face the world in the morning, like showering, shaving, and brushing our teeth, that we do without thinking and without any special meaning. Ritual is actually quite a good thing, but religious ritual was still magic, idolatry, wrong.
The thing that really got me about liturgy and religious ritual is that I was always under the impression that the people doing the rituals didn’t really know what the rituals even meant, that they thought it was some magical formula that would get them to heaven. I may even have been told something like this at some point, with a finger pointed at Catholicism, and it was certainly enforced by history lessons that (correctly) pointed out that the Catholic Church didn’t allow the people to understand their own worship service for about a thousand years by having it in a different language. Dead, empty rituals are magic, superstition – and if they really are dead and empty, then I still say so. What I’m discovering, though, is that not all ritual is dead and empty. I’m not sure how I made the jump from thinking that dead, empty ritual is wrong to thinking that all religious ritual is wrong, but I’d like to fix that. Ritual helps us to embody the Church, to embody theology, to embody Jesus Christ, in a powerful way.
In a modern evangelical worship service, we use our eyes and ears, our voices, and arguably, our minds. We’re encouraged to raise our hands in worship, or fall to our knees, or sometimes perform actions or sign language. These are the evangelical rituals, and they do contain some meaning. Raising your hands to God is a posture that shows your relationship to Him, perhaps reaching out for Him; same goes for the humble posture of kneeling. Actions and sign language convey meaning, usually along with whatever song you’re singing, but that meaning is aimed outward – is it to God? Is it to the rest of the congregation? What meaning are you aiming at these possible recipients? I suppose it’s possible that performing actions to a song helps drive its message home to ourselves, but I don’t think it has had that effect on me. Our strongest ritual, especially for us Pentecostals, is the altar call: when we take steps forward to the front of the church, we’re taking steps toward God, we’re taking action to bring us closer to Him, and likely even to take us out into the world to do the ministry He has for us. It’s a powerful ritual, and I don’t think we need to be afraid of calling it that.
These rituals can be good, but the thing is, they’re all highly personal and quite vague and general. There’s no outward difference between throwing up your hands to God in a worshp service and throwing up the horns at a metal concert; the difference is all internal. I’ve always struggled with worship services, because I’m not sure why I’m there: I don’t like to sing (and think most contemporary worship music is both musically and lyrically shallow, vague, ultra-emotive, and sometimes even theologically empty), and so I don’t feel like mouthing the words to the songs is actual worship. I don’t want to give God grudging praises, but I feel like my own private prayer time gives much more genuine praises, and prayers, and general interaction, than a corporate worship service. All the way through Bible college I was told that the worship aspect of corporate worship comes from its very corporateness: it’s worship just to show up and sing the songs, because we do it for God, together. So I keep coming out to Church every week, because they’re right: the corporateness of corporate worship is really important, and we do it for God. But are we really being corporate when we believe that all worship takes place in your brain, or in your emotions? The very rituals we use to worship God corporately cut us off from each other. We close our eyes, lift our hands, and commune with God, one on one, in a crowded room. Our worship songs are full of the word “I”, and even though they sometimes say “we”, in such an impersonal setting it means the same thing: “we” are a roomful of “I”s who are each personally worshipping God in our hearts (and on a good day, in our minds too).
If God were just spirit, disembodied, I suppose this might make sense. But God is not disembodied: God is now, and forevermore, also a human being. He has more than just a heart, a mind, and a voicebox: he sees and touches and smells things too. We too often worship a disembodied God by pretending that we’re disembodied too – but we’re not, and never will be in life, either this life or the life to come. We have bodies, and God has a body, and it sort of makes sense that an embodied God would take up a little bit of space. And I’m not convinced that engaging in personal, individualistic worship all in the same room makes us the “body of Christ”; yes, we each personally represent a different part of the Body, but not when we’re individuals. It’s only when we’re corporate, when we’re working together, and particularly when we’re doing so at the same time in the same place, that we’re demonstrably the Body of Christ. And if we’re going to perform rituals in worship that point us to Christ, we ought to make him take up a little bit of space, to do something that lets us feel and smell and taste him, if only symbolically.
The rituals we’ve rejected involve all of the senses, and do so on purpose. They are rituals that are not vague but laden with meaning, not individualistic and personalized but corporate and unified. When the Church performs liturgy, we act out (through symbols) the reality of God in a way that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Every week we participate in the reality of God, by performing it symbolically. In so doing we also proclaim the reality of God, publicly. And far from being impossible for a layperson to understand, liturgy actually instructs us about the theological reality it portrays. We originally moved away from it, supposedly, because of the false notion that it is through performing such symbols that we are saved; perhaps we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Let’s have rituals with meaning. Let’s make our theology take up space.