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On ritual and ceremony

December 8, 2008

Some remarks by the rector of the Church of the Advent on Ritual and Ceremony1

The Advent’s liturgical style is a distinct one. We are, as is said, a “ High Church”. This makes us rather unique in these parts, and is one reason that many of our members come to the Parish from a considerable distance in spite of the fact that a nearby church would be more convenient. And yet we are a varied and diverse group of people – thank Heaven! – one sign of which being the many different ceremonial ways by which members participate in worship. A number of people, particularly newcomers to the Parish, have asked me about these, and so I am including this brief article to explain a few of the liturgical acts you may have noticed at the Altar or in the pews around you.
We should begin by thinking about ritual and ceremonial themselves. We have to do this because both these things have become strange to many people in today’s secular world. Often they are regarded only as ornament, things not important in themselves. What is important, it is thought, is the reality or truth or feeling to which they point or which they seek to express. The ritual is only the outward trapping in which that reality has become clothed: do away with it; the reality remains. This idea, enticing as it may be to many people, is a mistake. The fact of the matter is, rather, that the more significant a reality, the more necessary are the rituals and ceremonials needed to express it. Words are inadequate us when involved in the really important things in human life. At those points we must join ritual, ceremonial, symbol to the words. One obvious example of this is human love. When we are deeply in love with someone we discover that that short phrase, “I love you,” – precious as it is – is not enough. Words cannot capture what we feel, and we are forced to do something more to express ourselves: an embrace, a kiss, a gift, a nickname. These are part of the ceremonial of romantic love. Viewed from the outside they may appear trivial, inconsequential, but from the standpoint of one in love they are deeply important, for the reality of love is beyond expressing by words alone.

Nowadays we call this “body language,” and, fortunately, we are beginning to rediscover and appreciate its power in our lives. Often it does more than simply express various human realities. Indeed, in many instances it is able to enhance them and heighten our awareness of their presence. Through a kiss, for example, we not only demonstrate our feeling of love but also make very real and tangible that love between ourselves and our beloved. Ritual and ceremonial, then, in varying decrees have a two fold function: to express and to enhance.

A liturgical example would be the practice of kneeling. How expressive is this posture of man’s place before the Almighty God in prayer. How greatly it enhances a prayerful attitude. Perhaps this is why many people feel uncomfortable when they are asked to pray in another posture, for kneeling just “feels right”. And yet the practice of kneeling is a rather new thing in the Church’s ritual. For the first thousand years – and still the case in the Orthodox Churches – standing with hands raised was the normal posture for prayer. Kneeling caught on in the Western Church as it was influenced by the ceremonial of European feudal society; one knelt before one’s superior. It has remained with us in the West because it does well what ceremonial is supposed to do: express and enhance the reality to which it points.

There is one other function of ritual which we ought to think about before we go on to consider some of the things that are done in Churches. This function is to enable us to participate more fully in what is going on. The worship of the Church is not a spectator sport. The Hebrew and Greek words which mean worship originally indicated actions: the Hebrew means literally “to prostrate oneself,” the Greek means “to bow down.” A later word which is uniquely Christian,liturgy, points to the same thing. It means a common work, something which we do together. As the Bible and tradition understand it, then, worship is an action and requires participation. To participate is to enter into the worship; to sit back and watch, as if going to Church were like going to a lecture or to the theatre, is to miss the point, and, by the way, is bound to disappoint us. (Let’s face it: even the best of preachers have their bad days; even the best of choirs sometimes fall flat.) To worship is to enter into an activity, and it is precisely the Church’s ritual and ceremonial which enable us to enter. At times it thrills us. Other times it makes a point, dramatically, about our Faith. Often it demands that we do certain appointed actions in order that we become a part of what’s going on.

It is an error to identify ritual or ceremonial with any particular church or denomination. Each one has its own and the variety is enormous. The silence and austerity of a Quaker meeting, for instance, is just as much a ritual act as the most elaborate catholic liturgy. The practices that we shall consider now are chosen because they are traditional and are most often part of the worship of parishioners at the Church of the Advent.

BOWING. The significance of bowing is obvious, as it is part of the ritual of common courtesy even in today’s world. We bow slightly when we meet someone and shake their hand. We bow as we pass an acquaintance in the street. It is a gesture of acknowledgement and respect. In Church people bow toward the Altar when they enter or leave their pews, acknowledging it to be the focal point of the Church’s worship and the symbol of Christ’s sacrificial life. A bow is made to the Cross as it passes in procession and at the name of Jesus or of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Some bow toward the Bishop as a sign of respect and a recognition of his authority in the Church, just as they bow toward the Celebrant in procession to acknowledge his role as presider at the Holy Table.

GENUFLECTING. A genuflection is made by keeping the body erect and touching the right knee to the ground. Originally it was a gesture of deference towards a superior in the court ceremonial of the Roman Empire and was adopted by the Church in the West. It is commonly made by people on leaving or entering their pews when the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is present on the altar or is reserved nearby. It is an affirmation of Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament. At the Advent we genuflect at the words, “and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” in the Creed, to acknowledge the mystery of the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. We do the same at the words. “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” when the Prologue (1:1 – 18) of St. John’s Gospel is read.

THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. The Cross, of course, is Christianity’s fundamental symbol. From the earliest time it has been used by people as a mark of their devotion to the One who died upon it. Together with the Altar, the Cross above it serves as a focal point in most churches, and it is worn as a pendant over the heart by many people. Our lives as Christians begin with this symbol, for it is part of the rite of baptism for a priest to mark us with the Cross.

As early as the second century tracing a cross upon themselves is mentioned as a gesture Christians made in worship and during prayer, when they awoke in the morning or went to bed at night. It is usually done by touching the right hand first to the forehead, then to the breast, then to the left shoulder and to the right (or in the Orthodox Churches, the right should and then the left). This practice is very, very ancient, but it is hard to say what its significance is in any precise way. Perhaps this gesture is just another one of those things that “feels right” – to mark oneself with the Cross, the symbol of Christ’s death and self-giving love for us, an action reminding us of what the Faith is all about. When this gesture should occur is also hard to specify, for the practice varies from church to church and individual to individual. It may be made at the beginning or at the end of prayer, at the end of the Gloria in excelsis and the end of the Creed, whenever the Trinity is mentioned, at the words, ‘but deliver us from evil’ in the Lord’s Prayer, and in threefold form over the forehead, the lips, and the heart before the solemn proclamation of the Gospel in the Eucharist. (In this case it is often accompanied by the silent prayer: “May my mind, my lips, and my heart give praise to the Lord” or “May my mind ponder, my lips proclaim, and my heart receive the Gospel of Christ”.) Sometimes it echoes, so to speak, the sign of the Cross made by a bishop or a priest when blessing or pronouncing Absolution to remind ourselves that blessing and forgiveness have their origin in the Cross.

* * * * *

What should you do? The old rule of thumb in the Episcopal Church used to be: kneel for prayer, stand for praise, sit for instruction. And though this was not followed in all instances, it is not a bad rule to remember if you are puzzled. But what about those other things I’ve just mentioned? Well, the best criterion is to do what “feels right”. Perhaps you might want to try some of these things for a time and see if they work for you. As the old farmer said, “Can’t hurt. Might help.” If they do, fine. If they don’t, discard them. The point is to do something which is natural for you, and personally expressive, and which, again, “feels right”, and thereby to enter as fully as possible into worship. That is our chief duty as believers, and as Scripture teaches, it is from worship “in spirit and in truth,” with heart and soul and mind that all other Christian virtues and blessings proceed.

– Allan Bevier Warren III

1. From http://theadvent.org/liturgy/ritual.htm. Accessed 12/8/08.

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