SERMON FOR 23rd JUNE 2013: WHAT IS THE POINT OF RITUALS?
What difference does a ritual action make? That is a question that the clergy often have to ponder. Nowadays rituals seem meaningless to so many people, because they have grown up with so few of them. Let’s consider the difference between a typical British life a generation or two ago and now.
If you were born in 1930, the likelihood is that you were baptized as an infant and confirmed as a teenager. School life would have had many traditional rules. Perhaps you served in the forces and took an oath of allegiance to the Queen. If you went to university, you received your degree in a very formal ceremony. If you found a life partner, you probably got married either in church or a registry office. Perhaps you were lucky enough to receive some kind of reward or recognition in your life and were presented with a medal or certificate or sporting trophy for your achievement. At the end of your life, might well receive the sacraments that we call the last rites, and your funeral will be likely to have many traditional and formal features.
If you were born in 1980, your life might lack many of those transitional moments. You are much less likely to be baptized or confirmed or to serve in the armed forces. Even if you have a long-term partner, you are quite likely not to have gone through a marriage ceremony. You probably haven’t begun to think about your funeral, but if you do you may want it to be personal and quirky rather than a traditional religious one. The landmark moments that do occur in your life are likely to be around the recognition of your achievements: winning a prize, getting a degree, lifting a trophy.
What are rituals for? They are the outward sign that we have crossed over a threshold of some kind. Even if we don’t feel particularly different, a new reality has begun, that may have lasting effects in our lives. Human beings have always known this at some level. If you go to the Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, you will see ritual objects that date back over 40,000 years. Deeply embedded in the human brain is a need to externalize an inner experience by making or doing something in a formal way.
Often that externalizing action is about putting someone under divine protection, or separating the pure from impure. Last week I spoke about purity as a religious theme, and how Jesus overturned it by stressing compassion instead. Many rituals go back to a human tendency to seek purity, so they involve cleansing and setting apart. We might think of the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, or Muslim ritual washing before prayers, people making themselves ready somehow to be in God’s presence by shaking off the polluting effects of everyday living.
It is tempting to put baptism into that category, but remembering Jesus’ actions we should resist the temptation. Baptism is not about making someone clean and holy who was formerly dirty and sinful. It is about breaking down all those barriers and accepting the free gift of God’s grace, being included in the family where all are of infinite value in the sight of God. Paul’s famous words to the Galatians sum it up: You are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So the ritual of baptism takes us across a threshold into a new reality where compassion, acceptance and inclusion, not purity, are the hallmarks of our new life in Christ. Being baptized isn’t putting us in a safe or clean category, nor is it a recognition of our achievement, like a degree or medal ceremony. It is a thankful receiving of a gift that changes everything, permanently, and calls us into a new way of living. The story of the Gerasene demoniac in today’s gospel provides a striking picture of the difference that Jesus’ liberating words made in one person’s life. We may – we will – stumble and fall many times, even daily and hourly, but fact that we have crossed that threshold means that we belong to Christ forever and we can rise again and again whenever we fall.
Marriage is another such ritual. The words of the Anglican ceremony reminds us that
marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a way of living in which our relationships can reflect the unconditional love that Christ has for us. So getting married is not a prize for landing a good catch, nor is it the first stage of an endurance test. It is, like baptism, a thankful receiving of a gift from God, and it is a step across a threshold that will lead us into a new way of life. We may look the same after our wedding, but the inner reality has shifted. The crossing of that threshold will always be a significant fact about us. Every marriage will have its ups and downs, its constant need for mutual forgiveness, but having made those vows we are not in the same place as we were before.
We celebrate baptism reasonably often on a Sunday morning, but it is good to be reminded from time to time of the other rituals that mark significant thresholds in our lives. In a few weeks, but sadly not on a Sunday, we will be calling up the year six children from St Paul’s School to receive a Bible, as a reminder of the gift of faith, in their traditional leavers’ service. Every year we formally welcome our First Communion class into the new status of communicant members of this church family, and we invite the Bishop to confirm those who have chosen to make an adult profession of faith. In just a few minutes, we will have the privilege of witnessing Gerard and Lynda’s renewal of their wedding vows, made ten years ago this week. This is a ritual that may prompt us to be thankful for our own marriages, or to be mindful of the need to tend our relationships, or to consider whether a ritual act of commitment might be a helpful step for us to take in our own lives.
Churches are places where rituals can be provided at significant moments and where we can be reminded of God’s presence at every stage of our lives, welcoming, healing, nourishing and commissioning us. Priests are asked to preside at rituals for all kinds of things: for the healing of a painful memory, for absolution from a burden of guilt, for asking God’s help in a time of crisis, for letting go a loved one into the great unknown of death. I would like to remind you that that is a big part of what the clergy are for. Please don’t hesitate to ask us to assist with ritualizing a threshold moment in your life. If the Church of England hasn’t provided a ritual for your particular purpose, we will gladly put one together!
At our PCC Awayday some of us spoke about the human need to use everyday rituals to remind us of our new life in Christ. We don’t wear distinctive clothing or eat special food or follow fixed hours and ways of praying as members of other religions often do, and therefore it is easy to slip into a sort of carelessness about the thresholds we have crossed. Perhaps we can think together of small rituals that celebrate our baptismal lives. Some churches keep the font always open and filled so that we can remind ourselves of our baptism by making the sign of the cross with the water when we come into church, or more importantly when we leave. Many people will make a regular ritual of giving thanks before they eat a meal together. People who have been admitted to communion or confirmed may choose to wear a cross every day as a reminder of their faith. Married couples often celebrate their anniversary with gifts and flowers. It would be good to think of other ways to celebrate the various thresholds of our lives, and keep us always mindful of the difference that crossing them makes to us.
But right now we will be witnesses as Gerard and Lynda recommit themselves to the vows they took ten years ago, and I ask them to come forward.