The Usefulness of Ritual


It’s a word spoken at times in Protestant circles with a fair amount of scorn.  Ritual.  Some view it as synonymous with pageantry: an ornate but meaningless action performed for the enjoyment, but not necessarily the edification, of participants and observers.  A habit.  A routine.  An act divorced from meaning.

But recently I had an opportunity to dwell on the importance of ritual.  A few weeks ago, when my husband and I slid into the pews at the new church we are visiting, we noticed the golden plates stacked up next to the altar that indicated communion Sunday.  Uneasy, I turned to my husband.  “Will we be able to participate?” I wondered.

At our previous church, participation in communion was limited not just to committed Christians, but to members of the church.  Fortunately we’d joined before it had ever become an issue, but now – sitting in a church of which neither of us were members, and still very new – I worried.  The thought of not taking communion felt strange and alien to me; I’ve always valued the chance to sit and meditate on Christ’s sacrifice in quiet with other believers, to memorialize His great act of love.  I couldn’t fathom sitting alone with my hands in my lap while the other congregants participated.

I was still fretting when the pastor stood up before the congregation with a loaf of bread in hand, but his next words soothed me.  “Anyone committed believer can participate in communion,” he told us, “whether you’re a member of this church or not.  We have an open table here and all are welcome.”

To my surprise, I was moved by the graciousness of the invitation.  As a “stranger in a strange land,” it was comforting to be invited to worship and commemorate this moment with other Christians regardless of where my membership was or what my denominational background might be.  It was an invitation fitting of Christ’s welcoming nature, and as I took communion along with the rest of the church, the symbolic act was invested with even more meaning: the blood, yes, and the body, yes, but also the significance of the sacrifice that indeed permitted the presence of so many of us from all over the world at this one holy table, together.

It’s absolutely possible for rituals to become meaningless, of course.  Anyone can say the Lord’s Prayer without focusing on the words, or living them, or thinking about what they mean.  In certain circumstances, anyone can take communion, too.  And I’m sure there are participants in candle-lighting ceremonies and other solemn ritual events who go through the motions, divorced from the proceedings.  It’s worth it to all of us to investigate what our rituals are, and what we perform out of habit, and to what degree our hearts are divorced from the symbolism, the performance, and the act.

But on the flip side, rituals can become a deep wellspring of meaning: an anchor in a chaotic world.  For me, communion is a reminder to stop, to meditate on God, to remember Christ’s sacrifice in the company of other believers, to be grateful we are all invited to the same table together.  My daily prayer walks are a ritual: a set of habits performed in a certain sequence at a certain time, all meant to settle me firmly in the Word and close to God at the start of the day.  To others, a Christmas candelight service with its ritual lighting of candles is a meaningful way to close the year, to reaffirm church and family unity, to remember those we’ve lost.  The Lord’s Prayer repeated midday can serve as a reminder to reorient ourselves to God’s view and to God’s vision.

Yes, ritual for the sake of ritual alone is foolish.  But we must not dismiss ritual that exists for the sake of remembrance, that helps us to readjust our ways to God’s ways, that reminds us of who God is and of who we are.  Sometimes, the call and reminder of symbolism, the comfort of long-held tradition, and the echoes of God’s voice we can hear in shared moments of meditation or reflection are exactly what we need to grow deeper and to be renewed in our daily walks.


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