In these days when organized religion is so often despised and so many Christians are lone wolves or – at best – find their only community online – which, if you ask me, is actually worst – ritual is frequently viewed as the ugly step-sister of the religious world. On the one hand, I understand. When religion becomes ONLY ritual, it tends toward emptiness. But I find that happens far less often than the critics think. I will confess that I was not raised ‘high church’ and my roots still show. My approach to worship is, no doubt, too casual and ‘free-range’ for some. And yet – baptism, the Lord’s supper, communal prayer, a blessing pronounced, a good responsive reading or the public reading of Scripture in general – these things remain meaningful to me and, when they go by the wayside, I think we lose something important.
I have come to regard ritual as a language of sorts – one through which God communicates truth to us on a deeper level than just verbal. Consider the Old Testament ritual of the Passover. When the Israelites neglected it – and they did neglect it more often than not – God thought it was a big deal. There were Kings (Hezekiah and Josiah for instance), prophets, (Zechariah and Haggai for instance) and other kinds of civic leaders (Jerubbabel and Ezra for instance) whose whole ministries and authority were thrown into restoring the Passover (and other rituals). Promises were made for keeping the ritual celebration. Punishments were levied for neglecting it. A great deal of what led to the Babylonian Captivity was the neglect of the Jubilee cycle with all its ritual. In other words, God behaved as though the keeping of the prescribed rituals was a matter of some import.
Why? Well, part of it was remembering. God leading the Israelites out of Egypt was kind of big deal and the ritual practices of the major celebrations (Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost) kept the memory alive. After all, if you forgot what God had done, you might fall into relying on Him less and yourselves more – with the usual tragic outcomes. So, ritually celebrating Pentecost kept the memory of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai alive. Participating in the rituals of Tabernacles kept the memory of God’s support through the wilderness fresh to the mind. And the detailed ritual observance of Passover made it impossible to forget that dread and very final type of judgment that fell on all who were not covered by the blood of the lamb.
OK – so I am giving something away with that last sentence! It was only partly about remembering – though remembering, in itself, is plenty important. The rituals also looked forward. The Passover not only described what God had done in the Exodus – it also described what God was going to do in Jesus Christ. The very same thing is true for the other holidays if you care to study it out. There’s a reason the Holy Spirit fell on the church on the Day of Pentecost and are we not still being led through the wilderness and provided for all along the way. (BTW – Jubilee literally means Trumpet Day – let’s see a day involving a trumpet on which all the slaves are set free, debts are cancelled, and the big reset button is pushed. Hmmm, nope, sorry, can’t come up with a thing. LOL. The details run much deeper than this brief general picture I am presenting. God absolutely packed these rituals with meaning that looked forward to His real solution for sin, death, and the curse. Study the OT holidays and see!
And the rituals are so largely pectoral and symbolic which carries a kind of punch and gives the message a staying power that would be lacking otherwise. For instance, if God just wrote an essay – kind of like this one – and said, Here, read this and remember it. – let’s just say the rituals have proven more effective – WHEN THEY ARE OBSERVED!
When the Israelites neglected the rituals they lost touch with God’s past provision and His future plans. Raise your hand if you think that’s a bad thing. Of course, this being a blog post, I can’t see whether you raise your hand or not. But that’s another thing – rituals are generally designed for communal practice. If we were together – the raising of hands would have an inclusive power beyond words. And when the Israelites forsook the prescribed communal communicative pectoral participatory rituals – they lost more than they could afford. They became less connected to God and less able to recognize His purposes when they were finally fulfilled.
All of this being the case with the Old Testament rituals – why should we assume anything different concerning New Testament rituals. I get it. Baptism is symbolic. I’ve read Romans and I Peter. The power is in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ not in any magic water. The power is in what He did – not in a formula we repeat. That does not mean the ritual is unimportant and can be set aside without cost. Practicing the ritual keeps us connected to what God has already done and prepares us for what He is going to do. And what is God going to do? True, I may only know in the most general terms and have to guess a lot at that. But then, the Old Testament Israelites didn’t know exactly to what the details of their rituals were pointing either. Nevertheless, the rituals turned out to be powerfully prophetic – bright neon arrows pointing directly at Jesus when He came. Neglecting New Testament rituals may well leave us less prepared for God’s next moves and break our connection to what He has already done.
At the end of the day my advice is simple. Go to church and participate in the rituals. They matter and are not to be despised nor forsaken.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church