Why we depend on rituals

“I dislike rituals,”  a visiting Protestant minister once said to me.  “I really do.  Always have done.”

“I wish I’d known that,” I answered. “Then I wouldn’t have shaken your hand when you arrived.” For a moment, my visitor looked puzzled. Then he      realised what I was saying. Shaking hands is a very old ritual.

The fact is, rituals surround us. From morning to night we depend on them.

When we meet a stranger and wish to show we have nothing dangerous in our hands like a sword, a knife or a gun, we extend a handshake. We continue the custom, even after we have forgotten the reason for it.

Society, including the Church, depends upon rituals.

When Jesus lived in Israel, he took part in Jewish worship in which ritual played a tremendous part. Worshippers did symbolic actions, which conveyed meanings. The main purpose of symbolic acts is to give glory to God.

Imagine two scenes. In the first, a person puts a book casually on a table, leaving it open to the page he was reading, then walks away.

In the second, he raises the book conspicuously over his head. Then, still holding it high in both hands, he slowly turns around, walks in a measured gait toward a large table, and places the book carefully on a reading stand.

What’s the difference between these two scenes?

Well, the first is just a  person putting down a book. The second is a ritual.

Jesus constantly used symbolic acts in his ministry. He used spittle when he anointed the blind man (Mark 7:33). And in instituting the sacraments, Jesus used certain acts (such as bread and wine) and gestures, as channels of his grace.

Even in times when the Church was being persecuted and Christians had to worship in dens and caves, the worship of God was conducted with splendid and sometimes costly rituals.

The early historians tell us that almost from the beginning the churches used many ornaments of gold and silver. In fact, it is not too much to say that until the 16th century no Church was deficient in the leading characteristics of ritual.

At the eucharist two candles are used to signify that Christ is the true light of the world, and to represent his two natures—human and divine.

The altar is also decked with flowers for the same reason and in honour of him who is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley.

Clergy and well-instructed lay members of the church are familiar with a great many ornaments used in rituals. Things like altar hangings, credence table, sedilia, chalice and paten, the corporal, burse, cruets, ciborium, censer, amice, and  chasubles.  Ask yourself: Why do senior clergy sometimes wear albs and copes?

More important than knowing the names of ornaments used in rituals,    however, is remembering the reason for their existence.