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Old and New Unite in Ritual

We don't want a wedding ceremony done in the usual way, the young couple told me. "We don't want the standard routine, but something that reflects who we are." I braced myself for their suggestion--perhaps a variation in venue, like an exchange of vows while water-skiing or sky diving? But it was nothing that radical. One of them had previously been married, and the couple did not want a rerun of that ceremony. They simply wanted to shape the new event to be uniquely their own.

When couples plan their marriages with clergy, we learn much about their values. We also glimpse the larger picture of changing views toward ritual. Pastors work with some couples who strongly embrace tradition, and even want to use the old English "thee" and "thou." Others want to revise, even reject, religious ritual. The couples have a range of motives, from deeply religious to profoundly secular. Some want to use highly personal, even secret, symbols in the ceremony. Others want to announce their own invitations during worship, asking participants to "enjoy the party." Some request that clergy "make the service brief and painless"; others spin elaborate plans to include participants who represent significant pieces of their lives.

Rituals are our most primitive language. They sustain communities with an economy of words. From baptism to funerals, from weddings to the Eucharist, rituals define us and remind us who we are. I have seen faith come alive when people use rituals to create events of personal and social significance. And lively congregations use their rituals to shape their identity in faith, whether through the formalities of worship and preaching or in the informal contacts of coffee hour and business meetings.

When couples request weddings or baptisms, when church members celebrate the Lord's Supper, or when the saints "die well" in faith, some pastors use the opportunity to transform ritual from dry routine into a vehicle for fresh, direct divine-human encounters. I've observed three often neglected dimensions of the ritual experience. These frequently remain unspoken and sometimes suppressed, yet they provide the transformative power inherent in ritual. Refer to Tom Driver's excellent book Magic Ritual Our Need for Liberating Rites That Transform Our Lives and Our Communities (Harper San Francisco, 1991) for elaboration.up

  • First of all, ritual is more physical than mental. Many pastors are more comfortable with the spiritual than the "animal" side of our humanity. But in rituals, people act their way into new perspectives. Ritual is grounded in the animal, the instinctive, the unconscious. It puts the most physical part of our being in touch with that of others. The sudden death of Princess Diana united millions of people in their feelings of loss. We participated personally in mourning through ritual: by attending services or giving some-thing--flowers, money, sympathy cards--as a physical extension of ourselves.
  • Second, ritual is more social than personal. It can take the form of established liturgy or of something quite fresh. The bride and groom who suspend established liturgy to present a rose and a kiss to each of their parents have gone beyond words. If their families have been broken by divorce and distanced through new unions, the physical act can both open and heal in a simple gesture. It bridges family divisions and reaches out to alienated individuals.
  • Third, ritual, as a form that transcends the moment, liberates those in worship to see within and beyond themselves. When I asked a young woman what moved her to become involved in a refugee program that demanded much of her time and resources, she explained, "One Sunday people gathered around the altar for communion, as was our custom. The celebrant was talking about how our cup 'runneth over,' and as he spoke he poured the cup full, then allowed it to run over (into a larger container). It was a simple symbolic act, yet the presence of the Holy Spirit and the love of the people gathered was so tangible that the atmosphere was almost overwhelming. That gesture reduced me to tears, but they were tears of joy. For a moment I experienced what the Eucharist was about."

Over the years of my ministry I have seen ritual rejected by one generation and restored by the next. Both acted for the same reasons--they wanted to know themselves as physical, social and spiritual beings. Pastors, by the grace of God, can help it happen.

January-February 1998




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