The Resonance of Ritual

Exodus 12: 1-14

This last Sunday, there was a parade here in the village of Kenilworth to celebrate Memorial Day. I have been told various explanations as to why Kenilworth traditionally observes Memorial Day a week early (everyone leaves to open their cottage or cabin on the weekend, the Boy Scouts march in other community parades), but the best reason I have heard is: in all the years of having the event one week early, rain has never once cancelled the parade.

Sunday was again a beautiful, bright afternoon. There was the sense of a small town community as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Indian Princesses, civic leaders and ministers representing the two churches walked along the parade route to the smiles and waves of neighbors. The parade ended at Memorial Park where there was a ceremony that began with the flag being raised to the top of the pole and then lowered to half-mast. Three Girl Scouts were introduced to lead the small crowd on the lawn and sidewalk in singing the national anthem. Some remarks were offered and then memorial wreaths were placed in front of Memorial Rock. There followed the reading of the names of those who had given their lives on behalf of our country in wars past. With each name, a home address was given, a detail that had the effect of making each name more personal. For every name that was read, a Boy Scout or Girl Scout placed an American flag in the ground. After all the names were read, Taps was played. It was a simple and moving ritual of remembrance. During the ceremony, I was mindful of how precious freedom is, how costly the continued existence of this nation is, and how every generation pays for it.

Following the benediction at the close of the ceremony, everyone walked across the street to the tents on the lawn of the Kenilworth Assembly Hall and shared a meal of brats and lemonade. Today and tomorrow, there will be similar rituals repeated in many other communities across our nation.

Social anthropologists say that if you want to know a people, know what defines them, know what they truly care about and believe — study their rituals. Ritual provides an awareness of where meaning lies. Like art and music, ritual gives form to the inexpressible. Sharing in a ritual creates a sense of belonging, a sense of togetherness, a sense of community, an understanding of who we are and what we are about.

Over three thousand years ago, God said, “This shall be a day of remembrance. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Since that time long ago, through the triumphant times, the tragic times, and the ordinary times, the people of Israel have paused each year to remember and reflect on the experience of God that formed them as a people. The Passover ritual is a legacy of faith that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Abraham Heschel, the noted Jewish theologian says of this ritual, “Jews have not preserved ancient monuments, they have retained ancient moments. The light kindled in their history was never extinguished. “Recollection,” Heschel says, “is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past.”

We need ritual in our lives. And it’s interesting how a ritual can speak to us beyond the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding.

In my freshman year at college, I visited a friend in Brooklyn during spring vacation. I had no idea that it was the time of Passover. Unlike the North shore, I had grown up in a suburb of Chicago where there were hardly any Jewish families. I knew next to nothing about Jewish holidays or traditions. The day I arrived, my friend’s mother invited me to join the family for the Passover Seder that evening.

As I recall, there were about sixteen people around the large dining table. There was the traditional empty chair and cup set for Elijah at the table. Candles were lighted as we sat down. And the meal began with the youngest boy at the table asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

There was a quality of drama to the meal. God was blessed at the beginning for the gifts of food and drink. The readings were all in Hebrew and though I could not understand the words, I enjoyed the sound and rhythm of that ancient language. As the meal progressed, my friend’s mother explained the meaning of the readings and symbols to me…the unleavened bread which represented the haste of the Hebrews as they fled Egypt, and the bitter herbs which represented the 10 plagues. We drank wine all during the meal, and at the point in the liturgy when the death of the first-born was told, the grandfather ceremoniously spilled a drop of wine on an empty plate in memory of the Egyptian children.

Comfortable by the gracious hospitality of the family, I gave myself over to the experience of the Passover ritual. And I had a strong sense of the religious significance it had to those around me.

Rituals have the power to reach deep inside us. In a constantly changing world, rituals provide a still point that helps to keep us from forgetting what must not be forgotten.

Like the Memorial Day ritual. Perhaps more than any other holiday, Memorial Day was born of necessity. In paying tribute to those who have served our country and died for our ideals, Memorial Day affirms the preciousness of life and reminds us of the courage and the costs of war. Memory is a sacred trust of every generation. But this remembering is not just about keeping faith with those who have gone before us; it is also about our commitment to work toward a future day when, by God’s grace, there will be peace.

This week as I thought about the Jewish observance of Passover, and communion, our own ritual of remembrance, I noticed something I had somehow missed before. Both share a commonality that closely links suffering and redemption. Perhaps I was more sensitive to this because of the meaning of Memorial Day.

In the Exodus story of Passover, while the focus is on God’s liberation of Israel’s people from Pharaoh’s cruel oppression, the death of the Egyptian children is a fact that cannot be ignored. And so when the story was told and retold so many years ago, the question kept returning: “What sort of God sheds innocent blood for the sake of some redemptive purpose?” The rabbis ultimately rejected this image of God as too limited by the culture of the time, and therefore distorted. In a later Midrash, God weeps over the death of the children. “Were they not also my children?” God is said to ask. And the meaning of Passover was expanded to include the suffering of the innocents, and came to be understood not so much as an act of God, but the tragic consequence of Pharaoh’s stubborn cruelty.

The Passover story stands as a testament to the fact that we live in a dangerous world in which freedom is always in jeopardy. This relationship between suffering and redemption is also present in the meaning of our communion.

When Christ gathered his disciples for the Passover meal in the upper room, it was a tension-filled moment. He was anticipating the cross as he broke the bread at the table and offered the cup saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The next day he would suffer and be nailed to the cross to die. Redemption however would come with the new dawn of Easter.

At the communion table, we are invited to remember and experience the sacred. In the words of A Powell Davies: “Life must have its sacred moments and holy places. We need the infinite, the divine, the All that can give the heart a strengthening place. We need faith and purpose. We need to transform the ordinary into the meaningful, illusive though it may be. We need the unutterable conversation of our human spirits with the Spirit of the Almighty — all that joins our souls with what we yearn for — that our earthly dust may meet and mingle with the majesty and mystery of God.”

Rituals join our souls to what we yearn for because God is there and in it somehow.

I recently read the novel, Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson. It tells the story about a minister named John Ames who has faithfully served the same church in the small town of Gilead, Iowa for over 50 years. Ames is a third generation minister. He married quite late in life and was blessed with a son. In his mid-seventies now, he is ill with a heart condition and anticipating his death. The novel consists of a series of letters that Ames is writing to his son in which he reflects on his life, hoping to convey something of who he is and what his life has been about.

At one point, Ames recalls a time when his father was helping to tear down what remained of a church in a nearby community that was destroyed by fire. He was a little boy at the time, too young to help, but he watched his father and the other men go about their task with the fascination that children sometimes have for adult work rituals. Ames writes, “There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you…I remember that day in my childhood watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out [from under the wagon] and knelt with him there in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. His hands and face were black with ash — he looked charred like one of the old martyrs — and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt and he did break it, that’s true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself.

“It is not surprising that I remember that day as if my father had given me communion, taking the bread from his side and breaking it for me with his ashy hands. But it is strange that I remember receiving it in the way I do since it has never been our custom for the minister to place the bread in the communicant’s mouth, as they do in some churches. I think of this, because, on the morning of communion when your mother brought you forward and said, ‘You ought to give him some of that,” I broke the bread and fed a bit of it to you from my hand, just the way my father would not have done except in my memory. And I know what I wanted in that moment was to give you some version of that same memory, which has been very dear to me…” (pages 102-103)

“Do this in remembrance of me.” The ritual of communion hallows the ordinary elements of bread and wine that we eat and drink together as a community of faith. It also has the power, through deeper memory, to hallow the everyday meals we share with those we love in the goodness of the ordinary moments of our lives.

The ritual of Holy Communion defines who we are as Christians, just as the ritual of Passover defines the people of Jewish faith. However, neither is simply about the past. Both reflect not only what God has done…but what God is doing, and what God will do.

The family I was with around the Passover table in Brooklyn was not just celebrating the liberation of their people 3,000 years ago. They were offering thanksgiving to God for being with them that evening. The liturgy makes this clear. It reads, “For ever after, in every generation, all us must think of ourselves as having gone forth from Egypt…It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One, blessed be his name, redeemed; we too, the living God redeemed together with them.”

In the same way, we don’t gather today at the communion table to celebrate the mere memory of Jesus. Through the ritual of the bread and wine, and through the music and memories of our souls, we come into the presence of the living Christ to receive what each of us needs most: forgiveness, acceptance, peace and love.

It’s all here. So come. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen