This is a very good post from Father Stephen on the use of ritual in our lives: Empty Ritual.
What does ritual do? The most obvious answer from the Church’s perspective is that it does just what it appears to do. Ritual actions are iconic in nature – they make present that which they represent. Thus to make the sign of the cross in blessing is to bless. We do with our bodies what we say with our lips (and often more)…
Those movements have always been understood to carry meaning. Why does a pastor stand when he speaks rather than sit? Everything is an icon – regardless. If it is not an icon of one thing – then it is of another.
The actions of Christ, spitting on dirt, making mud and putting it on the eyes of a blind man, directing him to wash in the pool of Siloam, etc., are all ritual actions… The same Lord took bread (in His hands), blessed it, broke it, and gave it. He could have simply stood and said, “Father, we just want to thank you…” and let everyone walk around the table and serve themselves.
There is no empty ritual, for there is no empty action. Everything is filled with meaning and power.
Last week for (Western) All Saints Day I attended an Anglican Solemn Mass for the first time in 10 years. This is the “High Church” mass of the Anglican church, and thus has more chanting, incense and ritual than most modern day Episcopal services.
I was struck by the differences in the service compared to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. One of the most striking differences was the orientation of the priest to the altar and congregation. The Anaphora was done with the priest facing the congregation. In the Orthodox church (and my Anglican church growing up) the priest doesn’t turn his back on the reserve sacraments, because they are literally the Body and Blood of Christ. Who would dare turn his back on Christ? Because of this, many actions and prayers are done with the priest’s back facing the congregation, he is leading the congregation in worship, instead of performing for the congregation. I think this difference has to do with the loss of ritual and sacrament in our lives.
One thing my Mom had tried impress upon me growing up, but that I didn’t really understand until I was both spiritually mature enough (and I’m still an infant) and old enough was the necessity of the sacraments of the Church. For these things, (the Eucharist, Baptism, Confession, Marriage, etc.) are not mere remberences of God, but are life-changing actions. We don’t just remember Christ, but invite Him to change our lives. And, in faith, we know that in Baptism the waters become the water of the Jordan, the cleansing of the Holy Spirit, in the Eucharist the bread and wine are substantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is these actions, participation in the Sacraments, the physical actions of prayer, alms-giving, crossing ourselves, making metenias, and fasting that change our lives. We sanctify the whole of life by our participation in the Holy Mysteries of Christ. And what Mysteries they are. 🙂 Glory to God!