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The Vital Importance of Irrelevant Rites


Today Tommy and I are putting up our tree.  For 15 years we’ve been doing this.  We have a specific formula regarding the choosing of the tree, the ornaments we put up and which one of us does which part of the decorating.  We love playing the first Christmas carols of the season as we do this.  We have it down pat.  And we’ve never once stopped to ask:  “Is this relevant in today’s world?  What’s the point of doing it this way?  Would outsiders, people who aren’t part of our family understand what it is that we’re doing?  Would they think the decorations are weird or the way we sing certain songs off tune, really loudly, is a bit crazy? Shouldn’t we update our tradition to better fit the modern world?  Why use a Christmas tree anyway?–It is a relic of a bygone era.”

Maybe Tommy and I should ask these questions.  Maybe we would get more out of the holiday if we updated to fit the current fashions each year.  Or maybe we could even find a more hip and culturally-fitting holiday to celebrate with our friends and family.  I am not going to use this place to defend our Christmas rites. But it strikes me that Christians often feel bound to try to update their celebrations, their traditions, their group-culture, to fit outsiders or to adapt them to the current trends in their societies.

The historian in me wants to make something very clear:  Rituals and rites are by definition irrelevant to the current culture.  They transcend time within a community.  And because Christianity is a translated religion, because it has, since its inception, crossed cultural lines, its basic rituals are always outside the societal mainstream of whatever group the believers inhabit.  But even within a culture, rites and rituals are such because they have no specific relevance to the “needs” of the day.  They tie us to people and ideas that have gone before.  They make us stop what we’re doing and participate with others in something that connects us to the past. 

Because they are attached to something in another time and place, those activities would seem odd, even a bit crazy, in any other context but the one in which they are meant to be enacted.  Costumes we associate with certain holidays, food (like cooking a whole turkey) that we only eat at a specific seasons of year, hiding eggs around one’s yard—these all draw uncomfortable attention when/if they are done at the wrong time. 

The sacred rites that we participate in as the Body of Christ allow us to take part in a holy rhythm that goes back for 2000 years.  When we do these things, we enact the shared symbols that our fellow saints have been performing throughout all of Christian time and all around the world.  There is no current relevance to these—they are rituals that Jesus asked us to do, that he did with his first disciples and that point us both forward and backward to his Advents.  They remind us of the holiness of the time we inhabit.  They remind us of who we really are, and whose we really are. 

But there isn’t anything practical about them.  Therein lies their beauty.  They aren’t “efficient,” they aren’t getting things done.  They aren’t feeding the poor or spreading the spoken/written Word.  They aren’t for outsiders, either.  They are for the initiate.  And this makes us uncomfortable.  We live in a world that expects everything to be immediately transparent.  Again, the historian reminds us that “the past is a foreign country.”  And in some ways, when we enact these rituals, we are visiting that place. 

The magic of visiting the past is part of what makes tradition, rituals, so important to us.  Just ask children.  No one is more protective of the specifics regarding tradition than kids. They are hostile to any changes in the prescribed activity. Their memory isn’t as long, perhaps, but the regularity of rituals helps tie them to past events, to other moments as a family or church.  I think we should learn something here from our children.  We need to be reminded of our past in order to emphasize our true identity and to highlight what we expect in the future.

Cultural rites have to be translated to outsiders and explained to the children who are being raised to practice them.  Families, too, have rituals that have to be explained to outsiders—if everyone outside the group “gets” the tradition, or if it is the kind of thing that is done regularly, all the time, by that society, then it isn’t really a ritual. Christianity is a translated religion and as such all our rites have to be explained and have to be accepted as seeming odd to those on the outside.

Sabbath-keeping is both a ritual and has rituals as part of its practice.  Its very regularity, its interruption of the “relevance” and efficiency of our lives, calling us to the rites of worship and rest and play, are at the heart of what we mean when we talk about sacred traditions.  We enact Sabbath more often than baptism, the Lord’s Supper and foot washing.  But it is another of those sacred symbols, though perhaps very specific to our Adventist tradition; and because we practice it more, I think it helps to see how these ordinances have similarities to the habit of Sabbath-keeping.

Such sacred acts have the value of forcing us to tangibly live out, to act out, what we say about ourselves and our God.  We say we are his children; we say we are the Body of Christ; we say we love and serve each other in that Body; we say we want to die to ourselves and live to him; we say that we are redeemed and are now free as his creation, liberated from the tyranny of works and obligations to the powers of this world. This is what we are reiterating when we eat and drink the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, when we dip our heads under the water, wash each other’s feet, change our schedules on Saturday for worship and rest/play. 

And doing these things in our bodies, collectively together, ritualistically, as our fellow Christians have throughout the centuries since Jesus was here, requires us to leave behind our own cultural gods and our limited sense of what is relevant.  These rituals require sacrifice in terms of time and commitment to other people—we don’t participate in them alone.  So as we go into our weekly worship, our communion with the Body, our bearing witness through our own baptism and that of those who are coming of age as Christians, let’s welcome this step out of our own temporal culture.  Let’s continue to celebrate the ways these odd activities tie us to each other across time and space and remind us of our promises to God and to each other, rooting us in the ultimate reality of being the Body of Christ, the children of God.

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