Some assume the “spiritual but not religious” dislike ritual.
But the legal victory Cari and Kim won on Friday suggests that some rituals are still valued in postmodern America. We’ve been fighting for the right (R-I-G-H-T) for all loving couples to marry. Turns out many still seek the rite (R-I-T-E) of marriage, decades after marriage was declared passé.
The impulse to create and maintain ritual is common to all human societies. It’s similar to our need for art, poetry, ceremony, dance. Rituals—even a simple bedtime routine to help children feel safe and calm—even the corny practice of “surprising” co-workers with a cake on their birthdays to mark some days as special—even the simplest of ordinary rituals are ways we make meaning, mark time, and form community. They help us pay attention to life and find some semblance of order, which are spiritual practices. Imagine if no day were marked as special, no symbolic gesture were ever repeated with caring intention, no patterns of words or actions ever formalized and taught to the next generation. Imagine life without a set of shared symbols we enact to remind us of our history and values and to evoke emotions like those we feel singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a stadium with thousands. Sometimes all you need to do to mark a moment ritually is—as some boxed cake mixes direct—just add water. And a spiritual intent.
Open Table’s website declares that we are “pursuing a vision of church that is rooted in early Christian history yet responsive to today's changing world.” One way we maintain a foothold in the ancient Church while stretching toward the future is by retaining the 2 key sacraments: baptism and communion. I have argued that these Christian rites are especially important to progressives who push the envelope theologically, learn from other spiritual traditions appreciatively, and react to dogma allergically. Sharing rituals with other Christians and within our faith community—rituals that are inherently elastic in meaning—rituals that inevitably evolve over time despite perceived inflexibility—rituals whose patterns point to generous spirituality—rituals that seep into our bodies as well as our minds —sharing ritual in common, I say, rather than theological propositions, is what grounds us.
Our name, Open Table, signals that our gathering at a wide-open table is the core of our identity. What you make of that symbol may be different from what I make of it. What you make of that symbol on a given Sunday may be different than what you make of it the next Sunday. That’s because rich rituals expand for the needs of the people and the times. Ritual should serve the people, not the other way around. Rituals are a secure anchor whose constancy facilitates our explorations and variations. Rituals remind us that we didn’t get here on our own, so we owe humble gratitude to those who participated in past ritual.
Embedded in our sacraments and scriptures, which are highly interpretable, is the trajectory of Jesus’s ongoing life. If we root our worship life in story and sacrament, if we pass along the Jesus narrative and the Jesus rites, then we can follow Jesus into an unknown but hopeful future. A Jesus untethered to tradition is an empty figure, a balloon let lose in the wind. But let’s not tether him to a committee-generated statement of required beliefs. The United Church of Christ sees creeds as “testaments of faith”—not “tests of faith.” Creeds are less adaptive to changing times than stories and rituals.
And if you think that ritual’s purpose is to keep us loyal to older ways and outmoded ideas, don’t forget that John the baptizer, that wild guy in the wilderness of today’s Gospel story, was using ritual to reinterpret a tradition for subversive purposes.
Our young church has yet to experience Christian baptism together. We haven’t yet enacted together the watery initiation story of the Christian journey. We're likely to have our first candidate/s for baptism soon--probably a couple of babies coming into our church family but also possibly unbaptized adults who request baptism. We intend to retain the essence of baptism while also modifying it for a progressive people. Yes. We get to tinker with baptism if we choose.
A new commentary on the Gospel of Mark suggests Progressive Christians should love the baptismal rite:
“Christian baptism has a bad name among ‘recovering Christians’ and other exiles abused by Church dogma . . . as well as non-Christians turned off by Christian exclusivity and fundamentalist extremism. Nevertheless, even though the 21st century is a postmodern, post-Christian time, baptism is a ritual—perhaps an archetype—that is deeply important to all of humanity, as evidenced by child dedications and naming rituals . . . among all cultures, religions, tribes, and communities. When baptism is not a proof of salvation from hell but is a ceremony of welcoming and initiation, it becomes a primary and universal sacrament” (Raven 47).
How would you reshape the baptism ritual? Are there words you’d want spoken? gestures? symbols to add?
Here’s an example of one change, a tiny but important one, I’ll make. Traditionally the priest or pastor baptizes “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If you’re like me and don’t want the divine imaged solely in masculine terms, you’ll be glad that our denomination permits us to add to the Triune blessing this phrase: “One God, Mother of all.”
In our denomination individual congregations decide if they will practice infant baptism or adult baptism. Open Table decided to leave that decision up to families and individuals. So parents may choose to have their baby baptized. In which case Open Table will offer a confirmation class when that baby becomes a young teenager. Or parents may want their children to wait until they’re of an age to decide for themselves if they want baptism, and the church will still offer a class when they are young teens, but the teens have the chance to request baptism after that.
While both adult and infant baptism picture an initiation into the life in Christ, they emphasize the faith journey in slightly different ways. So let me tease out those differences:
The baptism of a baby emphasizes God’s initiative in our lives. God names the child “beloved” and the parents and congregation covenant to support that child in her spiritual development. The sacrament resembles a naming ceremony that gives the child a place and identity in her family and church. The sacrament pictures all of life as a journey with and toward the divine, and the baptismal waters symbolize the birth waters that launch us into life. The theological appeal of this form of baptism is that it emphasizes God reaching out to us in love. But the theological problem with this version of baptism is that it’s not the radical, counter-cultural practice that John and Jesus enacted in the desert among society’s rejects. Infant baptism is not tied to an intentional commitment of the baptized to follow in the radical ways of Jesus. As such, it can become a watered-down (no pun intended) default practice of the majority culture that says you’re part of the club.
In contrast, the baptism of a much older child or adult stresses the human response to God’s grace. The one baptized has chosen this rite and made a deep commitment. It is more a re-naming and renewing ceremony that marks a transition into adulthood or into a fresh start, a forsaking of old ways and commitment to a new path. In the baptism of an adult or teen, water symbolizes the washing away of the old life, a burial of the egocentric self under the waters, and the emergence of a new life. Here the baptized one shows he or she has turned away from a past in order to follow Jesus. This picture of baptism lacks the sweetness of a baby’s rite; in fact, adults endure a certain loss of dignity to be immersed in water. Unfortunately, the image of washing away sins in baptismal waters can lead to “what-a-worm-am-I” theology. And it emphasize the individual’s rather than the community’s role in the spiritual journey.
This week Richard Rohr shared an online devotional in which he lamented our reliance on words for spiritual experience rather than direct engagement with the nature. He said words have “kept us from mystical experience and the deeper knowing of reality.” Rohr regrets that we “do our rituals inside buildings . . . separating us from the consolations and the discomforts of nature. . . . Prior to the invention of the written word . . . the way God made God's self available was through all of the creatures, seasons, and cycles of life and death. The wondrous nature of the world itself is the universal religion that precedes all later religions.”
While that is probably true, I think ritual might serve as the mediator between religion with NO language and religion with TOO MUCH language. In ritual the stuff of nature--water, fruit of the vine, grain of the field--mediate between our bodies and brains, between our raw experience in the world and our need to make meaning of those experiences. Like art, ritual connects heart and head, body and spirit.
Not a fan of “empty” ritual? I’m not either. But I need ways to empty myself of the constant chatter in my brain and participate in patterns of living and loving that are far older and far bigger than I am. I am glad for companions who join me in these sacred rites and in the revisions we make to them.
God of constancy and God of infinite variety and surprise, speak to us through the patterns of days and the repetition of our rites. Amen
Raven, S. Theology from Exile, Vol. III, The Year of Mark: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity. Frederick, MD: Sea Raven, 2014.