A couple of weeks ago, just after Ash Wednesday, I got a post idea from a friend of mine. I really like this young woman. She is warm and charming and loves a good debate. Her husband is smart, funny and passionate about his faith. And their four children are simply gorgeous. Almost as beautiful as mine. But this friend and I, we have different points of view on some subjects. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when I got this message from her:
so…I have to admit I’m a little confused on the ash Wednesday services and ashing your head. Don’t take that in an offensive way, just honest. So I was thinking a blog post about why you did that might be interesting. Or you could just message me:) I saw in your post your reference to the scripture that says not to boast about your fasting. SO this is my major hang up with putting ashes on your head (forgive me for I do not know the right term.) I admit I’m no expert on the subject but it seems strangely like just something else to do to me. Looking forward to hearing your side:) Oh and I’m not trying to argue this time, just really baffled by this.
This is a legitimate question, especially for those of us who did not grow up following the church calendar or keeping many of the traditions of the church. Why start now? There are those who worry that such rituals are not just a waste of time, but that they are spiritually dangerous – steps on the road to empty ritualism.
So here is my attempt to answer my friend’s question. I won’t pretend that I can present an airtight theological defense of ritual, but I can at least explain what draws me to many of the traditions of the church.
On one level, at least, I agree with my friend. The imposition of ashes may be “just something else to do”. It is not a biblical command, not an ordinance instituted by Christ, not a sacrament. I do not imagine that I will be greeted in heaven with, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You finally started observing Ash Wednesday. Enter into the joy of my reward.” To believe that our standing with God depends on the proper application of tradition is Ritualism, and I hope I’ll always avoid that in all of its guises.
Sorting Out Divine and Human Tradition
Before I can defend the use of an admittedly human tradition, I want to acknowledge that some of the traditions and rituals of the Church rise to another level. My friend would not have asked the same question about baptism, for instance, or the Lord’s Supper. These “rituals” (which we would also call sacraments) are clearly biblical and were instituted by Christ Himself. The vast majority of Christians do not consider these practices optional. And yet, it’s right here where the conversation over rituals and traditions usually falls apart, at the point when we talk about what is “biblical” and what is not. Here are a couple of things that need to be acknowledged by those who promote only biblical practices in the church.
1) Although purists want to strip away all traditions except baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Christians have established human traditions even around those two sacraments. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Many Christians are not even immersed, but are baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Which way of doing baptism is correct? Or are they all correct? Setting aside the theological debates surrounding the Lord’s Supper, we’ve still got a variety of traditions that surround the sacrament. Should an entire meal be served, as was the case when Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples? If not, is only unleavened bread acceptable, or will a loaf of yeast bread do, or must we settle for the awful mass produced wafers? Wine or grape juice? Shared cup, intinction, or individual serving disposable cups? Should the congregants come forward to receive the elements or should the elements come to them?
You get the point. What’s peculiar is that many of the people who insist on biblical precedent before they consider a tradition worthwhile think the differences in modes of baptism and the Lord’s Supper don’t matter. They’re very strictly biblical, but only when they choose to be.
By the way, my strong reaction is not to my friend who has an honest question, but to some of the bloggers who are aggressively attacking the use of tradition in evangelical churches. See here for an example.
2) Even those who reject tradition and liturgy as extra-biblical have their own extra-biblical traditions and liturgy. If an evangelical church follows the same order of service each week (song, announcements, song, song, prayer, scripture, sermon, song), isn’t that a liturgy? If you’re church emphasizes having an altar up front, or using a piano in worship – or an organ, or guitars – is this not a human tradition? Some humility is in order: we all ritualize. Yes, there are always movements in Christianity trying to strip away acculturation and get back to the “purity” of the New Testament church. I can appreciate the integrity of this position but it also seems like bondage to me. Is the attempt to get back to the perfectly biblical way of doing church even the right goal? Are we historical reenactors, or are we followers of a living, dynamic faith?
All I’ve said so far is a defense against some of the objections to religious tradition. Now I’ll get off the defense and share some of the reasons I’m learning to love ritual and tradition.
The Word is Taught Through More Than Words
This part is basic and boring, but deserves to be said. Modern learning theory confirms what a lot of us have figured out from experiences: people learn in different ways. Evangelical Protestant teaching and preaching has relied very heavily on the spoken word. But what about those who aren’t auditory learners? What we are taught is far more likely to stick if it comes to us through more than one sense. The embodied rituals of the church often communicate the gospel through site, touch, movement – even smell. Is this not a helpful thing?
Worship is Art
We are artists, we humans. Even those of us who are poor artists – by which I mean me – still long to express ourselves artistically. Every hymn, every stained glass window, every prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is the result of someone giving artistic expression to their faith. But the desire to worship artistically goes beyond what someone has done in the past. We participate in the present. When I raise my hands in worship it’s a spontaneous response to what I’m feeling in that moment, but it’s also, really, a way of embodying my worship. Less spontaneously, but just as meaningful to me, I lift my hands at the end of the service as the pastor gives the blessing. It’s an embodied way of expressing my openness (and need) to receive a blessing.
Now, I can choose to try to make all of my worship spontaneous – every piece of it some completely new creation. I can make up my own song, say my own prayer, dance my own dance. It won’t be pretty, but I can do it. But in my experience there’s often great power in participating in what someone else has created. For me, liturgy is being a participant in the art of worship – both offered up to God, and shaping us as we experience it. It’s not the whole of my spiritual life (I do pray “my own” prayers, of course) but it’s a meaningful component of it.
Here I Raise My Ebenezer
Much liturgy is intended to remind us of God’s faithfulness, and our place in His Story. The Lord’s Supper may be more than a reminder (I think it is), but it’s certainly not less! The same can be said for lighting Advent candles and reading scriptures that remind us of the deliverance God brought to Israel, of His fulfilled promises to Zechariah and Mary, of all the blessings the Messiah would bring. We hang purple to remind us that Jesus is King. We hang white to remind us that He is risen and victorious. We hang a cross in our sanctuaries to remind us of His sacrifice. It’s all ritual, it’s all tradition, and it’s all constantly reminding us of what God has done.
There’s a story in I Samuel 7 about the Israelites defeating the Philistines in battle. After the victory Samuel “took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has God helped us.’” We raise Ebenezers in various ways in our lives, don’t we? On our microwave there is an unopened can of Alice Love marionberries. The first thing you’d notice if you saw the can is how pretty the label is; a bright pink heart on a bright blue band of color. You might also notice that the can looks a little old. It is. It’s about 10 years old now, I think, and it serves as an Ebenezer for my husband and I. The can came to us as part of a “food pounding” from our church family, when my husband was out of work. So much food came that when we’d loaded it into our car there was no room for our children: someone else had to give them a ride home from church. We had no idea at the time what marionberries were, so we were initially reluctant to open the can. After awhile we had grown attached to it because it had come to represent God’s faithfulness to us, His providence during a difficult time. To hold onto that can and look at it is a reminder is a ritual; one specific to only a few people, of course, but a ritual nonetheless.
Who Are We, Really?
The rites that we perform help to create our sense of identity. It’s true on the level of family: my family has a sung prayer that we learned from my grandparents. Now, when we we gather with my parents on holidays, my mother leads the singing. Each time I sing that prayer my sense of identity in that specific family is strengthened. The same thing is at work in church. When I participate in Christian tradition I feel a bond between myself and Christians not only around the world, but through time. I remember what my family name really is, and where I belong. There are competing allegiances at work in and around us all the time, telling us that we are first of all Americas, first of all employees, first of all consumers. Those allegiances are promoted through liturgy and tradition, as well: through songs, ceremonies, symbols, holidays, even advertising that creates a shared sense of identity. The liturgy and traditions of the church remind us again and again of who we are “first of all” – citizens of another Kingdom, servants of the King.
A Thousand Small Tethers
This last bit is admittedly a very personal argument for tradition and liturgy. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I’m a doubter by disposition. Faith has never come easily for me. Whether that’s a character flaw or just the way God made me might be up for debate, but I’ve learned to accept it about myself. And I’ve learned to work with it. There are, I believe, many things that can ground us in our faith, and I want to take advantage of every, single one of them. I need the disciplines of prayer and scripture reading and study. I need to be in church every single week. I need open communication with other believers. I need the Lord’s supper. I need symbols and music and poems and stories and pictures and movies and every other means of grace through which God can keep His grip on me. I need to be reminded of what God has done, of where my citizenship lies, of the grand Story in which I find myself. The traditions of the church are among the many strands that the Spirit uses to keep me from drifting away. If that seems like a crutch, like an admission of weakness, well…..I am prone to wander. If a crutch helps me keep walking – and walking in the right direction – until the time when all weakness is removed, is that such a bad thing?
P.S. About Ash Wednesday: I didn’t understand the imposition of the ashes until I went through it. To offer up my face to be touched, especially as someone who is a bit physically stingy, to feel the cross being applied, to hear the words said over me – ME! – that I am dust….I was made vulnerable. I was humbled. And that is the critical need of our souls as we enter a season of humility and repentance. It makes sense to me now.