These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer ten, performing their ritual duties; but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people.
Part of our disconnect from where we are and where we want to be in our faith is our lack of understanding. In a world where things are constantly changing, many Orthodox Christians struggle with rituals that repeat themselves continually. We get bored. Or we get complacent. Or we feel like if we miss one week or one month or longer, we can come back and it will be the same ritual—we will not have missed anything. After all, Orthodox spirituality is not like a TV show where there are different episodes and seasons and if you don’t follow the story you’ll get lost. Today’s reflection talks about ritual, and why we do it.
Before we give the idea of “rituals” a bad name, let’s think about rituals we have in our lives. Most of us are creatures of habit. We have routines that feel comfortable to us. In an ever-changing, fast-paced world, we take comfort in what is familiar. Most of us have a morning ritual—brushing teeth, shaving (for guys), showering, doing hair, getting dressed, coffee, breakfast, hopefully prayer somewhere in there. My morning ritual is the same every day. Wake up, prayer, wake up Nicholas (except on weekends), fill water bottles, put out breakfast, then brush teeth, shower, dress for work, pack lunch, leave. It’s always the same order. I never change it. On days when I’m still half asleep, I can sleep-walk through the routine. On days my mind is pre-occupied, again I get through the routine without much thought. On days when I’m excited and can’t wait to get to work, the routine of the ritual makes sure it all happens before I leave the house.
We have similar rituals in the church. The Divine Liturgy is virtually the same, save for a few hymns and Scripture readings each time out. First we pray for things in the world—peace, our country, good weather, for the sick, deliverance from danger, etc. Hymns and Scripture readings follow. Then there is the presentation of the Gifts (Great Entrance), more personalized petitions (for forgiveness of sins, things that are beneficial for our souls, etc.), the confession of faith (the Creed), the anaphora (or offering), the consecration, preparation for Holy Communion, receiving, thanksgiving, sermon, head home. On days that we are let’s say “half asleep”, we will not be mentally taxed getting through the Liturgy. On days when our minds are pre-occupied, we won’t have to worry about what is coming next, we can just relax and take whatever we can from the experience. On days we are totally dialed in, we can anticipate when it coming and be fully engaged in it.
Back to the morning rituals we do, no one ever misses a day of brushing teeth or showering (at least most people do not), because then we’d feel something was really off. I wouldn’t feel comfortable going through the day with unclean teeth. Whether I’m into teeth-brushing on a particular, or just “gettin’ it done,” there is always a benefit to be taken away from this morning ritual.
I feel this same way when I miss worshipping on Sunday—it just sets the tone for the week. Even if I’m not “totally into it” there is something special about stepping out of the world and into the Lord’s house. I actually feel like something is off when I don’t worship on Sundays. And yes, it’s rare that I miss a Sunday, but I have missed. And when I do, I really miss it.
The idea of ritual goes back to the Old Testament. There were rituals for worshipping, as well as rituals connected to birth, death, marriage and everything in between. Think for a minute about the concept of marriage. There is a ritual (whether it is the Orthodox sacrament of marriage, or even getting married in front of a justice of the peace) that is involved for people who get married. We don’t just declare ourselves married. There is a ritual involved. Same thing with graduation from a school—we don’t just declare ourselves graduates, but there is a formal ceremony steeped in ritual that helps one cross over from student to graduate. Imagine where we would be without rituals in secular life. It should be no surprise that our spiritual lives revolve around ritual.
Here’s an important thing though—we do not worship the ritual. We shouldn’t count the number of a times a priest swings the censer in hopes that we catch him a few short or a few too many. Our perfect God can work even through imperfect ritual. Ritual helps us to maintain identity and comfort. I’m relieved we have rituals in our church. I can’t imagine what it would be like to “think of something new” each week as far as worship. I have to think of new angles for the sermon, but thankfully not for worship. We worship God and we use ritual to help us.
One more note on ritual, in addition to its comfort and familiarity. In the Orthodox world ritual is universal. While the language of the ritual may vary from country to country, the Divine Liturgy is the same no matter where it is served in the world. So we will not only feel comfortable in our own respective churches, we can feel comfortable in any Orthodox Church.
Today’s Scripture verse refers to the Old Testament tradition of a high priest and the ritual of him entering into the Holy Altar. Unlike today’s priests, who go into the altar for every service, the high priest only went into the altar once a year. Unlike today’s church where people have visual access to the altar—we can see what’s going on, at least somewhat—people two thousand years ago never saw into the altar. And unlike the sacrifices before Christ which always involved the shedding of blood, our ritual “sacrifice” at the Divine Liturgy has no blood shed.
Lord, thank You for the gift of worship. Help me to better appreciate the rituals that have been inspired by the Holy Spirit through the centuries that have given us the beautiful services we have today. Help me to feel inspired in worship, to be engaged and to be faithful. Speak to me through the words of worship and the action of ritual, so that I may honor You outside of worship. Amen.
We don’t worship ritual. However, ritual is important, because it is comforting, orderly, and familiar.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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