Tag Archives: Symbol

Domesticated Ritual

Any one who talks theology with me, or just skims this blog, probably already knows this: I like ritual and liturgy. Whether it is the rich practice of the Brethren Love Feast or a simple celebration of the Eucharist, I like me some ritual.

Yet, despite the beauty and significance of Love Feast for the Brethren, it seems we are about as anti-ritual as we are anti-intellectual. That is, we don’t like too much formability or structure. Never mind the fact that a collection of bulletins from any congregation will show just how much we are set in our ways.

Such antipathy to ritual comes in many forms— It is too formal, not enough room for the Spirit; Ritual reinforces a hierarchy foreign to our priesthood of all theology; Too much pomp for our commitment to simplicity; Too much like what Catholics do, and we don’t do sacramentalism.

Brethren come from a long line of radical traditions that, among other things, rejected clericalism and sacramentalism. It is this latter rejection that quickly surfaces in any conversation about the rites and ordinances of the church. We steer clear of any theology or practice that implies something is actually happening when we break and share bread, or when we stoop to wash feet. In good Kantian terms, we simply do our duty in obeying what Christ told us to do. So we often feel most at home in theologies of communion that lean heavy on the memorial aspects of the practice. We follow Zwingli who emphasized not the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but the “remembering” of the event.

With such an emphasis on memorialism we do two things. First, we argue for a thin understanding of a symbol. It is all “just symbolic”— it only points to an idea we hold in our head. Second, because it is symbolic, it must have a limited range of meaning and so we dare not do it too often for fear of the rite losing its meaningfulness. There is a limited range of what can be thought of, so repetition somehow erodes the significance.

To be blunt, I think this is all hogwash. First of all, while the rites of communion or feet washing are symbols, they are thick symbols. They involve our whole body in ways that typical symbols do not. We literally sense the meaning of what we are doing, way below the conscious level of remembering. We feel the implications of what we do on our tongues and with our feet. And when we put these feelings along side the scriptures, our prayers, and songs a whole range of meaning opens up before us. This is what liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop calls juxtaposition. When texts, materiel things, musical notes, and body movements come together meaning erupts.

Second, we tame this eruption of meaning with heavy-handed explanations of what we are doing. We tell the congregation that the bread and juice are “just symbols” of Christ’s sacrifice and love. We over determine the act of washing feet by saying it is symbol of service. To be fair, all liturgies and rites have moments in which we describe or interpret what is being done. However, when we have an anemic theology of symbols, we domesticate the action by limiting their meaning.

I remember a class on the Eucharist in seminary in which we were required to read several sermons by Augustine. I was amazed at the meanings he could elicit without sounding like he was determining exactly what the Eucharist meant. It hit home for me when in one sermon he could say Christ is present in the bread and wine and in the very next sermon he could sound very Brethren and say that Christ is present in the congregation of believers who call on his name. Both are true, and yet one statement does not contradict the other.

To be honest, our fear of all things ritual leads us to a place where we domesticate the rites of the church. When we over-determine the meaning of course we would shy away from regular and repeated practice. The meaning is exhausted as soon as we confine what is possible. And the only resort of such a thin conception of meaning is to rely on “meaningfulness,” that inner emotional response to the moment. And when the newness of that emotion wares off, we are left with an over-determined symbol and a nostalgia for the past. However, when we let the texts, songs, and postures play in the field of juxtaposition, highlighting the range of possibilities, the rite comes alive. It reorients our vision of the world and ourselves. It brings new perspective to the things happening around us at this very minute and draws us paradoxically from remembering to the present.

It was Annie Dillard who said that if we had any idea of the power we invoke when we gather for worship we would bring hard hats to church. Unfortunately, it seems we don’t actually believe in that same power, or at least we are afraid of it. We determine and confine the meanings of our rituals, and spread them far a part in time so that we might remain comfortably stagnant in the past, and domesticate the very wild idea that God will meet us in the present and set us on new paths, opening new possibilities with these ancient practices.

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