Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 20, 2009

Think You Don’t Like Ceremony? Think Again!

The assembly gradually files into the facility.  Each person takes his seat.  Music is playing in the background.  Everyone has come for this event, set to begin at a designated time.  Most people will be seated and ready to go when things begin, though a few will arrive late and perhaps need the ushers’ assistance to find their seats.

The moment finally arrives.  The festivities are about to begin.  The processional song is played, and the assembly stands.  They know the ritual, and even though it is familiar, it is not routine.

The people turn to face the location where the processional group enters the assembly.  They are vested in the same colors – though some in the group wear different attire than others, indicating the different roles that these people will play in this assembly.

The appointed people come to the front of the assembly and the usual opening words are spoken.  After the initial words and ceremony come to a close, the event continues in its normal fashion, with two distinct halves comprising the agenda.

Such is a Green Bay Packers game at historic Lambeau Field.  (Okay, if you must, insert your team and stadium of choice here).

Oh, I’m sorry.  Did you think I was talking about a procession at the start of a church service?  I can see how you would come to that conclusion.  They are pretty similar, aren’t they?  They both contain quite a bit of ceremony, don’t they?

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Call it what you will, but this is ceremony. Dallas at Green Bay, Sunday night, September 21, 2008.

  • Music playing over the stadium public address system as people file in, or preservice music from the organ, piano, or an ensemble
  • An appointed time when the event begins and the assembly stands for the procession, led by the Packers flags or the processional cross
  • Coaches and players dressed in team colors, or pastors and assisting ministers dressed in albs and other liturgical garb
  • The coin toss or the Trinitarian invocation to start the proceedings
  • The first and second half of regulation, or the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament

It strikes me as odd when I hear complaints about the ceremonial aspect of worship as if it is some empty ritual, or it contains a closet Roman Catholic agenda.  Of course, not everyone who dislikes ceremony approaches the discussion in that manner.  Often it is as simple as liking what we know and disliking what we don’t.  But I fear that some negative comments about ceremony and ritual are misinformed and may discourage what could otherwise be a beneficial aspect to worship.

We are quite accustomed to ceremony in our daily lives.  In fact, we are so accustomed to certain rituals that we don’t think of them as such.  Don’t we have an ideal image in our minds of a marriage proposal – a young man getting down on one knee and, following some brief yet flowery preparatory remarks, asking his beloved (who has the obligatory tears of joy streaming down her cheeks as soon as she figures out what is about to happen) if she would be his wife, followed by the placement of the diamond ring on her left hand’s ring finger – and isn’t that image filled with ritual?  Ask a bride-to-be if she would be willing to forgo the white dress and the procession down the center aisle of the church in favor of a quick Friday afternoon question and answer session before the county judge (“Do you take this man…?”  “Yes.” … etc. … okay, done).  Methinks you will get strange and bizarre looks from the bride-to-be upon such a suggestion!

Our birthday celebrations are filled with ceremony (the required, ritual birthday song; a round cake, symbolizing time; lit candles, symbolizing life).  Presidential inaugurations, like the one we saw a few months ago, are filled with ceremony (and when the oath got botched, we required that it be done a second time!).  Presidential funerals, like the state funeral of Ronald Regan several years ago, are filled with ceremony (and television commentators who felt the need to repeatedly offer John Madden-like color commentary about the rituals we saw).  Daily life is filled with ceremony (my wife all but expects a kiss from her husband when I come home from the office).  Even something as “secular” as a college or professional football game – especially a championship game or the Super Bowl – is filled with ceremony (the procession of the Lombardi trophy with musical fanfare, carried by a past Super Bowl MVP, as the winning team’s players all reach out to touch the trophy on its way up to the platform).

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The processional cross is placed into its stand during our Easter Sunday service on March 27, 2005.

The human brain carries both our intellect and emotions.  We are told that the logical, rational side is our left brain and the affective, emotional side is our right brain.  We would do well in worship to engage both our logical and affective sides.  We ought not concoct a worship experience that is all emotion and no intellect – something that could be achieved equally by “smells and bells” or the “whoopee mass.”  But neither should we develop worship that is so exclusively cognitive that the experience becomes nothing more than a mere sharing of data, a glorified classroom setting in which we learn some interesting facts about God that could later be regurgitated on a pop quiz at the end of the service.  We would do well in worship to proclaim the deep and glorious facts of the gospel, and to do so in such a manner that it impacts our whole being.  Besides, how could we ever tire of digging into the depths of the gospel or conclude that we have exhausted its riches?  And how could our New Man ever be bored by such a beautiful and comforting message as God in human flesh reconciling us unworthy sinners to himself by his own death and resurrection?  Familiar?  I hope so!  Boring?  Never!

I don’t intend to map out a series of “how to” steps for making worship both cognitive and affective.  Striving for excellence in preaching, presiding, and playing (music) will go a long way toward that goal, and there are plenty of resources available that can assist with those efforts.  But I want to leave the reader with a friendly challenge.  If you find yourself uncomfortable with ceremony in worship, sincerely ask yourself why that is.  Have you heard and perhaps accepted the thinking that ritual is Roman Catholic (remember, so is the Apostles Creed)?  Do you view ceremony and gospel proclamation as an “either…or” issue instead of a “both…and” issue?  It is perhaps as simple of a matter as lack of familiarity?  And after some evaluation, would it be fair to give a second thought to ceremony in worship, especially given how much ritual there is in our daily lives?

If you are not ready to buy a processional crucifix for your church and a new set of chasubles for your pastor, that’s fine!  The goal of this post is not to lock people into a rigid and prescribed set of ceremonies; in fact, that would betray the spirit and purpose of ritual.  But I hope that a fresh consideration of ritual in worship might lead readers to appreciate the way that ritual can proclaim the gospel in a different and powerful way, leading us to further appreciation for the good news about Jesus Christ!

NOTE: More on this subject may be found in part two of the essay, “Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship,” available through this post from October 11, 2008.

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Responses

  1. Great insights! I love the opening intro, though I thought you were heading towards a graduation ceremony…

    It has the same feel as the arguments I make when discussing hermeneutics with people and going over the supposed contradictions of the Bible. “Hey, God said 400 years to Abraham and 430 years through Moses! He made a mistake!” “Do you ever speak in round numbers? Could God?”

    God communicates to us as we communicate to each other. And it’s a powerful way to communicate. Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s in “To Be a Jew” writes:

    “It is a psychological truth that behavioral ideals assert themselves more firmly when tied to concrete everyday actions than when derived solely from symbolic or philosophic abstractions, however lofty they be. The ethical imperatives and values of Judaism may have received their very strength and historical permanence from the ritual foundations. We ought never to lose sight of the fundamental role of the ritual in the development of the ethics, in the building of character and in perfecting the human relationship” (p46).

    Obviously, we quibble with his conclusion that ritual leads towards ethical perfection (one of the main differences between Judaism and Christianity). We would say that the ritual points us to Christ and proclaims the Gospel. But I think his point is valid and related to your post — ceremony and ritual is strong and powerful and effective in communicating messages.

    I plan to link to this from St. Mark’s blog! Thanks!

  2. Found this thru St. Mark’s blog, and highlighted it in a post on my blog. It’s a neat post, and I’m working my way through the article that you wrote and linked to in part two. VERY INFORMATIVE, I’m learning a lot. thanks

  3. Pastor Strey,
    What does a processional crucifix symbolize? What does the procession of the pastor in the robes through the congregation mean? Does it mean that Jesus came out of Israel, and is our brother? If so, that seems a beautiful representation that Jesus came through the Church, through Mary, to give himself to us. Or does it mean something else?

  4. Hi Rick,

    I have understood the cross procession to symbolize Christ’s presence among his people who have gathered for worship: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” We gather around Christ’s Word and Sacrament, and he promises to be with us. The cross, whether a crucifix or any empty cross (I personally prefer the former but have no problem with the latter), is a clear symbol of Christ. As it is carried through the assembly and to the chancel, it reminds us that Christ is among his people.

    At the church I serve, we usually have a procession for festival services (Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, etc.). In the service folder, I include a comment like this: “When the organist introduces the opening hymn, please stand and face the processional cross in the back of the church. Turn toward the front of the church as the cross is carried past your pew and brought to the chancel, where it stands as a symbol of the theme and focus of Christian worship.”

    In our congregation, the cross is placed next to the lectern, where the Word of God is read and preached. By its placement, it can also serve as a reminder of St. Paul’s words: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I preach Christ crucified each week from the lectern, and next to the lectern stands a symbolic depiction of Christ crucified. The visual message is meant to underscore the spoken Word.

    I’m hesitant to limit the symbolic message of the processional cross to only one meaning due to the nature of symbolic communication. (Rather than mapping out the whole argument here, see part two of my essay, “Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship,” especially the section with the heading Sign, Signal, Symbol on pages 11-14 of the online PDF version or pages 260-264 of the originally published version in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly). For example, the meaning you drew from it in your comment is perfectly fine, because you were reminded of Christ-centered biblical truths in the action. Symbolic communication is not the same as interpreting a document. However — and this is really important — for symbolic communication, ritual, ceremony, etc. to be valuable at all, it must be attached to a solid, biblical, Christ-centered, cross-and-empty-tomb-focused message. If people are going to take a gospel message out of symbolism, then they need a clear gospel message from the pulpit, otherwise symbolism will degenerate into religious ambiance at best. But if the pulpit is clear and Christ is preached, then the mental associations people make with symbols and rituals will be Christ-centered connections.

    It’s difficult to map this out sufficiently in a blog post comment, but hopefully the aforementioned essay will help, and I’m happy to add more if you or anyone else would find it useful.

  5. Johnold:

    I like this! I’ve had some similar thoughts in the past, but you said it all and said it infinitely better than I ever would have. Thanks for writing and sharing this!

  6. Greetings.

    If I may add a thought to the processional crucifix, here it is. To start with, I wish I had a better source for this than “Someone once told me…”, but nonetheless, here is what I was told.

    The processional crucifix allegedly had its origins from the battle field. When the Roman divisions fought, the battle scene could become quite chaotic. A soldier could easily lose track of his regiment. So, one soldier would hold a standard up above his troops so that they would always see where their leader was. Then, they could always rally to their leader.

    The Roman symbol was an eagle. For Christians, it was natural to make the symbol Jesus Christ and him crucified.

    The way it was used in worship was similar to how it was used on the battle field. The congregation would be gathered in the church, standing room only (wouldn’t that be nice?). When the bishop entered, no one could see him wth all the people in the way. They could, however, see the processional crucifix which led the way to the altar. The eyes of the people stayed on the crucifix, knowing that it marked the man who was called and ordained to preach the gospel, absolve the penitent, administer the sacrament, and proclaim the benediction.

    I was also told that candles led the procession to clear the way, as people had an aversion to getting burned.

    So, the processional crucifix does represent Christ’s presence with his people, as he speaks and works through his called minister.

    Once again, “someone once told me…” But it sounds reasonable and seems to me to convey good symbolism.

    Pax,
    Tom


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