This last week, I celebrated Saint Nicholas day at the home of Eric and Jennifer. We go back almost twenty years and have shared in each other's faith journeys.
The gathering featured good cookies, plenty of candles, and a hearty dose of Christmas carol singing. Eric and Jennifer instituted the Saint Nicholas remembrance as a way of keeping old traditions and rituals intact. In my own childhood, we put up our Christmas stockings on December 5, and Saint Nick filled them during the wee hours of the following morning. My mom sought to keep that tradition alive.
The Bible says this:
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you."
—Genesis 28:10-22 ESV
And [God] said, 'Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.'"
—Genesis 31:12-13 ESV
And later still…
Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, "Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster.
—Deuteronomy 27:1-4 ESV
I don't understand Evangelicalism's obsession with wiping out the past. In many parts of the American Church today, a flagrant disregard for what and who has come before us dominates all expression toward God. It's as if today's Christians must live in a self-imposed vacuum. We are told by the more "learned" to build no Bethels. Soon, forgetfulness washes over us like a dulling fog.
Part of this unhealthy contempt for the past springs from mistaken notions about the New Testament Church. Some sectors of the American Church believe that all practices of the Old Testament ceased at the empty tomb. But that notion casts doubt on the immutability of God and the essence of how we experience Him.
Yes, the Holy Spirit now dwells inside us, but this does not do away with remembrances. God does not want us to forget what He has done. The healthy expression of Christianity in today's world should still erect remembrances, as Jacob did, when encountering the living God. When God set the rainbow in the sky, it formed a remembrance—not only to us but to God as well—of God's promises. I don't see that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit erased rainbows from the skies. Remembrances of the past matter.
The Saint Nicholas gathering is a remembrance, the kindling of a ritual designed to remember the generosity of a man who gave away his money so that three poor sisters would have dowries and not wind up in prostitution. Do you know the story? If not, then it only goes to show how poor we American Christians have become in our crazed effort to establish ourselves as the pinnacle of historical Christendom.
When I moved out of the Lutheran Church of my youth into full-fledged Evangelical "superiority," I looked down on rituals and observances as mere icing on an already tasty cake. Who needs an advent wreath at Christmastime? Why read the same Bible passages yearly on the Sundays leading up to Christmas? Why have rites of passage for our youth? Why do anything that smacks of ritual?
"Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children– how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, 'Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.'
—Deuteronomy 4:9-10 ESV
One of the curious artifacts of the Saint Nicholas party concerned the children. They sang "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" with unusual gusto, but stumbled through the old carols of their parents' youth. Those kids only know an Evangelicalsim devoid of rituals, their lives lacking what I experienced as normative in my childhood. Children grow up without rituals that root them to all of Christendom before them. Today's Evangelical children float in a secularized sea, cast there by well-meaning Christian leaders who employ "regulations" that denounce rituals or scry pointless contemporary "alternatives" to tradition. Is it any wonder that our children reach age eighteen and have no roots to keep them from being torn away from the Faith? How easy is it to depart from God when the experience of God one's been fed has been solely intellectual, tradition relegated to weepy-eyed emotionalism by people who rarely weep!
And it's not only churches that adhere to modern worship music that suffer from this. Some that perpetuate the old carols unwittingly toss aside others rituals and remembrances. Catechism—gone. Studying the history of Christianity after the deaths of the apostles—gone. Gone too are the sights, sounds, and smells of traditional, historic Christianity: incense, candles, organ music, and stained glass.
Fluff? Hardly. All those things root us. They create Bethels that call to mind history and help us remember the eternal and perpetually valuable in our lives. They mark an experience of God that persists through generations. Unfortunately, Evangelicalism's righteous assault on all thing ritualistic has turned us into shallow people unfamiliar with the sacramental, yet we call this "progress" and "spiritual maturity."
What will our children call it?
We have every opportunity in the world to make our experiences of God like Jacob's. Each family can preserve its own traditions recalling what God has done and is still doing in the lives of His people. So can each church. I'm glad that Eric and Jennifer saw fit to call us all together every year on the Feast Day of Saint Nichololas in order to prepare our hearts for the coming King of Kings. I'm even more happy for our children. How much better that our preparation for Christmas begins by remembering someone whose heart lay with the poor and downtrodden, just as our Savior's was.
Let us never forget the Lord, even in the seemingly inconsequential. Because even the small things may have lasting effects.
14 thoughts on “Regulation, Ritual, and Remembrance”
I belong to one of those “other” churches. The kind with carols and candles and organs. Some of our sister churches even have stained glass and incense. My son is going to catechism. My own catechism involved — the history of the church in brief overview from the apostles til now.
Lutheran, but we’re not the only ones.
It makes me sad to hear you say you miss all that. We’re still here.
Take care & God bless
Truthfully, I think the Lutheran Church left me and not the other way around. I still hold to a lot of my Lutheran heritage, though.
I would just like to see Evangelicals guard what is good and not give it all away as if it had no meaning.
It sounds like maybe a personal situation in the congregation. Or a failure for there to be a personal situation when there should have been. I don’t mean to pry, I just wish things could be healed, that’s all. My friend left the RC church because nobody rallied around him after his wife miscarried their daughter. He’s a universalist now …
Take care & God bless
What an awesome post. You are right on about the importance of holding fast to our roots. The Lord knows that we are human beings at that as such we need constant reminders to keep us grounded in Him. I would venture to say that ritual for ritual’s sake is not particularly useful. However, some are very important vestiges of our common history as Christians that need to be maintained. I beilieve that keeping these roots alive not only helps individuals to maintain and pass on the faith, but also help Christians of different traditions understand each other as members of the household of faith.
I think that your post was profound and should serve as a reminder to us all that the way to look to the future is not to just chuck the past aside. Our ancestors in the faith had many of the same struggles that we experience today. They developed rituals and traditions to deal with thier world and their quest for the holy. Perhaps these very rituals and traditions will help us deal with our word today and come closer to the Lord.
We seem to arrive at the wrong conclusions so often in Evangelical churches. We see dead ritual and think it’s the ritual that’s bad. And some of it may be bad. But then again, it may not be. We simply can’t seem to discern truth all that well. And that robs us of so much.
Dire Dan: “Today’s Evangelical children float in a secularized sea…”
Most drown by the time they reach college, where militant atheism is endemic.
You know, Dan, the church has been so dysfunctional for so long that dysfunction has now become the normal state of affairs.
Dire Dan feels a little more dire than usual.
What is happening to our churches in the United States? I know I don’t personally want to go down in flames with any of them, but why is it so hard for us to live out what we believe, practicing the True Faith given us by the Lord we say we’d die for?
It seems that instead of making disciples, we prop up scoundrels and the immature. We play little games of nepotism, and gather groups of sycophants to tickle our ears. And discernment! Don’t even get me going on this. I think our discernment has come down to “say and do whatever it takes to stay on top of the heap.”
I’m scared for a lot of Christians out there. You find a church with good doctrine and they have no practice. You find a church with good practice and they have no doctrine. And all the backbiting is just getting to me, too. Dear God, what petty people we’ve become! No wonder the world looks elsewhere.
“Dire Dan feels a little more dire than usual.”
Yeah, my direness levels also have been ramping up. For example, I’m absolutely convinced that, sometime in the next few years, we’re going to have a major “wmd event” in this country, the ramifications of which will be cataclysmic.
It is important to remember what Christ has done and to see how the old testament connects with the promise of Christ. The essential point is that Jesus came to die and that once you have HIm inside of you He will work on everything else
Are you saying then that we don’t need rituals and remembrances?
“Me ‘n’ Jesus” is certainly attractive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work — in part because “Me” is first, or at least equal! Likewise with the “Acts 2:44” unity ideal. It fell apart with Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1b), when the early Church was forced to obey the Great Commission to “go ye forth into all nations.”
The Bible in no way condones relearning the same lessons and making the same mistakes as our ancestors. Regulation, Ritual and Remembrance let us at least make some new mistakes. The entire move of Sacred Scripture is from a definite beginning to a definite end, and the Three Rs help keep us moving crazily forward along that straight line.
Our new church home does not celebrate seasons, yet I have a lifetime tradition — in fact fifteen traceable generations of tradition — of celebrating Advent. This is a time of remembering Jesus’ first coming in humility and expecting His return in glory. Christmas is a twelve-day feast, beginning December 25 (and not a moment before), followed immediately by The Epiphany on January 6.
Does Jesus want me in all this? Yes, absolutely. But he also wants several billion others in all this! It’s Jesus (the Bridegroom) and us (the Bride). Meanwhile, Regulation, Ritual and Remembrance help us maintain our places in this vast Army of God!
My Christian upbringing is devoid of ritual. Aside from going to church and the idea that “Church” is Sunday mornings and Sunday and Wednesday evenings. We never did communion or baptisms. When I go to a church that does have rituals, I am a bit at sea. “Important dates”, church leaders from long past…Origen is a point of beginning, right? Oh, it’s a person? Polycarp is a group of fish, and the Aryan Controversy is about Hitler, right?
I think I’ve missed out on background and understanding: how we got to be where we are today, mostly because those who have led me to this point did know history, cathecism and ritual. Led by such things as precedent, they did not make things up as they went along, but led through understanding of what had already passed. Avoiding reefs and rocks already encountered, ritual and tradition can guide us through unsafe waters.
But, and it’s a major one, blind, unknowing dependence on ritual will lead to disaster. So bathe in the glorious luxury of the rituals handed down to us, and don’t disparage or belittle them. But I would encourage us all to “bathe responsibly” and learn about the origins of our regulations and rituals. Read up, and teach them to our children and disciples. That is remembering.
Great comments. I hope Dan will forgive me for saying that he has captured the gist of the Church Catholic (as carefully differentiated from the Roman Catholic Church, which is one part of it). We remember. Even if our memory extends only back to the day we truly met Jesus, or to the Azusa Street revival, or to the various Awakenings, or to “the year when King Uzziah died… .” (Side question: is the problem with the Emerging Church that they have no remembered history?) And yes, “blind, unknowing dependence on ritual will lead to disaster.” I remember that Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent that Moses had made (2 Kings 18:4; compare Numbers 21:4-9). And I recall that I am no longer an Episcopalian.