BY: Fr. Brian Wideman

This past week we had prayer services at all five of our cemeteries. And the Scripture reading for these services was our Second Reading from today: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be unaware…” And then at the service we offered prayers, we spoke aloud the names of deceased loved ones, we prayed a Litany of Saints, said the Our Father, and then some closing prayers.

There’s something of a ritual that we follow in these annual cemetery services. There’s a “format” to it. But the ritual isn’t only what’s in the book. Actually, the ritual starts before the ritual. Here’s what I mean: About ten minutes before the service begins, people start to gather. They’re relaxed, but they’re also talking and acting as we would expect in a cemetery.

People sharing with others where their loved ones are buried. Maybe there’s talk about someone who just passed away, or they’re reminiscing about someone who died a long time ago. And it’s all very expected and normal. All of that is part of our natural, human ritual we through when we go to the cemetery. And then we pray together the more formalized ritual (as I described before), and then people pick up where they left off: talking about those who have died, maybe talking about family connections, and so on.

So there’s a ritual within a ritual. All these interactions with one another—the sharing and the talking—are natural, human rituals. They just sort of “happen;” nobody has to coordinate that. But even the prayer service itself is natural: we want to hear the guidance and comfort of Scripture, we want to say the names of the faithful departed out loud, we want to pray for them and to ask the Saints and Angels for their prayers too. There’s nothing especially “forced” in the ritual of a cemetery prayer service. And that’s because it’s all part of our human nature; being ritualistic is just “part of our DNA.”

And I mention this because over the next few weeks, the homilies will focus on the ritual we go through every Sunday: the ritual of “going to church.” And it’s important to talk about because, on some level, it’s a conversation we each have within ourselves: “Why am I going to church? What am I supposed to be doing here? Does it really matter? How can I make it more meaningful?” And so on.

Christianity involves ritual. And so it’s good to be “at home” with ritual. But before we get in the rituals of our faith, we first have to talk about the very idea of “ritual.” We want to be comfortable with that concept, because it’s such a big part of our lives.

But, you know, Jesus doesn’t say too much about ritual. The most memorable examples in the gospel are when he’s criticizing people for caring more about the details of the formalized ritual rather than God’s law of charity and love. We see this in the story of the Good Samaritan. The priest was too concerned with staying ritually clean instead of caring for the man who’d been beaten and left for dead.

We see it also when Jesus is critical of those who are more concerned with ritual cleanliness than with spiritual and moral cleanliness. But even in those instances, Jesus isn’t disapproving of the formalized rituals; he’s upset with how some people approach them. So he doesn’t say too much about ritual itself. But that depends on how we understand “ritual.”

I imagine that when we hear the word “ritual,” we think of a ceremony, or a structure or format, as something which is out of the ordinary. And it certainly can be that. But the idea of “ritual” is also more than that.

For example, when two meet people and shake hands, believe it or not, they’re doing a ritual. We might call it a “custom” or a “tradition,” or even a “ceremony”—like when two heads of state meet. Shaking hands is a ritual. And we know it because it feels weird when you walk up to somebody and they don’t shake your hand (or acknowledge you in some way). That acknowledgement is a very brief, but important, human ritual.

As I understand it, originally it was a way to show others you didn’t have a knife or a gun; it was a sign that you could be trusted. Interestingly, however, that’s still the effect of a handshake: it creates a bond, and it’s a gesture of trust and goodwill. Shaking hands is an important human ritual. It’s not a formal ritual, but it is generally an expected thing to do.

There’s another basic human ritual that goes on quite a bit in high school and college; the ritual of flirting. You know, if somebody’s interested in somebody else, we already know what’s going to happen. Suddenly, body image becomes immensely important; hair, make-up, clothing, posture, physical appearance. Body language and tone of voice becomes part of the ritual. The ritual of flirtation is basic to human nature. And, really, the examples of natural, human ritual are endless. There’s the opening and closing of the Olympic games; lots of pomp and circumstance and ceremony to show the magnitude of what’s taking place. But it’s not done because somebody wrote it in a book and said, “Make it big.” The ritual is there primarily because our human nature says, “This is big! So the ceremonies need to be big, too!”

Or, at the parish picnic, there’s the ritual called “Booyah.” Again, it doesn’t happen because somebody said, “You have to make booyah.” It happens because it’s part of who we are: parish picnic equals booyah; booyah equals parish picnic. It’s part of our customs in this area. Then there are rites of passage. For instance, when a newborn arrives, and they’re brought here to church, you know they’re going to be the center of attention. Everybody comes to look at the little baby; it’s a natural, human ritual. We expect it to happen. Or when a student graduates there’s the graduation ceremony. Now, they could just get the diploma in the mail and be done with it. But it’s a bigger deal than that; it’s a major life change! And it’s a natural, human thing to acknowledge that change; and so we have the ritual called “graduation.”

And then there are the rituals that come with end-of-life. You know, it’s not written in a book anywhere how we’re supposed to act or feel when someone dies. We humans go through natural rituals. We go through a grieving process. Others offer support and sympathy; it just happens—nobody has to tell us to do that. And when we gather at the funeral home or church, it’s pretty much expected that there’s going to be some significant space between the people and the casket. I see it at every funeral; I expect to see in. Nobody tells the people to keep a distance from the casket; it just happens— people don’t get overly close. Somehow, it’s in our human DNA.

I mention all these examples because they stress the idea that “ritual” is—fundamentally—a natural, human thing. We are ritualistic creatures.

Rituals symbolize life transitions (think of the ritual of the birthday cake). Rituals can signify a people’s identity (just think of the National Anthem at sporting games, and how disturbing that ritual can be seen as a hit against our identity). Rituals influence people and motivate us. Rituals make something happen, and they express the values of a culture. Our life is practically one ritual after another, because rituals are very human things.

But what Christ did is he took these very human, everyday events, customs, traditions, practices, and so on, and he made them into channels of his grace. He made rituals holy. And so, a handshake isn’t just a greeting; it’s also a gesture of goodwill and a “Sign of Peace.” The sharing of bread and wine isn’t just a meal among friends; it’s also a sharing of life with one another. Gathering together isn’t just a meeting of people; it’s a gathering of the community of faith before God.

Jesus isn’t at all opposed to ritual. Even though he say too much about in Scripture, we know he’s okay with ritual…because he uses it all the time. And we see it throughout the gospels. In today’s gospel, we have a wedding—the anticipation of the coming of the Groom. That’s the setting Christ chose as the backdrop for showing us about the grace of fidelity. And then we can also think of the Wedding at Cana, a ritual where he first revealed his glory to his disciples.

Jesus uses the ritual of ordinary conversation— the story of the Road to Emmaus—as the setting for his grace to work. He uses death and funeral rituals to share his grace; we see this in the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and in the story of the widow of Nain who was part of a funeral procession for her son.

Jesus uses the rituals of everyday life as channels of his grace. We see this in so many of the parables: using the ritual of harvest, planting the mustard seed and the grain of wheat at the proper time, and harvesting when it’s time. He uses the labor, the ritual, of separating the wheat from the weeds to make a point. Even at his birth Jesus is using human ritual as a channel of his grace. He came as a little infant —maybe because he knew the simple of heart would come to “see this wonderful thing;” just like any newborn. And he used the ritual of the Dedication in the Temple to reveal himself further to Mary and Joseph.

Of course, he used the Jewish ritual of Passover to institute the Eucharist. And he even used the Roman ritual of crucifixion as a way to reveal and “pour out” his grace. Rituals are very human things, and God makes great use of them. He uses our familiar human rituals, and turns them into channels of his grace. And so, all the daily rituals we do as Christians—from birthday parties, to getting our weekly groceries, to going to Mass—have the potential to be both human and divine.

Jesus isn’t opposed to ritual; he uses it all the time. But he is opposed to using ritual as an end in itself. He wants us to live more deeply. He wants us to experience the extraordinary through the ordinary, through the familiar. And so, our weekly ritual of going out the door and going to church isn’t really about “going to church.” It’s about something much more profound.

It’s a very natural, human thing to go to church; to participate in the ritual we call the Mass. The challenge we face today is to believe that. Even though it can be formalized, everything we do here is still rooted in our human nature. And it’s meant to make us more deeply human, by being a channel of God’s grace, and an experience that shapes us as Christians.

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