The place of ritual in the Christian life
Today the term “ritual” seems to have negative connotations in the minds of many Christians. In a sense this is completely understandable. “Ritual” is a term that could easily be mistaken for “ritualism” — in other words, just going through the motions without any personal engagement of the heart and mind. Certainly Jesus spoke out against hypocrisy and against any ritualism which honored God with the lips but not with the heart (for example, Matthew 15:7-9). In fact, all of Holy Scripture stands firmly against any form of religion which reduces the worship and service of God to the mere perfunctory performance of external rites, ceremonies and rituals. At the same time, both Scripture and sound Christian experience make it clear that a healthy Christian life, like a healthy natural life, is a life permeated with rituals. Allow me to explain.
Let’s first consider our natural life — in other words, the routines of our daily physical and social existence, our earthly life in this present created order. Whether we realize it or not, our daily natural lives are filled to the brim with rituals — i.e, repetitious practices which we often do almost without thought, but which we depend upon to live a healthy and meaningful life.
I don’t know what your daily routine is like, but a typical day for me might look something like the following: After being awakened either by my alarm clock or by the sunlight streaming into the bedroom, I drag my stiff, aging body out from under the covers and head into the bathroom. After using the bathroom I will usually head to the kitchen, take my morning pills, and prepare a couple cups of coffee for myself. Then I will head down to the basement, check my email, check out the news headlines on a number of internet news sites, and then do my daily devotions. I will then eat a quick breakfast, make the bed, and head into the bathroom where I floss and brush my teeth, shave, and take a shower. Then I will get dressed, use some hair spray to set my hair in place, clean my glasses, and head down to my basement office to begin my work day. Usually I will have lunch and dinner with my family, depending on what I have scheduled for the day and whether or not I will be at home for the meal. After one of those meals we usually do our family devotions. In the evening, after I have finished my work for the day, my wife and I will usually watch something on television for about half an hour to unwind, and then we will head to bed, only to repeat pretty much the same scenario the next day.
If you haven’t nodded off to sleep yet or decided out of boredom to stop reading this blog article, did you notice that almost all of the daily activities I listed above could be accurately described as “rituals”? Your personal daily routine might vary somewhat from my own, but the point is, whatever our daily routines may be, they inevitably involve rituals — ordinary practices that, while not all that exciting, and maybe even a bit “boring,” are nevertheless vitally important for living a healthy and meaningful life. Imagine what would happen if you decided to cease the daily ritual of brushing your teeth because you regarded the practice to be too “boring” or “mundane”? Very likely you would end up with serious dental problems, or even worse: bad breath! Or what if you decided to stop the ritual of sitting down two or three times a day for a meal? If you avoided this life-sustaining “ritual” for too long you would end up starving to death! Or what if you decided to stop the ritual practice of telling your wife that you love her and giving her a kiss on the lips? Very likely your marriage relationship would suffer.
God designed the natural order of things so that we depend upon seemingly mundane, ordinary rituals in order to sustain our physical lives and to fill our lives with meaning and purpose. What is true in the natural realm is also true in the spiritual realm. A biblical, spiritually-healthy Christian life is not a life that is perfectly ritual-free and spontaneous. It is not a life of constant, unending spiritual highs and extraordinary moments (though many Christians experience such moments on occasion). Instead, God’s Word indicates that a growing, stable, healthy relationship with Jesus Christ depends, at least to some extent, upon the faithful, heart-felt observance of certain seemingly-ordinary, sometimes-“boring” rituals.
We see this in the life of the early apostolic church after the event of Pentecost: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV) Week in and week out, from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day (and on other occasions too as they had opportunity), the early Christians gathered to hear God’s Word read and preached, to pray together, to share holy communion together, and to support and encourage one another in their needs. In other words, they devoted themselves, not to multitudes of church programs or “ministries” or service projects or hyped-up revival services, but to the “ordinary” ministry of word and sacrament. They gathered in worship to receive spiritual nourishment in Christ through the preached word and through holy communion, and they offered their prayers and praises in gratitude for God’s grace. In other words, they diligently observed God-ordained “rituals” which the Lord designed for their spiritual benefit.
A splash of water in the Name of the Trinity (baptism); a simple ritual meal of bread and wine (holy communion); listening to some ordained guy who is a fellow sinner (and who may not always be that interesting to listen to) as he delivers a message from the Bible; and doing so week-in and week-out every Lord’s Day — these “rituals” may seem ordinary, unimpressive, even at times “boring”; but God’s Word indicates that they are absolutely essential to observe if we would live out a healthy, maturing, stable life of discipleship.
Ritualism is bad. Externalism stands condemned. Mere outward observance of ceremonies devoid of faith is soul-killing. But the God-ordained “rituals” known as the “ordinary means of grace” — they are absolutely essential for a healthy Christian life. Christian, are you diligently observing these rituals from the heart in your walk with Christ?