I went to the funeral of my best friend’s grandfather today. He was in the Navy in World War II, and had military honors at his burial. As I shivered in the cold with my two oldest daughters huddled up close to me, watching the Naval officers folding and presenting the flag, it struck me how much beauty there is in ritual. Those officers took their duty so seriously. And it was because of the honor involved. Honoring the man. Honoring his service to his country. Honoring his family who was gathered there, grieving the loss of their dad and grandfather. Mr. McDonald was honored by the observance of ritual. His family was honored by the observance of ritual.
This is true throughout life. The beauty of marriage–created and ordained by God–is honored through the rituals present in the wedding ceremony. The beauty of excellence and diligence in scholarship is honored through the ritual of graduation ceremonies. The beauty of new life in Christ is honored through the ritual of the baptism ceremony. The beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and gift of grace to us is honored through the ritual of our communion ceremonies.
I’ve always loved the solemnity of ritual, without ever really trying to define why. Today, I realized. It’s because rituals honor something. Yes, it’s true that they can become rote, meaningless. Perhaps that’s why they sometimes get traded in for more casual substitutes, or skipped altogether.
But I hope that rituals don’t become extinct altogether. I suppose that a life well-lived could be honored by a casual gathering in a living room, or Christ’s sacrifice on the cross could be honored by a group of teenagers with Dr. Pepper and Doritos instead of crackers and grape juice in a sanctuary. But I maintain that when observed with engaged hearts and full appreciation for the occasion at hand, rituals add to the honor in a way that casual just doesn’t.
Christmas 2016 is upon us. There may be several rituals observed as we celebrate the Incarnate Christ. Maybe your church has a candlelight communion service. Maybe your family observes the ritual of reading the Scriptures on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Maybe your church has the audacity to have morning worship on Christmas morning since it falls on a Sunday this year. Maybe there are some other traditions you have with your church or your family. Whatever your rituals are, I challenge you to really think about your rituals this season. What do they honor? Some of our rituals honor family and the love we share with those we’ve loved our whole lives. Some rituals honor our friends, some honor the need to give of ourselves and serve others, some honor the need we all have for rest. All of our Christmas rituals can and should honor Christ, who is, after all, the only One truly worthy of honor.
And then, when Christmas is over and 2017 begins, start to watch for rituals as they come, and maybe spend some time thinking about the beauty in ritual. As you go to weddings this year, let the ritual point to the beauty of marriage, and then to the love of Christ for the church, to which marriage itself points. As you go to funerals, let the ritual point to the beauty of the life being honored, and then to the truth that death has been defeated by Christ and is only temporary for those who love Him. As your church celebrates communion or baptisms, let the ritual point to the amazing grace of what Christ has done for you and for your new brother or sister in Him, and then to the amazing grace of His plan of redemption for us.
Yes, there is beauty in ritual. I hope that the rituals at the funeral today truly honored the life of Mr. McDonald and so brought comfort to his family. And I hope that we all will continue to find the beauty and honor in the rituals of life.