About this same time Claire began to talk quite a bit about ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. Claire had a very active imagination and we suspected her night terrors might be related to her talk of ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. So after a few nights of disrupted sleep, I decided to try something – an exorcism … of sorts! Not the kind you see in the movies, mind you, nor was I going to call in the diocesan exorcist (and yes, every diocese has a designated exorcist for official exorcisms). I didn’t think this was demonic but I did think that Claire somehow felt rather helpless about these ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs she kept talking about. I thought having a ritual for chasing them away before bed might lessen these night terror episodes.
So that night, Claire and I were in her room and after I read her a bedtime story, we had a talk about the ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs. Claire admitted she didn’t like them – they were scary. I told her she had the power to chase them away because Jesus loved her. Her eyes lit up as I told her I’d help her. So, on that cold January night, we went over to the window of her room and I opened it. Claire shouted, “Jesus loves me!! Go away you ghosts! Go away you monsters! Go away you dinosaurs!” and for good measure, she added her fiercest growl, stomped her feet and waved her hands in the air after which I shut the window quickly. “Boy you really scared them off,” I told her before tucking her into bed and kissing her good night. That night, she slept soundly and without incident. Thus began a nightly liturgy that lasted several months – and she never experienced a night terror again. Rituals are important. Rituals matter.
We often lose sight of the importance of rituals in our increasingly scientific and secular culture. R. Alan Culpepper, who wrote the commentary on Luke’s gospel in the New Interpreters Bible, states:
"... The observance of religious requirements and rituals has fallen on hard times. Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. The Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. . . .
The pressures of secularism and modern life have again reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago. For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals. The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?
The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage … Rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life." (p. 74-75)
The Jewish faith in which Jesus was raise by his parents recognized the importance of ritual and seeing the divine in the ordinary everyday stuff of life. It was a way of living in relationship with God which emphasized ritual as a way of behaving your way into belief. Notice the order here: behavior precedes belief. In our Anglican way, we say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – the way we pray shapes the way we believe. We pray our way into our faith.
I am persuaded that our Christian faith is not about intellectual assents to doctrinal propositions about Christ as much as it is something we do - it is more caught than taught. We catch our faith through being in community, worshiping, praying, hearing the scriptures, receiving the mystical Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and participating in the rituals and sacraments which give shape and meaning to our relationship with God, to our lives, and to our relationships with each other.
Simeon and Anna understood this. Simeon, the devout and righteous Israelite who is holding onto a promise of seeing the Lord’s Messiah before he dies. Time is growing short for him and yet he persists in behaving his way into trusting in this promise. I cannot help but think he may have had his doubts along the way. But nonetheless, Simeon persists in going to the Temple, in observing the rituals and offering his prayers. Anna, the prophet, also persists in prayers, worship and fasting – behaving her way into her belief. Both of these elders continued in the rituals of their faith – and Christ came to them. And he came to them in a most unexpected way – in the form of a baby born to a poor family who walked 60 miles from Nazareth to perform the rituals of the Temple and dedicate their child to God. Rituals matter.
Christ likewise comes to us through the ritual sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, the sacraments of confirmation, marriage, unction, reconciliation and ordination. As you continue to ponder the question of who Jesus is to you and to us, be attentive to these rituals but also pay attention to how Christ comes through less formal rituals: eating a meal together as a family, praying together, a hug of consolation, a kind and healing word spoken in love, or even a banishing of ghosts, monsters and dinosaurs.