The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I am a person who lives by rituals. Now you may be thinking, “Well, of course you are, you’re a priest. Priests perform rituals.” Which, of course, is true, but I want to embrace a more comprehensive definition of ritual to describe what I mean. Merriam-Webster defines rituals as being three-fold: a system of rites; a ceremonial act or action; and an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner. I am a person whose life is defined by all three.
One of my daily rituals is grinding coffee beans and making a pot of fresh coffee in the morning. That is a ceremonial act – almost religious in nature - regularly repeated in a precise manner. And trust me, don’t mess around with it.
A few weeks ago, I had readied our coffee maker and turned it on to brew. When I came back a few minutes later anticipating a delicious cup of steaming hot java . . . there was no liquid in the pot. When I lifted the lid, there was a slurry of grounds and water floating to the brim of the coffee maker, ready to overflow onto the counter. Evidently some grounds had become clogged in the little hole in the filter basket, preventing the water from flowing into the pot. I’m not sure who was the hotter mess; the coffee maker or me.
Some errant grounds had disrupted my ritual, ruining my ceremonial act, causing havoc in the precise manner with which I start my day. And I just about lost my mind. Okay, I confess. I’m a caffeine addict.
Performing rituals comforts us. Rituals give structure to our lives. In times of turbulence and despair, rituals sustain us and give hope. I know of many people who love the rituals of the Book of Common Prayer. Someone once likened the BCP to a pair of comfortable slippers you put on after having walked in uncomfortable shoes. The ritual of saying the familiar words of our worship soothed this person.
In her best-selling book, “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert says this:
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.”
Recently I was speaking with a woman whose mother had died. She and her family were sitting Shiva. As we chatted about the loss of her mother and the pain she felt no longer having her, she told me that the rituals of mourning the dead eased the pain and loss: the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish at the funeral, the wearing of a small strip of torn black cloth, sitting of Shiva with the consoling presence of family and friends. These rituals provided comfort and solace, as well as hope for healing from the pain of grief.
Today’s Gospel story from Luke, for the Feast of the Presentation, informs us that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual. They were devout Jews who followed the prescriptions of their faith. If you include the verse just preceding where we start our lesson today , we encounter three distinct rituals that Mary and Joseph engage in.
In verse 21, we read that, “After eight days [from the day of his birth] had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) The ritual of circumcision for male Jews was the sign of the Covenant made between God and Abraham. In Genesis God tells Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.” (Gen. 17: 10-12a)
The ritual of circumcision is arguably the most important ritual in Judaism. Mary and Joseph engaging in it with Jesus was a critical part of their identity. It was their link to the Jewish community and the Covenant.
We then read that, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’”
There are two significant rituals embedded in these verses: the requirement to present a firstborn male – both human and animal – to God, and the purification of a woman after child-birth.
These were rituals that fulfilled God’s commands in the Torah. In Exodus God says, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” (Ex. 13:2) and in Leviticus, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days . . . On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” (Lev. 12:2-4) So the total time a woman was ritually un-pure after the birth of a male child was forty days, ergo the celebration of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, forty days after Christmas.
When presented to the priests at the Temple, male animals were sacrificed to God. Human children were redeemed by the purchase of a sheep or two turtledoves, depending on the wealth of the parents. These would then be sacrificed to God, in lieu of the child. Joseph and Mary sacrificing two turtledoves indicates that they were of limited financial means.
All of which to say is that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual.
An essential part of Judaism is honoring God in all of life. As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph strived to do so.
Mary and Joseph performing these three rituals of circumcision, presentation, and purification honors God. They give their lives meaning and substance, and they connect the Holy Family to a community.
Rituals and observance of religious requirements have fallen on hard times. (Although I would observe the ritual of coffee making is at an apex in our culture!) For example, the demands of busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that people eat fewer meals together. This results in the simple ritual of offering grace before a meal, recognizing that our daily bread comes from God, is rare.
The marking of events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. We have left little room for mystery and encountering the transcendent in our secular, technology driven lives. How much time do we spend each day in front of television, computer, and smartphone screens, versus engaging in the simple rituals of sitting quietly, being in the presence of the holy, talking with our beloved family and friends, playing with children, reflecting on a passage of scripture, or being aware of the joy and wonder of all God’s good gifts to us in the Creation?
Among other things, the lack of ritual results in our being less connected to community, of believing that life has little meaning beyond mere existence, of ignoring the presence of the holy in all things. This then leads to growing feelings of despair, of not having hope during stressful times in a better future.
We need to reclaim the importance of ritual in our lives. Ritual gives us a way to dramatize our gratitude for the goodness and mystery of life. It is a vehicle toward authentic relationships and community, of giving life meaning, and of offering hope for a better future in times of darkness and despair.
Ritual’s ability to do these things is incarnated in the two other characters in our Gospel story - Simeon and Anna – and their encounter with Jesus.
When Simeon, who is described as “righteous and devout” – in other words devoted to the rituals of the Torah - encounters Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, over-joyed that God’s promise of a Messiah – the one who shall liberate Israel and save all humanity - has been fulfilled. Simeon calls him, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and [the] glory [of God’s] people Israel."
For the majority of her long life, Anna engaged in the rituals of fasting and prayer in the Temple. Like Simeon, her fervent prayer was for the redemption of Israel from brutal occupying empires. When she sees Jesus, she is overwhelmed with gratitude and she praises God, speaking to all she encounters about the child who would bring about “the redemption of Jerusalem.” In other words, she rejoices.
Two faithful Jews, ever-hopeful that God’s promises would be realized, despite the darkness and despair that enveloped their people, have seen that moment come to fruition in their lives. The rituals that they practiced sustained them, and led them to this moment of redemption; it was hope-fulfilled.
We too need to reclaim ritual, if we are to reclaim hope.
An alternative name for today is Candlemas. Our use of lots of candles in our worship symbolizes Simeon’s calling Jesus, “a light for the Gentiles.” As John’s Gospel tells us, “in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Lighting candles is a ritual of hope. In performing this ritual, we are reminded that we are one community in Jesus Christ, and that his light, which no darkness can ever overcome, shines ever brightly. In that knowledge, the ritual of lighting candles comforts, sustains and strengthens us.
In the ritual of lighting these candles, we reclaim the hope that Christ brings to the world. And that hope will sustain us today, tomorrow, and for eternity.