(…continued) The solution to the problem of ‘dead ritual’ is to find ways to put meaning back into the ‘traditional rites.’ We need not advocate the continuation of a dead habit, but the solution must not be to have no ritual at all. Ritual is one of the important ways that we practice our faith and create our identity.
Consider the importance of ritual and tradition in the Jewish faith. The Jews are amazing. They have existed as a people for almost 4,000 years, and for almost half of that time they have been without a country of their own. In many times and places, they have had to exist without even a building to gather for worship. They have been scattered throughout the world, they have been persecuted often, and Hitler was only the most recent of many leaders through history who tried to eliminate them completely. Yet, no matter how scattered and persecuted they have been, they have been able to kept their identity, their Jewish faith and culture. They did not ever disappear into other nations and cultures, as have countless other people groups who have been left without a homeland. For example, do you know of any Ammonites, Moabites, Perrizites, or Hittites? These are just a few other ancient people groups that were defeated in battle and pushed off their land, and then just disappeared as they married into and blended in with the conquering nation’s population. But this never happened to the Jews. They never blended in and have never lost their identity as a people. They have a strong loyalty to their Jewish faith and heritage, and they have endured great suffering and upheaval.
How have they been able to do this? It has been by their traditions and their rituals. Their feasts, rituals, observances, and Sabbath Day are kept meticulously by all serious Jews, and so wherever they are, they all share those common experiences and maintain their unique identity. Even many Jews who do not even believe in God anymore, will often continue celebrating the Passover Feast because they know of the importance of that ritual in maintaining that connection to their fellow Jews. Religiously, it is an empty ritual for one who does not believe in God. But even then it still serves to build group identity and cohesion, and serves to pass on that identity.
All of these Jewish traditions are very ritualized. For example, the annual Passover meal has a specific menu and a specified table setting and even an order for conversation at the table. The oldest son must say, “Father, why do we eat bitter herbs?”, and the father replies, “This is to remind us of the bitter sufferings of our ancestors in Egypt.” Then to oldest son will say, “Father, why do we eat unleavened bread at this meal?,” and the father will say, “This is to remind us of the haste in which our ancestors had to flee Egypt,” because there was no time to wait for the bread to rise. And so on through the meal. Jews all do this just as they have been doing it for 35 centuries, and the ritual builds strength into their faith and into their community. What is a Jew? A Jew is someone who keeps the Passover. Children grow up doing this every year and observing the Sabbath day every week. Then when they are old enough, the habits are firmly established, and they cannot imagine being the one who will break the tradition after all those centuries. And so the Jews have continued as a people, and the faith has been passed on, and the whole world knows about this small, but remarkable group of people. Why? Because their rituals have built in this powerful identity.
It is interesting to note that all the major Jewish feasts and rituals are celebrated not at church, but at home. And while those rituals are building a solid Jewish faith and heritage, they are, at the same time building a strong family. This wisdom applies to all families. Sociologists find that one of the most important factors in building strong families is the presence of rituals and tradition. These don’t have to be anything fancy, just simply those things that the family does together consistently. For example, eating together is a most basic ritual that every family should try to together at least once a day. For small children, tucking them into bed at night is an important ritual. Best of all is if prayers are added to the bed-time and meal-time rituals. By consistent worship and prayer parents are saying to their children, “This is important in my life and I hope it will be important for you too. Continue in this habit.”
Sociologists tell us that the more traditions and rituals there are in a family, the stronger that family will be– the more solid the relationships, the closer the members, the more loyalty to each other, and the better chance of values and beliefs being carried on. There are no guarantees in any of this. There are no guarantees in any part of life. But ritual is a valuable and proven help to family life and the life of faith. One sociologist, not even a Christian, after extensive research said, “I hate to admit it, but it is true: The family that prays together, stays together.” That’s the value of ritual. It serves to keep us together, in families and in faith. (continued…)
Family Praying Together
Jose Blanco (1932-2008), Filipino Folk Artist
Exodus 12:24-28 — (After giving Moses and Aaron instructions for the first Passover meal, the Lord said): “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.
Even Jesus observed the traditional rituals:
Luke 4:16 — (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
Luke 22:8 — Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Master of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to this special time.
–A Passover Blessing