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Rituals of Remembrance

September 8, 2014

“Rituals of Remembrance” Exodus 12:1-14 © 9.7.14 Ordinary 23A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The pictures of our big family trip to Hawaii in 1991 fill several pages in a photo album. There is the extraordinary shot of Kilauea emptying lava into the sea, adding real estate to the Big Island as we watched. The luau where both Susan and I were dragged up on stage to do the hula. Snorkeling in the beautiful waters of Hanauma Bay. So many others that bring special memories.

But among all the photos of sights and experiences, there is one that is remarkable for its emotional power. In it, my wife’s late mother is bending over a grave at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, placing flowers. Beneath the little marker lies the body of her father, who died at Pearl Harbor. Going to Hawaii was the trip of a lifetime for her not just because she would see a volcano or a royal palace, but because after 50 years she would finally visit the resting place of her father. Her act at the grave was a ritual of remembrance. The thought of it still brings tears to my eyes.

It seems so simple. Placing of flowers on a marker. Kneeling at a grave. But what power such rituals have to help us deal with our sorrow, to live again fond memories, to express love and care! At their best, rituals provide structure that helps keep chaos at bay. Think what your morning would be like without a ritual of preparation for the day, a routine of getting ready. If you had to make a decision every day about each detail of dressing, eating, and so on, you would never leave the house!

Rituals also give us a safe context in which to express emotions so strong they could undo us and would have grave consequences if translated into action. Where else but in worship could the poet who wrote Psalm 137 or the prophet of Revelation have expressed their wishes for the violent end of their enemies? They found in liturgy a catharsis of feeling, a way and place to hand over their hate and their vitriol to God, who sees, who suffers, who judges.

Finally, rituals are a way to deal with those parts of human life that are central, powerful, even dangerous. They act as a kind of containment vessel, to manage gigajoules of spiritual energy so we may be engaged with it. The holy is powerful enough to kill us; the mystery of God threatens to overwhelm us. That’s one reason there is an “order” of worship, words we say and actions we do. Think, too, of the so-called “pilot’s walk-around” as he or she inspects the aircraft prior to strapping into the seat. Everything must be right, for the piece of machinery has power to lift up, but also to destroy. We surround marker events in life with ritual because things like birth, death, marriage, ordination, and graduation are fraught with mystery and fear, even as they hold great promise and hope. Customs may vary, but everywhere there is some way of ordering the threatening chaos and harnessing its power.

There are bad rituals, of course, empty or silly practices that have long since lost the meaning they once had, irrelevant motions and words that no longer touch the heart or even the head. Ritual can be the invention and special province of obsessive people who lack imagination or who are threatened by spontaneity and less than perfect order. These bad ceremonies pay homage to the past without entering into its deprivation or its joy. They insist on structure and order for their own sake or as a slavish following of what has been done before.

Leonard Sweet, the theological futurist, has a relevant comment, at least about the church’s penchant for engaging in bad ritual. He observes: “The more authentically traditional one becomes, the more relevant one’s ministry. Good news is old news….The problem with the church today is not that it is ‘too traditional’; the problem with the church today is that it is not traditional enough. It has held the future to a frozen version of the past. It has reduced the rich, full tradition of the Christian faith into a bounded set of rituals, formulas, or principles—liberals call them ‘stands,’ conservatives call them ‘fundamentals.’”

In contrast, what I would term “good” rituals enable us to enter into the past with its pain, its passion, its glory. They enact an understanding that structure and order should be tools and context for the stimulation of imagination, the matrix of freedom for trying something different. The tradition which gives rise to good rituals is fluid, not frozen. It beckons us in every age to enter in and own it as a resource for today’s opportunities and problems. The language, the movement, the symbols of a good ritual engage our senses so that we are transported back in time and really, out of time. It is not those long dead, it is we who become the participants in the story that gave rise to tradition and practice.

In a safer day, a tour guide in the Middle East was addressing a group of Americans and other Westerners. He was pointing to a certain pass and telling of a battle that had taken place there. “That’s where we really got them!” he exclaimed. A tourist wondered what war this was and asked. “Do you mean the 1967 war?” “No,” replied the guide. “I mean the Maccabean War.” Though that conflict was over 2000 years ago, the man felt such an identification with the participants that he could speak as if his generation was the one battling evil.

So it is with our Jewish brothers and sisters at Passover. So it is with us in the meal known as Eucharist, Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In what we call the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, each of us enters into the event. Typically, the celebrant says words like these: “When we rebelled against you, refusing to trust and obey you, you did not reject us…. You sent prophets to call us back to your way…. In Jesus…your Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” Now tell me. Did you worship the Golden Calf at the foot of Sinai? Did I refuse to heed the words of Amos or Jeremiah? Were we residents in Bethlehem when Jesus was born? The ritual of remembrance we celebrate this morning would lead us to answer: “yes.” We are part and parcel of the people of God through the ages, heirs of a continuing story, even as now we are adding new chapters to the narrative.

It is no accident that both Passover and Holy Communion engage all the senses and both head and heart. Those who smell, touch, taste, and see, rather than merely hear, enter more fully into an event, feel so much more a part, learn more completely. They are participants rather than outsiders. It is said that once they felt the leathery hide created for the Triceratops in the classic sci-fi movie “Jurassic Park,” the actors began to believe the animal could be real. If they were convinced, maybe the audience would be as well. And all would be taken into that world.

I invite you today to let all your senses be engaged in a similar way. Hear the cry of the lamb being slaughtered, feel the stickiness of the blood on the door post, smell roasting meat, hear the sharp crack of matzo being broken, taste bitter herbs, even experience the heartburn which might be the result of eating too fast while standing up. As we celebrate Communion, watch closely as break is broken and cup lifted. Be aware of the texture of the wafer in your mouth, the sweetness of the juice you dip it in. Listen to the music. Imagine that night long ago or envision just how Christ is present with us now. Own this event in any way you can; become a part of it.

In a song he wrote some years ago, a friend of mine imagined that he was a Roman soldier at Calvary, the one who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, the one who pierced him with a spear (Pat Terry, “I Did It”). It was his way of remembering that he was a sinner in need of grace. Someone else might be more celebratory, by imagining herself as Mary Magdelene telling good news of resurrection or Cleopas at the table in Emmaus. However we do it, its important that we participate in these rituals of remembrance.

Someone once said that our biggest problem when it comes to spiritual life is that we keep forgetting. We don’t remember who and whose we are. We can’t recall where we come from. And that’s true. Thank God, then, for the rituals of remembrance I’ve described today, the sort in which we are invited to become part of the event. For to remember in such a way gives us hope. We are reminded in the strongest possible terms, we witness once again, that God will not forget his people. And when God remembers, we are re­-membered, put together again from all the broken pieces of our lives. We are empowered and enabled, sent out to tell the story that is our own.

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