The season of rituals

Ritual has an interesting place in the culture I find myself living in. Rituals, especially shared rituals, are falling aside in this era of individualism. What are our remaining shared rituals? I find myself thinking “Well, there’s Sweet Caroline in the 8th inning…” Many of our oldest, time honored rituals seem to be evolving past recognition (weddings used to be a religious service) or falling away altogether. I myself didn’t watch fireworks this 4th of July, and have eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a Denny’s.

When starting a family, especially when far from your own family, one is confronted with the question of what rituals you’ll create. Will you open presents on Christmas Eve? When do you put up the tree? There are other rituals which simply arise through repetition – like when you realize you’ve thrown a last-minute New Year’s Eve party every year for the last three years. And then there are the rituals that are some sort of strange hybrid, like making up your own holidays and investing them with energy, love and meaning until they become as rich and real to you as any holiday that lives on a pre-printed calendar. (Also, it turns out you can now print your own calendars…)

One tradition that I loved from my family of birth, which I had trouble carrying over to my family in Massachusetts, was the Christmas Tree. Living in the land where Christmas trees grow, we’d always go to Jim Hale’s and tromp around the fields getting increasingly cranky and objecting to each other’s selections of tree. (The fight was actually an acknowledged part of the ritual.) Then we’d get a tree that was too tall and struggle to get it home and into the house. Mom would hide in the kitchen “making cookies” while we wrestled the lights onto the timber, cut about two feet off the bottom with a chainsaw, and argue about the best order of cutting the bindings. Then we’d all gather together and hang the ornaments while listening to Roger Whittaker’s iconic Christmas album. It was always a stressful day, but somehow what began in tumult – with broken icy ground underfoot – ended peacefully, eating warm cookies and debating whether Darcy the Dragon was an ironic anti-capitalist morality play in the warm light of our own Christmas tree. (Assuming no one was still on the roof putting the cut-off top of the tree on top of the ridgeline to at least make it look right from the outside.)

I tried to pull as much of this as possible into my home, but my husband does not love hanging lights (so I can’t disappear to make cookies). There are no cantankerous octagenarians selling Christmas trees around here. And our ceiling is now and always has been a mere 8 feet tall. So over time I’ve learned to change the tradition to match our reality. This year, I decided also to give up my hope of recreating what I thought it should be, and lean into what it was at that moment. So maybe I didn’t have all four of us hanging ornaments and talking about their history and what they meant to us. Maybe I wasn’t making cookies (but Grey was). Maybe I would just do the parts that were important to me, and my family would join me if it was also important to them.

The tree got up in record time, and it was much less stressful than usual. But my husband commented afterwards that although he’d never really loved the ritual of adorning the tree, somehow not being in the scrum of snowflake hanging had hollowed out a little bit of the festive feeling he got looking at the tree. As he and I tread through our fifth decade (and third decade together), we begin to understand more about ourselves. A ritual may not need to be fun or enjoyable to be meaningful.

On the flip side, the last year or two I’ve really wanted to pull the Advent Wreath into our own practice of the holiday. I find it hilarious that in a society so willing to create any Christmas crap you can think of (Santa toilet paper? Zombie gingerbread men ornaments?), it’s actually hard to find something that’s a huge part of the religious practice of Christmas. I looked for years for a home advent wreath that would accept thick pillar candles that could burn the season through. I finally found a five-stand candle holder, and discovered Ikea sells advent candles. Woooo!

But you can’t just go light an advent calendar, willy nilly. It needs, well, a ritual. So over the last year or two a small family ritual has quietly evolved. This year, I’ve been particularly enjoying it. We gather as a family in front of the tree, and we talk a little about the theme of this particular week in Advent. Last week was hope. This week was peace. We dwell a brief moment on those, and what they mean in our lives. Then there’s a small reading. Last weekend was the Magnificat. Today, I asked Grey to read The Peace of Wild Things. We light the candle. (Thane likes that part.) We sing a hymn. (I like that part best.) Last week was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (traditional for Advent communion Sunday). This week, I chose “O Come Emmanuel”. And then we are done and return to our evening, the growing line of light fighting against the waning of the sun. It is brief and beautiful.

What are some of your precious rituals? Have you successfully ported rituals from one generation to another? Which ones did you create with intent? Which ones evolved from repetition? Which have you lost forever, and how do you mourn them? What do you wish you had a ritual for – to make deeper and richer?

The children love the angel

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Barry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Religious action vs religious belief

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between belief and action in a life of faith. One of our hosts at our Maine retreat was raised an observant Jew, and obviously since it was a Christian Education youth retreat, most of the rest of us came from Christian backgrounds. At one point in an excellent discussion, he pointed out that being Jewish had very little to do with belief, and a lot to do with inheritance and observance. You could think the whole Yahweh thing was so much hogwash, but if you were born Jewish and lived according to the law, you were still Jewish. (Forgive me, friends, if that’s an oversimplification.)

Christianity, meanwhile, has evolved to be almost exclusively belief-based. If you (yes you!) wanted to join my church, all you’d have to say is, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”. You don’t have to promise to quit having multiple wives, murdering people, cheating the poor, robbing from the blind, etc. The criteria for being Christian has become almost entirely based upon orthodoxy of belief. And lest you blame that on the dissolute modern era, the very first big ol’ schism of the church was the so called Arian heresy (c. 350?) that claimed that Jesus was not coeternal with God the father. Tons of Christians died fighting this difference of belief out.

I’d like to point out that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus claim to be coequal and coeternal with God the Father. At least, I haven’t seen it anywhere. I’d also like to point out that Jesus spends almost no time talking about where he fits into a trinitarian theology. Instead, he talks a lot about helping the poor, being kind to others, etc.

Now, Jesus does talk about belief. There’s the father who prays my favorite prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help my disbelief.” And Jesus says, at one point, “No man comes to the father but by me.” But I would argue that Jesus himself give priority to right-acting over right-believing.

For example, with the youth group all of last year, I taught about a passage in Matthew. It’s a scene of final judgement. The righteous people (the Pharisees and keepers of the law, as I see them) stand self-certain in front of the judge, and he gives them hell because while they may have kept ritual purity laws, and believed the right things, they were not kind to him. And since they worry a lot about important people, and the judge is obviously important, they protest that they never neglected him. He tells them that he is the poor people, and in not helping the poor, they were not helping him. Then he welcomes the dirty people (the people who worked with their hands, upon whom that first group heaped scorn for their failure to abide by the laws, or their superstitious stupid beliefs), and thanks them for being kind to him. And they’re confused — they’re not even usually supposed to TALK to big important people like that. When did they help him? And of course, he gives the same answer. Whatever you did for the poor and needy among us, you did for me.

I love that scripture. Anyway, my point is that Jesus clearly gives priority to right-acting over right-believing — at least in that passage. But I don’t think that means law-abiding-ness. I think that means kindness. And I think that he would find cruel-acting in order to punish wrong-believing anathema. Which is, of course, exactly what we Christians have done for the last 1967 years.

I am an evangelical Christian (please note the little “e” not the big “E”). To me, that means that I have a story of hopeful and meaningful living to offer. I believe Christianity can help guide people towards lives which are better, and offers the hope of a life after this living. I believe there are many people who live lives devoid of hope, meaning, and joy, and that Christianity may help them. So if I encounter someone who needs a path towards joyous, hopeful living, I offer them what I have: Christianity.

However, I think it would be the height of arrogance to decide and announce that I happened to be born into and introduced to the ONLY right way to believe.

Instead, I will try to choose to see the right-acting. You could be a born-again Christian who attacks others for believing “wrongly”, says that the poor and destitute deserved their fates for not working hard, and earns money by cheating the poor. Or you could be an agnostic or atheist or Pagan or Muslim or Jew who is kind towards people in your daily life, tries to do no harm towards others, and would not want to profit at other’s expenses. I will take the right-acter over the right-believer any day of the week.