The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Rituals
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Rituals
July 9, 2017
This morning, I want to talk about sacred rituals. When I say those words, most of you probably think of a priest walking the aisle in a cathedral, swinging the incense container back and forth or you think of a pastor holding a baby and dripping water on that child’s head in a moment of baptism or you think of a day like today when we gather to celebrate communion. All of these things are sacred rituals that take place in churches. However, scared rituals are not limited to sanctuaries and are not only administered by priests and pastors.
Do you drink coffee? Have you been a coffee drinker for a long time? I know that you have a sacred ritual. In my house, the equivalent to the priest walking with the incense and creating that sacred space with a scent is my incredible, beloved coffee maker that starts making the coffee when I’m still asleep. I wake not to an alarm but to one of my very favorite smells. If I get up in time, I can listen to the water dripping across the grounds, a baptism of sorts, a kind of holy water. And would breakfast even be breakfast without my beloved coffee?
I drink it black. Maybe you use cream? What’s that? You use sugar, too? How could you? Forget those differences, though. What we share in common is that we have our special coffee mug. (I use the same one every morning.) I enjoy the moment of the first pour. And then, I go to my spot on the couch and settle in. (Interestingly, this spot is only my spot when everyone else is still asleep. I’m not sure how that happened.) Then, I sit and feel the warmth of the cup in my hand and feel the warm of the coffee as I sip it and I start to think about my day. All is right in the world…
Unless, God forbid, something or someone interferes. Maybe I have company who gets up too early. I don’t get the alone time that I’m used to. Maybe the power went out the night before and the timer on my coffee pot got messed up. Geez…now I have to wait. Maybe…worst case scenario…my coffee pot broke. Sure…I could go out for coffee but apparently I am different that 90 percent of the rest of the American public because I believe that no coffee is as good as the coffee that I make at home.
If you think that you have no rituals in your life…look again! Can’t you see the similarities between the priest officiating at communion and you setting up your coffee pot and overseeing the miracle of coffee? There is a routine and what results from properly overseeing that routine is something sacred, something that leads us to a deeper place in our day. If you don’t believe me, if you are the coffee maker, just try to let someone else take that responsibility. It will be almost impossible not to critique what they are doing—even if it is just in your own head. Just ask a pastor or priest who is visiting someone else’s church if they didn’t squirm at different points. It’s not that things were done wrong. It’s just hard to escape the thought, “Well, that’s not the way I would have done that!”
It’s not that there has to be only one way to do something in order for it to be a sacred way. Rather, it just has to be my way or our way and we have to have done it that way long enough that we own that way as our own. What comes with repetition is comfort, particularly when the hard days come. When it feels like the chaos is about to win there is nothing better than turning with confidence to the rituals of this life. “I know this will help because it has helped so many times before.”
Again, I want to say that the sacred rituals of our lives can include church things like communion and baptism but most of our sacred rituals are not grounded there. Do you watch sunrises or sunsets? Do you like to watch the moon rise from the lake? When you get up in the morning, do you pretty much have your own routine for getting ready? When it is time for dinner, does preparing dinner and sitting down to share it look pretty much the same from day to day? When it is time for bed, do you have your own way you unwind? (I can’t imagine going to sleep without reading first..)
The truth is that we are creatures of habit. These habits can be not particularly healthy. Just watch the rituals that a smoker goes through in unwrapping and opening a new pack. Just watch the routine that is there and loved maybe just a little too much as someone opens the evening’s bottle of wine. Part of what makes positive change so hard is that we have to break habits and when we try, those habits die hard. We literally are not sure what to do with ourselves…
We can choose to make positive change, though, and we can do so by harnessing the power of habit. Social scientists say that if we establish a new behavior and practice that behavior for six weeks, we will have a new, positive habit. So, for example, if you really wanted to build prayer into your life, attaching the practice of prayer to already established habits in your life is a powerful idea. So, as little children, we might have been taught to make prayer a part of our bedtime routine. Or, in our families, we might say grace at a meal or even at every meal. Even just getting to the point where going to church is just what we do on Sunday…to the point where it would be weird not to go…can become a new habit. We can be intentional and choose to make room for and honor the sacred routines of our lives or we can just fall into bad habits. The choice is ours.
I think Jesus really understood this aspect of what it means to be a human being: we are creatures of habit. So, at the end of his ministry, he was searching for a way to connect with his disciples and reassure himself that they would remember him beyond everything that was about to happen. How they would respond to the next week’s events wasn’t entirely clear. Where they would end up when all was said and done was open to debate. However, one thing was for sure: however things unfolded, wherever these disciples ended up, they were still going to eat. So, he chose to tie remembering him to eating: “Each time you eat this bread…do so in remembrance of me.”
It’s true that they were celebrating Passover with the Seder meal, a wonderful Jewish tradition that linked an annual meal to remembering their ancestors in faith. Jesus and the disciples would have shared that special meal together at least twice before. He could have been saying, “Each time you share this Seder meal, remember me!” That would be alright, too.
However, I think Jesus’ message is more broad and every day sacred than that. For three years, these men had been through all sorts of ups and downs on the rollercoaster ride that was Jesus’ ministry. From the start, there had to be basic worries for the disciples as they essentially became homeless to follow Christ: “What will we eat?” “Where will we stay?” It’s not that the path was easy or that every meal was great or every bed was perfect. However, some of their most treasured memories had to be of eating together at the end of those days, of the conversation they shared and the closeness that they felt. There was food. There was a place to stay. And no matter what the day was like, Jesus was with them. This was the experience they shared with one another on the road.
This was the experience that Jesus wanted them to share going forward. For the men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus presence is made known through the breaking of the bread. The disciples had to hear that and think not of a Seder meal or a temple practice but of the concrete experience of that presence that they had known at so many different tables, through so many different meals. When Jesus told the disciples in some of his last words that he would be with them always, they had to have thought to themselves, I bet he’ll be with us most clearly in the places where he’s been with us before when we do some things in the ways that we always did them.
So, as followers of the man with whom they had shared so many meals, they did what he did. Before they ate, they paused and thanked God for the food that they had and for the presence that they could feel. They looked around the table and saw the faces of those whom they loved and they realized that they could see Christ’s face in those faces, too. Prayer became a sacred ritual in a day because it was connected to something as built in as eating.
Then, as those followers became part of faith communities who searched for their own rituals, it was natural for eating to be at the heart of their tradition. The last meal that the disciples shared with Jesus became “The Last Supper.” Remembering that meal became “communion.” And, though the rituals would vary from serving tiny pieces of bread and tiny cups to a sharing a common cup and dipping the bread in that cup, the meaning of the ritual would remain the same: this is a meal through which we remember Christ; in which we feel Christ’s presence; by which we remind ourselves of the new covenant of love. “This is my body, broken for you…This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant…Do this in remembrance of me.”
Like all rituals, the meaning is lived out not in a singular moment but in the way in which the ritual is there for us again and again. What is familiar comforts us. What is mysterious challenges us. Yet, what is certain is that we are no more likely to forget Christ’s presence than we would be likely to forget to eat. As faithful followers, the meal we share becomes the stuff by which our souls are fed.
And yet, we don’t live by bread alone, as Jesus said. We have a comforting cup of coffee. We read the Sunday paper, in the order in which it was meant to be read! We settle in to watch the Cubs the way we always have. And when it is time for bed, we brush and floss and scratch and read and offer up a prayer in our sacred order which comforts us to sleep.