This week the point is: Rituals and Traditions are containers of meaning. They are not the meaning itself. They are merely actions which are done to remind us of an event that had — or will have — meaning. We dishonor rituals and traditions if we consistently follow them without knowing the meaning. The only time we should be ok with people following traditions blindly is when those people are not ready yet to understand the meaning. We can tolerate that for the immature for a time, but we should expect them to mature enough to see the meaning. What is great is that when that works, there is an endless depth of layers of meaning to discover. Layers which remain burried for those who just think the ritual is important, not the meaning.

I read an article about worship changes this morning that fit what I was thinking of writing to build on the last few posts on ritual and tradition. The author of the article came to the conclusion that congregations had taken on parts of the Praise and Worship practice or form of worship without understanding the principles and theology behind them. This creates a disconnect.  Here’s a quote:

“During the 1990’s many mainline congregations began to import the songs, sounds, and some of the sights (like hand raising and clapping) of the praise and worship style. In many cases, what got lost was the robust pneumatology behind this approach to worship. In other words, many mainline churches brought the form, but didn’t bring the theology of praise and worship into their congregations.”

You can read the article by following this link:

So bits and pieces of a tradition were adopted as “the thing to do” without learning there were some deep spiritual and theological reasons people did Praise and Worship the way they did. Reasons for actions and the meaning of them is important. The meaning of any ritual or tradition we practice must be regularly reviewed and re-clarified so that the meaning ‘shines through’ the ritual. If we do not do that, we create and follow ’empty tradition’ and we are traditionalistic.

Let me tell you a story that is merely a different version of the “cutting the end off the roast” story. It is based on factual events, and on several different experiences being brought together into one account.

In a small country church, on Lord’s Supper Sunday, the elements were prepared and would be set out on the communion table by the Deacons. The silver trays would be cleaned and filled and set on the table, and then special linen cloths would be unfolded to cover it all. When it came time for communion to be distributed, during the song before, an Elder would come forward and take a bit of time to carefully remove the linen coverings and carefully fold them up. A young girl – who had been at the church with her Deacon father and had watched the preparations – watched all this ritualized action and on the way home from church asked why that was done: “Daddy, why does everything get covered and uncovered so carefully?” Her father only knew that is how he had always seen it done as long as he could remember, and he thought it was part of keeping it important and special. So that is what he said, mumbling something about it being like wrapping and unwrapping a present. She was satisfied with his answer, but he was not. At the next church anniversary, when one of the older pastors came to visit, he asked him about where the practice came from. The pastor said “when the church was built, with the horse stable next door and so many farms nearby, we had a lot of flies around, so we covered things up.”

And so the deacon found out that what had become a ritual had a simple original practical purpose, and it had now become part of the ritual. But the original need no longer existed. He proposed changing things at the next few meetings, but met great reluctance and resistance. The covering and uncovering ritual had taken on a meaning of its own, and it became clear that people were attached to that covering and uncovering. But in reality, they had no principled theological purpose relevant to the biblical meaning of Lords Supper.

I hope you will see, when we get to doing a Passover Lord’s Supper as we come to Easter, that the tradition of the Passover had many activities built into it that had meaning, and that the children even had ritualized questions they were to ask that reminded them of the meaning of what they were doing, of the story behind the ritual. The whole thing is a re-enacting of events in the history of Israel. And each time it was done, the meaning and memory of God saving Israel was re-enacted and reviewed.

We need to be careful that our traditions are containers for meaning. We need to ensure that they are not followed “out of custom or superstition” as one of our forms used to warn against. And every now and then we need to review whether a tradition as we have practiced it is still valuable, or if there are better ways to achieve  and communicate the same ancient meaning.