Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ritual and Event

In preparing next Sunday's sermon, something caught my attention that hadn't before. In Exodus 12, the description of the Passover ritual precedes the event itself, and then in fact, when the actual events of that night are described, it is with just a few sentences, almost in passing.

There is a huge build up, and then ... fffwwip ... it is gone.

God first describes the ritual to Moses and Aaron - they in turn give that description to the people - and it is reported that "the Israelites went and did just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron." (12:28) The ritual descriptions are elaborate and detailed, and many commentators say they represent fragments of a few different versions of the story. And then the actual enactment of the instructions is only briefly mentioned.

This has made me think about the relationship between ritual and event. In my mind, if a ritual is a prescribed procedure or a specific patterned behavior, an event is just any ol' thing that happens. So a ritual is an event but not every event is a ritual.

Rituals bring the meaning and power of events into the given moment. As Terence Fretheim puts it in the Exodus commentary of Interpretation series, "The reenactment is as much salvific event as the original enactment." So it makes sense that at this point in the Exodus story, the redactor of the book of Exodus is divinely inspired to record this chapter as an ancient worship planner.

So basically Exodus 12 is a set of liturgical instructions for a ritual designed to reenact an event that, in the sequence of the book of Exodus, hasn't happened yet. That in and of itself gives great power and meaning to subsequent reenactments of the event. It is as if the ritual, in a sense, is the event.

This idea gets more wonderful when you think in terms of baptism and holy communion. The baptism ritual is more than empty words and a splash of water. Holy Communion is more than going through the motions of a meal together. Each of these rituals convey power in that they reenact and thus are an event of history brought fully into the present moment, both in rememberance of the past and also in anticipation of the future.

And here's my final thought: we need not equate ritual with rigidity. Ritual is not just a fancy way to say "the way we've always done it." Ritual is alive and moves and changes as we change. Ritual is the structure of life like ice crystals are the structure of a cloud. We need to repeat ritual exactly in order for it to retain it's power. What is important is that it retain it's power, not the form in which that power is conveyed.

I wonder if that's why the Passover ritual has a moment when the children are to ask, "What do you mean by this observance?" (12:26) What a wonderful moment! If you can't answer a child when they ask, "Why are we doing this, again?" you should probably stop doing it. Because then your ritual will have become a rut.

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