Friday, January 9, 2009

Mark 1: 4-11 The Baptism of Jesus (Rituals and Sacraments)

When I first came to North End, one of my greatest fears was that I would mess up, when performing the rituals that you have traditionally used around here. My background churchmanship was very low...very low indeed.

In fact, the Anglican church I attended during the 1990s was so 'low', that we only celebrated Holy Communion about once every three months...and that was in the evening. We never lit candles (because our priest thought them to be rather too Roman Catholic), and the Lord's table was never dressed in fine linen. We drank from a wine glass, and we ate chunks of real bread, scattering crumbs everywhere...instead of the crumbless wafers that are used here. Our minister (who never referred to himself as a priest) almost never wore a clerical collar...and almost never wore robes either. Robes were reserved for weddings and funerals...never for a Sunday service.

The church in which I served as a Curate was somewhat less closed to ritual...and while I was there, I learned a great deal about the power of symbols, and the value of certain rituals. But I was still a long way from the kind of Catholic tradition you have had here at St Mark's, over the years.

So I came here in fear and trembling. Would I get it right? Would I bow in all the right places? Would I know when to do things, and how to do them, in the 'right' way? But I was willing to give it a go - to see what I could learn from participating. Which is why I now carry the gospel high and proud in the air as we process into church. It's why I willingly go through the motions of carrying the same gospel out into the body of the church, when we read it. It's why I symbolically wash my hands before celebrating the Eucharist. And it’s why we had incense during Midnight Mass, just a couple of weeks ago. (Although the more observant of you will have noticed that I was too scared to do the 'wafting' myself...I got Helen to do it!)

This morning's gospel reading confronts us with a truth that some people find uncomfortable...especially those who would like to rid the church of all symbolism and ritual. That uncomfortable truth is this... Jesus was into ritual. By submitting to the practice of baptism, by allowing himself to be submerged under water in a symbolic action of cleansing, Jesus opened himself to letting the ritual speak to him, and to those around him. The result of his willingness was that voice of God, from heaven, announcing "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased".

And baptism wasn't the only ritual that Jesus engaged with. He worshipped in the synagogue and temple - subjecting himself to all the rituals that would have gone on there. He celebrated the Passover - a ritualistic feast, with a thousand year history. And he instituted new rituals for his followers - the symbolic washing of feet, and the Lord's Supper...the Eucharist which we will soon celebrate together.

Of course, every church, even the least obviously ritualistic, has its rituals. Just the act of gathering together at a set time, is a ritual. Choosing to start every service with half an hour of singing is a ritual. Having coffee and fellowship after the service is a ritual.

And of course, our whole lives are full of ritual. My morning ritual, for example, is very important to me. I wake up, pray briefly, then stagger down the stairs for my first infusion of super-strength caffiene. Clare and Emily will tell you that unless I'm allowed half an hour to come to, coffee in one hand, and (I'm ashamed to admit) a cigarette in the other...then I just won't be human. I need my morning ritual...its part of who I am.

So I completely understand why some of you tell me that you need your church rituals as well. Sometimes, when you tell me you want certain things to happen, I'm afraid I'm a bit naughty with you. Some of you have already heard my question...why? Why do you want to do such and such? What does it mean?

There's a reason why I ask that question. You see, for me, religion should never be about ritual - it should be about relationship. Unless a certain ritual serves to deepen our relationship with God and with each other, then, frankly, it should not be used. Let me tell you why I think that...

You will, I'm sure, remember the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. At the end of his conversation with God, Moses asks God what his name is. "Whom shall I say has sent me?" is the question that Moses has for God. Moses is after God's name...he wants a word which will sum up what God is. He wants a noun for God.

But God doesn't give Moses a noun...a simple naming word. No, God gives Moses a verb...a doing word. God says that his name is Yahweh...which translates as "I am that I am...or I will be what I will be".

Let's just make sure we are all clear about the difference between a noun and a verb. A noun is a naming word. If God had wanted to be known by a noun, he could have said "My name is Eric...or 'Great Big God', or The Creator". But God didn't choose a noun for himself. He chose a verb. A verb is an active, crying, loving, laughing, sighing, moaning, being...these are all verbs. God wanted Moses - and us - to understand that in his very the very core of who God was and is...there is the concept of being. This is a God who is active and at work. This is not the God who 'created'...but the God who goes on creating. This is not the God once loved the world...but the God who goes on loving us, second by second, minute by minute, day by day.

Just think about that for a moment. Perhaps it might help to think of a light bulb. A light bulb will only keep on shining as long as there is electricity flowing through the wire. We are like that. The Universe is like that. We only exist, and continue to exist, because God continues to give us life. St Paul, writing to the Colossians said about Jesus that 'in Him all things now hold together'. (Col 1:17)

So we don't worship a dead God, a God of the past, a God who can be named, and put in a box. We worship a living ever-creating God...a God who wants to flow into us, through us, and out of us.

So our rituals need to reflect that reality. Dead ritual is ritual which only speaks of how things were. Dead ritual is ritual which is done because 'that's the way we've always done it'. Living ritual is ritual that is connected to our common belief that God is alive among us, and that Jesus calls us to be his brothers and sisters.

So I hold the gospel high...because I want to point to the importance of the words it contains. I carry the gospel out to you, when it is read, because these words point us towards life...and they need to be shared with all the people. I bow to you, the congregation, because in you I see and experience God, and because I want you to know that I am your servant. I celebrate the Eucharist, or the Mass, or the Holy Communion...or whatever you want to call it...because I believe that Jesus offers us his life, as well as his death. By eating and drinking of that life, we ritualistically say 'yes' to living with God at our core...God as our Lord...God as the source of our own lives.

Ritual mattered to Jesus. Signs and Sacraments, like the Baptism he submitted to, and the meal he instituted, were living, visual images of the life that Jesus called us to. By his baptism, Jesus calls us to repent, to 'return' to God, the source of our life. By his last supper, Jesus invites us to drink deeply, and eat heartily, of the life he offers us. By these rituals, Jesus points us to the heart of what it means to be a son, or a daughter, of the living God.


1 comment:

  1. <"Hi Tom, you almost sound as ashamed of your "low" church background as you do of your smoking habit! That's a pity, for although lacking in ritual, that end of the Anglican spectrum still has lots to offer in directing us to a life that is God centred.">

    <"I agree that rituals and symbols are an important part of our church worship as they can help us focus on the deeper meaning of the words and prayers we say, one danger, however, is that it all gets a bit mystical and ends up needing subtitles for the uniniated. To my mind, the best church rituals are those that focus the mind and senses, not cloud them or baffle them like some stage magician. Incense, bells, chanting, robes, bowing, crossing oneself etc are all very stimulating and can heighten our appreciation of an occasion or give us an indication that a certain part of a service deserves particular reverance; but they only serve their purpose if they remain a ritual and don't become meaningless habit.">

    <"The church rituals I appreciate most are silence, sharing the Peace, the Lord's prayer, confession/absolution. The last one in my list may appear strange, but I feel it's comforting to know that despite all my failings, God's forgiveness is always and repeatedly available. By considering confession/absolution a ritualistic act, we focus on both our humanity and God's divinity.">

    <"The sacremental rituals of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Penance, Ordination and Eucharist are all powerfully evokative events, but the day-to-day rituals of life can keep us more intouch with God - perhaps that's what your low church background is more centred on - the daily experience of God, not just high days and holi-days. ">

    <"Your point about "living ritual" is so spot on and our church 'services' must indeed reflect an understanding of a living God, an ongoing God, a creating and recreating God, a God who calls us and wants to engage with us, not a God who just wants us to turn up every Sunday, say some prayers, bow in the right places then go home. A doing God, is one who is not afraid of change because She is constantly changing and recreating Her Self. A doing God, wants us to DO too. This perhaps is one of the biggest differences (and yet, similarities) in the "low" and "high" ends of the Anglican church. The "low" belief/mantra of Faith Not Works is one of the greatest mysteries to me for a life of service is surely of equal, if not greater merit than an idle life of piety. Mother Teresa was the greatest example in living memory of someone so dedicated to spreading God's message of love and healing by her work with India's poor and sick. If we could follow her example and make helping our neighbour as much a ritualistic part of our religious expression, then we would be on the right tracks. The anglo-catholics can be just as guilty of idle piety as the low church protestants; the difference is that they hide behind pomp and circumstance instead of hour long sermons. ">