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How Does Ritual Lead us to God?

by David Gray, January 16, 2011

catholic mass ritual

For as long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to ritual, especially when it is connected to pageantry and initiation rites. It is the apparent conveyance of a deeper hidden meaning behind the ritual that captures both my eyes and the imagination.

In my twenties I began to study the history of initiation rites and what is commonly called the ‘Heroes Journey’ and I became even more fascinated with how ritual has always been an inescapable partner in our planetary drama.

Ritual is a comprehensive action that is performed to convey a meaning that is intended to either be permanently impressed upon the mind of participant or to serve as a veiled mystery. Ritual is not something merely relegated to satanic, pagan, tribal, or secret initiation rites. On the contrary, ritual can be incorporated into as something as informal as a gang initiation (jumping), where the initiate being beat by members of the gang is the action being performed to impress upon their mind the price of their obligation to the gang. ‘Blood Pinning’ in the United States Navy is ritual. Dipping our finger in Holy Water and making the Sign of the Cross before we enter the nave at Church is ritual.

Indeed, ritual is only a tool that is used to convey either a truth or a lie – either something holy or something profane. Yet, the deep beauty of ritual is that no one can control it. Inasmuch as ritual points to something, no one can control what the participant receives from the direction to which it points. For example, two men could experience the very same ritual; yet, receive the allegory and symbolic meaning in two completely different ways. In fact, one or both of the men could remain completely oblivious to any attempt being made to impress upon their mind any clear or veiled meaning.

I once heard someone say that, ‘The Catholic Church is worship for grownups’. Perhaps that language is too triumphant on our part, but I understand the point being made there that worship in non-Catholic Churches do lack ritual. Yet, I raise the point here that ritual is not something that finds you; rather, ritual is something that you find.

In most rituals there is movement called the ‘procession’ in which members of the group move to a set destination in a ceremonial manner. At the Sacrifice of the Mass the people gathered together will sing as the priests, deacons, and ministers enter the nave and proceed to the sanctuary, and after worship has ended those same people will leave the sanctuary and proceed out the nave through the people. I am intrigued with the meaning being conveyed through this ritual, that as the priest comes from the people, so to the people must he return. That is, he cannot stay in the sanctuary, no more than the high priest in the Old Covenant could remain there; rather, after his duties at the altar have been completed he must return to the community from whence he came and serve the people there. Just understanding that little ritual at Mass can draw us deeper into relationship with God, because it reminds us of what service we have been called to and that the priests and deacons are just one of us and from us – together, we are all a part of the baptized priesthood, even though we are not all ordained.

Another ritual at the Sacrifice of the Mass that I enjoy is how we genuflect or bow before we take our seat. In days long ago and in some places still near today the people would genuflect (go down on one knee) before the King, Queen, or person of rank. In the Catholic Church we genuflect before the Real Presence (Eucharistic Presence) of Christ the King in the Tabernacle. This ritual of the genuflection reminds me of what I love most about the Mass, which is that it is all about Jesus Christ. The preaching may be good or bad, the singing may be on key or off-key, or the Church building itself may be either a grand cathedral or a back alley, but none of that matters because I have come there for none of those things. Before I take my seat at Mass I genuflect before Him who I have come to hear, taste, and see.

The ritual of standing while the Gospel is being read at Mass is there to impress upon our minds the fact that there is a unique presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel. We believe that Christ “is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the church” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #7). Then after the priest greets us with the words “The Lord be with you,” we join in with him by marking a small cross on our forehead, lips and heart with our thumb. The ritualistic meaning here is revealed in our silent prayer; whereas, the priest is praying silently that God will clean his mind and his heart so that his lips may worthily proclaim the Gospel; we are praying that the word of God will forever be impressed upon our minds, proclaimed by our lips, and active in our hearts.

The ‘Sign of Peace’ is also one of my favorite rituals at Mass. After the praying the ‘Our Father’ in which we have asked God to “forgive us of our trespasses as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us” the ‘Sign of Peace’ is there to actually draw us into our prayer. The ‘Sign of Peace’ is not there for a meet-and-greet! Much the opposite! The ‘Sign of Peace’ is a ritualistic sign of reconciliation with God and neighbor. Nor are the words we exchange “Peace be with you” during the handshake or hug an elongated version of the greeting ‘Hi’! On the contrary, these are the very words of deep love, power, and healing that Christ Jesus spoke to His friends, and for that reason we also exchange them with ours.

I have spent a few paragraphs above talking about how the rituals that we find in Church can draw us into a deeper understanding of God and the community that He is making holy. But I want to close this article by making the point that every one of us has little rituals in our own life that can do the very same thing. That is, whether it is the informal rituals that you perform when you wake up in the morning, or the more formal rituals that you enter into at family holiday gatherings, there is something in all of them that points back to God, who is the source of all illumination or truth.

For example, after prayer (hopefully) one of the first things that many people do in the morning is turn on the computer or television to find out what is going on in their life. That morning ritual really impresses upon our mind the bright contrast between us and God. That is, we need to turn on an electronic device, talk to people, or get to work to find out what is going on, but God simply knows all things at all times. That morning ritual is a reminder of human frailty and draws us into deeper humility to God.

Another example of a common ritual that many families have and I don’t know if my daughters see yet is the tradition of buying a new ornament every year for the Christmas tree and hanging it together. I believe this ritual slowly impresses upon the minds of children that the Christ Mass is as much as giving as it is receiving.

I hope you enjoy discovering or re-discover the connection between ritual and God, both at Church and in other areas of your life. Doing so has certainly brought deeper meaning and value into mine.

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