Dark and still, the ancient stone walls were breathing and holy. The silence was not oppressive, but peaceful. I dropped a coin into the tiny slot at the base of the pillar and carefully lit a long wooden match. Whispering my prayer, I lit a small votive on the stand before me, one of many bright flames breaking the darkness of the church. Wisps of smoke filtered into the dome above me, as the flame's very fragrance perfumed the vaults of heaven.
There was no magic in that ritual. No special force or mystique. But it had power, that simple act of flame, and smoke, and prayer. As the candle burned, so, too, did my plea to God sear upon my heart. Years later, I carry with me the memory of that moment, still.
I grew up in a world without religious ritual – or so we thought. Repetition equaled rote, and thus, we held ourselves above common prayer, rites of passage, and liturgy. As I’ve grown, and my church has matured, these practices have returned into our worship, little by little, and I am enthralled by the mystery and the power of these rituals. While traveling in Europe, I loved the opportunity to light a candle in the ancient churches. One among thousands of prayers offered in that sacred space.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)
But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” (Leviticus 12:8)
I find it remarkable that the virgin mother of our Lord the Messiah still felt compelled to offer a sacrifice for the impurity of his birth. How could giving life to God With Us cause anything, or anyone, to be unclean? And yet, she did not hesitate. Just a week from childbirth, she traveled to Jerusalem, following the ancient laws as her mother and sisters and ancestors had done for a thousand years and more.
The Torah decrees that when a woman gives birth, she is in a state of spiritual impurity, a state defined by the absence of holiness, for seven days if the child is born male, fourteen days if female. To return to spiritual wholeness, she must offer a sacrifice. A lamb, if she can afford it. A pair of doves and two pigeons if she cannot. A sacrifice on behalf of The Sacrifice.
There was nothing impure about the birth of the Messiah, and yet, the ritual was vital nonetheless.
Christ did not need to be immersed for the forgiveness of his sins, and yet, the ritual of baptism was vital nonetheless.
There is power in ritual. A vitality of routine, actions, and words that contain value in their very repetition.There is a sacred beauty in the recurrence of a blessed act worship.
The weeks before us in December are rich with tradition and repeated ritual. The preparation of favorite meals, the wrapping of gifts. The frantic search of the Elf’s next pose, the photos with Santa at the mall. The careful placement of the nativity. The ornaments unwrapped, memories falling from the tissue paper of places, and people, and friends.
These oft repeated acts can, easily, become mindless habits.
Or, they can be worship. The mundane and the silly, the meaningful and profound. Repeated moments and actions, each aspiring to be that sacred act of ritual worship, as long as we’re paying attention.
Adelle Gabrielson Assistant to Children’s Ministry Campbell Church of Christ Campbell, CA