The Life Cycle of a Ritual

Chickney Church Altar by Mark Seton
Chickney Church Altar by Mark Seton
A couple of weeks ago I preached on Nehemiah 8, where the people read the Scriptures, came across the instructions to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles – probably from Leviticus 23 – and dwelt in tents for seven days as a reminder of the Exodus. It was a joyful celebration, which I must confess I find quite inconceivable… how can anyone enjoy the prospect of a week of camping?!

But one verse, which I didn’t get time to elaborate on in the talk, stuck out to me.

‘All the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.’ (Nehemiah 8:17)

The first reason this verse struck me was that it’s not, strictly speaking, true. It is not the case that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been practiced at all from Jeshua until that day. See Judges 21:19; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Kings 8:2, 65; Zechariah 14:16; Ezra 3:4 etc… So what is going on here?

Commentators suggest that the ritual, whilst still having been practiced across the centuries, had lost its significance. As people erected the booths over the years, they increasingly saw them as representing the kind of tents harvesters used in the fields. And so the feast morphed into a Harvest Festival, rather than a re-enactment of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings. But now, in the hands of people who had themselves just returned from exile, the ritual took on a deeper meaning. It spoke to their situation in a way that it hadn’t done for centuries.

I think this is a fascinating picture of the life cycle of rituals, which helps me understand something of what’s going on with many young Christians today. 

There has been much talk recently about the fact that the Millennial Generation is particularly drawn to forms of worship that demonstrate historical rootedness through the use of ritual. Leaving aside the very real possibility that this is nothing more than a fad, and the fact that ‘Millennials love rituals’ is as sweeping a generalisation as ‘women love pink’, I think there is truth in this observation. Liturgy, iconography, contemplative worship, symbolism and ancient creeds seem to resonate with the Millennial Generation, in a way that baffles many older guys; particularly the non-conformist ones who fought so hard to distance themselves from anything that had the whiff of ‘dead religion.’

But what Nehemiah 8 teaches us is that there is a life cycle to rituals. A particular habit or practice may start out being deeply relevant and powerful, but over time, whether through over-familiarity or lack of thoughtfulness, it can take on a different form and lose its usefulness entirely. This can create a knee-jerk reaction from some who want to do away with the ritual entirely. But in the hands of a new generation who sees themselves and the world differently, an ancient ritual can take on a new and profound significance.

Sometimes reviving the rituals of the past is helpful. It can remind us to look at the world through the eyes of our forefathers and see beautiful things that have helped thousands – if not millions – of people before us relate to God. If our natural bent is to scorn ancient practices, we would do well to keep an open mind and consider that just because a ritual may have become dead to us, doesn’t mean it either started that way, or will seem that way to others. What may appear to us as a stale practice may contain layers of meaning that others perceive and we fail to recognise. Nehemiah and his people suddenly realised a truth that had become obscured over the centuries: “we are exiled people dependent on our God for deliverance.” 

The flipside is also true. We would do well to question the rituals we practice to make sure they still have the function and power that we think they do. Non-conformists may be just as ritualistic as their denominational counterparts; it’s just they’ve made a ritual out of rejecting ritual! Every group of worshippers has its own collection of rituals and it helps from time to time to ask whether an act that we practice still carries the intended weight. If not it might be that we need to reinvent it, or at least re-teach about it, to help people understand its significance.

All of which should not be misunderstood as a plea to reinstate camping. There was a definite life cycle to that ritual (Moses: Feast of Tabernacles > Israel Pre-Exile: Harvest Ritual > Israel Post-Exile: Revived ‘Exile-re-enactment’ > Modern Christians: Camping at Bible Weeks) and on behalf of the Millennial Generation, I’d like to suggest we put that one to rest once and for all!

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