Rituals and Their Value   5 comments

Above:  A Chart of the Western Christian Year

Image Source = Patnac

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Galatians 4:1-5:1 (Revised English Bible):

This is what I mean:  so long as the heir is a minor, he is no better off than a slave, even though the whole estate is his; he is subject to guardians and trustees until the date set by his father.  So it is with us:  during our minority we were slaves, subject to the elemental spirits of the universe, but when the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to buy freedom for those who were under the law, in order that we might attain the status of sons.

To prove that you are sons, God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying,

Abba, Father!

You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, an heir by God’s own act.

Formerly, when you did not now God, you were slaves to gods to gods who are not gods at all.  But now that you do acknowledge God–or rather, now that he has acknowledged you–how can you turn back to those feeble and bankrupt elemental spirits?  Why do you propose to enter their service all over again?  You keep special days and months and seasons and years.  I am afraid that all my hard work on you may have been wasted.

Put yourselves in my place, my friends, I beg you, as I put myself in yours.  You never did me any wrong:  it was bodily illness, as you will remember, that originally led to my bringing you the gospel, and you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition; on the contrary you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as you might have welcomed Christ Jesus himself.  What has become of the happiness you felt then?  I believe you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me, had that been possible!  Have I now made myself your enemy by being frank with you?

Others are lavishing attention on you, but without sincerity:  what they really want is to isolate you so that you may lavish attention on them.  To be the object of sincere attentions is always good, and not just when I am with you.  You are my own children, and I am in labour with you all over again until you come to have the form of Christ.  How I wish I could be with you now, for then I could modify my tone; as it is, I am at my wits’ end with you.

Tell me now, you that are so anxious to be under the law, will you not listen to what the law says?  It is written there that Abraham had two sons, the one by a slave, the other by a free-born woman.  The slave’s son was born in ordinary course of nature, but the free woman’s through God’s promise.  This is an allegory:  the two women stand for two covenants.  The one covenant comes from Mount Sinai; that is Hagar, and her children are born into slavery.  Sinai is a mountain in Arabia and represents the Jerusalem of today, for she and her children are in slavery.  But the heavenly Jerusalem is a free woman; she is our mother.  For scripture says,

Rejoice, O barren woman who never bore a child; break into a shout of joy, you who have never been in labour; for the deserted wife will have more children than she who lives with her husband.

Now you, my friends, like Isaac, are children of God’s promise, but just as in those days the natural-born son persecuted the spiritual son, so it is today.  Yet what does the scripture say?

Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave shall not share the inheritance with the son of the free woman.

You see, then, my friends, we are no slave’s children; our mother is the free woman.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and refuse to submit to the yoke of slavery.

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Christian liberty is a theme which runs through the Letter to the Galatians.  This liberty frees us to fulfill our spiritual potential as heirs, not servants, and as children of God.  That is the context for Paul’s words which follow:

Your religion is beginning to be a matter of observing special days and months and seasons and years.–Galatians 4:10, The New Testament in Modern English, J. B. Phillips, 1972

Paul referred to the legalistic observance of Jewish fasts and feasts, as well as to certain Gentile (Pagan) celebrations.  The key word in the previous sentence is “legalistic.”  Many rituals are inherently neutral; the good or bad of them comes from those who observe them.

I am an Episcopalian and an unrepentant ritualist.  I remember a conversation from the early 1990s.  Some students from the Baptist Student Union at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Tifton, Georgia, criticized formal worship, saying that it consisted of merely going through the motions.  The wording they used suggested that they understood the most sincere worship to be the simplist worship.  They did not grasp that one can go through the motions regardless of whether one has two or thirty-two of them.  And, as Father Peter Ingeman, Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta, Georgia, has said correctly, a liturgy is simply an agreed-upon, regular, and predictable pattern of worship.  So anyone who attends a church with an agreed-upon, regular, and predictable pattern of worship goes to a liturgical church.

There is a story, which might be true.  The pastor of First Baptist Church in a county seat town in the U.S. South hosted a community Thanksgiving service.  The local Episcopal priest participated.  At the appointed time, the host pastor introduced the priest:

Now Father Jones from the Episcopal Church will say one of his…written prayers.

The priest walked to the pulpit and said,

Let us pray.  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name….

Paul did not write that Christians should no longer observe festivals and keep the Sabbath, although an inaccurate reading of the passage can point in that direction.  Indeed, the interpretation of Galatians 4:9-11 has led to the condemnation of the religious observance of Christmas and Easter.  A textbook example of one variety of Calvinist Jure Divino theology is the following resolution, which the 1899 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the old “Southern Presbyterian Church,” passed:

There is no warrant for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, but rather contrary (see Galatians iv.9-11; Colossians ii.16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the gospel in Jesus Christ.

The Journal of the General Assembly, 1899, page 430

Rituals mark time and transitions.  This time differs from that time, and a certain ritual divides them.  One can argue convincingly, for example, that a couple is (or ought to be) spiritually married prior to the marriage ceremony, but the ritual does define the moment they become married in the eyes of the church, the state, or both.  This is an important distinction in law and society.  And I had become a de facto Episcopalian prior to my confirmation, but now I have a date to observe every year.  (The anniversary of my confirmation is December 22.)  Rituals help with regard to social cohesion.  What separates boys from men, informal couples from married people, lay people from clergy, and students from graduates?  Rituals.  And what gives unique characters to the seasons of Advent, Christmas, the Season after Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the Season after Pentecost?  Rituals.

Paul meant that one ought not observe certain days then think that one has fulfilled one’s duties.  Religion ought not to consist entirely of such occasions, but they can enrich it.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

NOVEMBER 3, 2011 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF RICHARD HOOKER, ANGLICAN THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF DANIEL PAYNE, AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL BISHOP

THE FEAST OF THE INAUGURATION OF THE CHURCH OF PAKISTAN, 1970

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Published originally at ORDINARY TIME DEVOTIONS BY KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR on November 3, 2011

Adapted from this post:

http://ordinarytimedevotions.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/week-of-proper-23-monday-year-2/

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