It’s Ash Wednesday and some of us may have been or may be planning to go to a service in which we will have our foreheads ashed. This involves having a dark cross placed on our forehead by the vicar, which is made out of the ashes of last year’s palm crosses.
Why do we do this? For a number of reasons – to make a public demonstration of our intention to be penitent, to show others that Lent has begun, to taken an action before God, to remember that one day we too will be ash. There are many reasons and all are valid. But do they matter to God? Does God care that we have a black cross on our foreheads? Or to get right to the heart of this mediation – what is the purpose of ritual?
The play of ritual is something that pervades human life – we each have particular ways we spend Christmas for instance. When people are deeply traumatised or insecure they will often devise rituals for themselves for protection and reassurance. And in all religions there are rituals for coming close to the divine (yes even quakers follow a pattern and emerging church has patterns that change, that’s their ritual).
And herein can lie the difficulty for spiritual people. It is too easy to get attached to rituals so that the ritual becomes something that has value in and of itself, and we don’t want to let it go. When that happens in our spiritual life then we are in trouble. We are making the ritual our god.
A simple example of this would be a refusal to engage in different worship styles. Or a criticising newcomers for bringing in different ways of praying, dressing, expressing themselves.
So the play of the ritual can be something that helps us express reverence, a belief in order and a hopefulness in controlling the universe or expressing a powerful emotion safely. But it can equally become a means of refusing challenges, controlling others, controlling your environment, in other words refusing to allow God to be God.
Things to think about
What are my rituals – everyday and spiritual? Why do I do them?
Are there any rituals I find particularly helpful in worship?
How would I feel if a particular part of the service or of my worship pattern was changed without my consent? Can I imagine what it would be like to relax in that change?
Do I think that rituals matter to God? Why?
How do rituals relate to “doing” vs “being”?