Do we really need church rituals, given that Jesus did not celebrate Liturgy and did not make the sign of the cross? Sergey Khudiev explains where all these traditions come from and why we should follow them today.
Lately, I stumbled upon a popular, or, as they say nowadays, a viral text: “Neither Jesus nor His disciples ever:
– Celebrated Liturgy in a church
– Made the sign of the cross
– Kissed icons
– Venerated relics of deceased “saints”
– Lit candles in a church
– Taught that you must venerate certain “sacred” objects.”
And the list goes on, it’s quite long and I don’t quote it in full. You get the idea, right? The diversity of Orthodox rituals is allegedly empty and unnecessary, even contradictory to the original idea and intent of Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples.
Therefore, performing those rituals is a waste of time, right?
Naturally, the Lord and his disciples hardly practiced the Orthodox spirituality as we know it. They belonged to the 1st-century Jewish culture, so the pious customs that they followed were rooted in the Old Testament and in the Jewish cultural heritage.
However, this spirituality was no less ritualistic, traditional, and community-centered than the Orthodox one.
We find detailed descriptions of rituals, i.e. “stereotypical actions characterized by their symbolic meaning” in the Bible. For instance, the celebration of Passover is central to the Old Testament faith. Passover is celebrated as a way to remember the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and as such, it implies performing a strict sequence of symbolic actions, each of which carries a message of its own.
Exodus, chapter 12, describes in great detail what clothes people must wear, what food they must eat, and what actions they must perform during the celebration:
And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.
Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: and if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats: and ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof. And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.
And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s passover. (Exodus 12:1-11)
People used to perform (and Orthodox Jews continue to perform even today) an elaborate ritual that reminded and explained the events of the Sacred History to the future generations. Nevertheless, this ritual was not only didactic: it functioned as a mystical time machine of some kind, which was (and is) making people participate in the Exodus. It was not just some other people very long ago, in a foreign land, who experienced the Exodus from Egypt; it was something that happened to us and constitutes a huge part of our own personal experience. We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21).
This is why a person who voluntarily refused to participate in the Seder, ceased to be a part of the Jewish nation. It was more than just a refusal to remember a key event in the history of the nation: it was a refusal to participate in the event.
Lord Jesus Christ does not refuse to perform that ritual, either. On the contrary, his Last Supper where He establishes the Sacrament of Eucharist takes place during a Passover Seder.
His disciples celebrate Eucharist according to his own commandments, “…and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11: 24, 25).
Various Christian traditions may have various ways of performing this ritual but it is this ritual that we will find wherever we look: a traditional sequence of actions characterized by their symbolic meaning.
A ritual-less Christianity is impossible simply because it is a ritual — the ritual of Eucharist — that is in the centre of the Christian community as founded by Jesus.
However, there are other reasons why it is impossible.
First, to be pious you need to put effort into praying regularly. The author of Psalms sings praises to God not because he is in the mood to do so right now but because God deserves praise and worship. The obligation to set apart the Sabbath for God’s sake implies prayer discipline: it is a moral obligation of a human being to sing praises to her Creator and Redeemer, which requires disciplined and organized effort.
You can — and should — pray in your own words. With that said, when you are tired, annoyed or in a bad mood, you pray using the words that have already become a part of the biblical tradition. The Psalter was a prayer book for early Christians — and it is mentioned in several verses: James 5:13, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16.
Secondly, public prayer inevitably calls for order of some kind, and when this order emerges, it becomes stable — why would anyone want to re-create it over and over again? Rituals, i.e. established formulas for public prayer, are simply unavoidable.
Rituals are impossible to avoid even in congregations, which attempt to get rid of rituals. One could write a similar critique against them, too:
Neither Jesus Christ nor his disciples EVER:
– Rented cinemas
– Wore suits and ties
– Made altar calls
– Used songbooks, let alone Hillsong worship hymns
– Played the guitars or used sound amplifiers.
Even if among Christians there are strict reconstructionists who re-produce 1st-century customs as meticulously as possible, there are very few of them. First of all, it’s incredibly painstaking. Secondly, no one knows why it matters. Lastly, no matter how hard you try, you won’t achieve the result you aspire to: a 21st-century man who wears a costume of a 1st-century man is nothing but a 21st-century man in a masquerade costume.
Religious life invariably requires rituals. These rituals cannot copy 1st-century samples to a tee. Notwithstanding this fact, it is preferable that they preserve continuity with those samples — that they shoot out of the 1st century like a living organism. This is why the Lord established his Church, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18), described by Apostle Paul as a living Body filled with the Holy Spirit: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13).
The rituals of the Church stem out of its practice of prayer and communion with God. They aren’t random or meaningless. When we perform them, we enter the very space of faith and prayer where Apostles dwelt.
Yes, spiritual life can become a mere formality; meticulous adherence to rituals can hide inner emptiness and infidelity to God — and that is something even prophets of the Old Testament warned against. But in order to face the danger of formalization of your spiritual life, you need to have a spiritual life first.
A Russian poet said:
If you don’t have a house,
It won’t be destroyed by fire.
And if you don’t have a spouse,
There’s no other guy she’ll desire.
If you do have a spiritual life, it will definitely manifest itself through rituals — and you shouldn’t be afraid of it.