Man’s Need For Ritual
March 28, 2010
This morning my kids participated in our church’s Palm Sunday service which includes their walking between the line of pews waving palm fronds to mimic the New Testament documentation of Jesus’ triumphal entry while riding on a donkey. Parental pride aside, I was so happy to see my children carrying on one of the few remaining traditions of the Christian church in an age that judges, despises then rejects the need for Christian symbolism. But what’s the big deal? Why do I feel so moved now when so many other Palm Sunday rituals have passed with nary a thought?
I was amazed at God. Now when I say “God” I don’t mean some abstract thing, invented by culture or my own preferences. If there’s any proof to me that this is not a God of my own creation it’s that at the very least, He isn’t the sort of God I would prefer to create. This should be one of our first tests about an authentic search for the one true God is that He should strike us as inhuman.
God does strange things, and the Christian story, while familiar to many of us, should not be in danger of becoming so familiar that it loses its inhuman nature. That’s why I’m careful not to baptize the Christian story with my culture’s preferences. If there’s one thing I know about my culture it’s that it gets many things wrong, often the most important things. It would make sense that my culture would be at war with an inhuman God so the atheists or pluralists who shake their fist at the Orthodox God only serve to strengthen my own weak, perhaps non-existent faith.
Man is a fickle being. We know enough to know that we are lost but we aren’t sure exactly how we got lost. When some religions or world views offer answers our skeptical age is quick to throw out platitudes against authority figures and truth claims of every sort. That’s part of our culture. It’s a relatively new development, though there have always been skeptics here and there even before the Age of Reason. But God plows on.
Christ, if he wasn’t the Christian Christ, didn’t have to endorse rituals. He didn’t have to raise bodily from the dead. He didn’t have to ride triumphant on a donkey to fulfill a few (okay, hundreds) obscure Old Testament prophecies that he would come in on a donkey to crowds of cheering fans the week before those same fans shouted “Crucify Him”! But God uses ritual to speak to forgetful humans.
I would go even farther and say that the crowds of adoring fans of Christ only threw their palms at his feet because they thought he was a Christ that endorsed their version of him. The conquering warrior who would knock Rome on its ass. Like our times, we are all too willing to follow religions so long as they basically agrees with our culture’s preferences of that religion. But the true test of a follower isn’t during the Triumphal Entry, it’s the week after… and that’s a different post altogether. Suffice it to say that I get a lot of heat for simply following my religion as the Bible tells me to. I could remove all of the heat regarding my religion if only I were willing to submit Christ to my culture’s preferences, only in doing so, I would break my previous rule that God’s ways must first be inhuman to be true.
Christ could have died on the cross, then resurrected in spirit only. That’s the gnostic claim that believes the materials in themselves are lesser than or evil. If Christ didn’t resurrect bodily then it could all be a philosophical victory. God would admit that the materials are unimportant, a bogus part of life and therefore that not only would his abandonment of materials be trivial, but that our current lives would not be tied in any way to this world. But God once called the materials, “Good”. After making everything long ago, God looked on the earth and said, “It is good.” He doesn’t appear to be that thrilled with abandoning what He thinks is good. Instead, He got into the business of resurrecting dead things from the grave. The materials. His son. Me.
I don’t believe that our coatings are trivial and our life on earth experiencing a physics-based sequential time is a joke and that’s at least part of why I’m an artist by trade. The arts use physical media like movies, paintings, printed word, actors in a theater, designed cars, iphone apps etc. to arrange the particles into beautiful, truth bearing forms. Not bad for a bunch of fallen apes when you consider just how complicated an array everything is from Star Wars to The Bill of Rights turns out to be. Man conquers and manipulates materials.
I don’t think this is any kind of accident, nor a genetically mandated event because there are forms of material manipulation that go directly against our own survival of species. I am reminded of men who played pop tunes in Iraq, though if they were caught playing such music they would be killed and their genetic line would be snuffed out. I am reminded of the Jews in the holocaust making secret paintings that not only mocked their captors but showed beautiful depictions of women, God and mankind.
I am also reminded of first century followers of Christ who would only have to recant their beliefs to live to save their own lives and those of their families whom they watched die before their eyes. Their children burned first, then their wives raped and burned, before they themselves were consumed by fire. This is why my own faith being the cause of a few lost jobs in Hollywood should not qualify as persecution. We Americans have it pretty good these days, and that includes some of our biggest victims.
We are prone to forget, and that’s why we are urged to participate in communion. It’s not that God is obsessed with wine and bread. There is nothing special about the wine and bread particles. It is always the arrangement and meaning of the particles that is significant. In fact, the arts, the meaning, the beauty, the things that do not come naturally to randomly colliding particles that bring us the most satisfaction, freedom and ultimately salvation.
In the end, it’s not God who is on trial and in need of a church to remember him. God didn’t need to resurrect bodily from the dead. We needed it. God does not need children to wave palm fronds, we need it. It’s not to remind us that we are trapped within the particles, but that though we are partially made up of physical things, that the arrangement of physical things by creative minds can point us to the truly valuable things. The things worth dying for. Heck, the only things worth living for.