Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rites and Wrongs of Passage

I was sent a remarkable article about the power and importance of ritual that was originally published in Touchstone, a fascinating and very moving meditation brought about by the juxtaposition of a semi-casual broad-church Episcopalian funeral service with the solemn Marine Corps graveside obsequies that followed immediately afterwards:

5. The church rites sought to focus on the individual worshipers and the deceased; the marines focused on the rite. The individual marines set aside their individuality in order to serve the common purpose of honoring the dead. This sacrifice of self for the common purpose itself lends power to ritual, since we all (the “old man” in us) resist self-sacrifice. If the marines were bored, or thinking about their girlfriends, or wondering what was for supper, that fact was well hidden by their participation in the ritual. The ritual protected them—and us—from their human defects.

6. The marines’ rite pointed to transcendent values: honor, service of country over self, sacrifice. While the texts of the church service pointed to redemption and the resurrection of the body, the streamlined texts and the haste with which they were (and too often are) performed suggested that we should be thinking about worldly things, the things we’ll shortly be about, and not about eternal things, like commending the soul of a Christian man to God.
Even more important than music, vestments, incense and beautiful architecture, is the creation of a ritual ethos--priests must learn how to behave in the liturgy in a way that is truly ceremonial and self-effacing, one which sublimates the character to that of the icon. Maybe not like a soldier on parade, but perhaps like the way Gregorian chant mediates the gap between the personal and the universal. Thoughts, anyone?

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