Dr. Marvin Wilson said in American Anthropologist, published in 1954, that “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies,” (pg. 241).
Americans do not typically like ritualistic ceremony, at least we think we don’t. We have many, many rituals that are followed religiously. We even have our own food laws! Think about Sunday football games for example. There will be candy, chips, soda and/or beer, and probably some kind of nachos and pizza. Other amenities include hot wings, team jerseys and Solo cups. It may not be written down, but rituals are typically not recorded BEFORE they are put into practice in some way. Due to our rapid decline in the richer elements of culture, Americans turn up their noses at ritual ceremony believing it to be antiquated, senseless, and in some cases the idea of ritual itself is believed to be unbiblical! Didn’t Paul say that we don’t have to do all these things anymore? Only the Sadducees and Pharisees kept the laws and ceremonies and we are NOT supposed to be like them. What we regrettably miss is the message and magnitude of the Old Testament application to our lives.
G.J Wenham in his commentary on the book of Numbers calls ritual, “The means of communication between God and man…Old Testament rituals express religious truth visually verses verbally,” (pg. 29, emphasis mine). This is a powerful and very different viewpoint for the American mind. While we have ritualistic acts, they are nothing in comparison to the ritual and ceremonial laws and sacrifices of the Old Testament. How do we even begin to comprehend the worldview of these people? It is a long journey of thought and discovery but if we view each the Levitical sacrifices, their process and purpose, as a TEACHING experience both for them AND for us, we may reach a starting point.
Being a visual learner this makes a lot of sense to me! I love creating rituals around birthdays, Christmas and Passover, or other special events, because it communicates to my family and my guests a message about that event that might go unheeded in words. In essence, these rituals and family traditions are a teaching tool that incorporates all kinds of learning, tactile, visual and verbal into one powerful and repetitious lesson. While the Bible does warn us against vain repetitions in Matthew 6, and against the formalistic practice of religion without heart, it never calls us away from rituals as God establishes them and uses them. Rather, they are purposed to draw us to Him. After the majority of the Levitical sacrifices the families sat together to feast in celebration! While the blood was still fresh on the ground, and the power of the sacrifice itself still fresh in their minds, the families gathered together in fellowship. What grace! Have you ever considered the GRACE within the laws of God? Seen the mercy and consideration they prescribe?
Consider the ritual of Passover. Passover is accompanied by the Feast of Unleavened Bread and is established three unique times between the book of Exodus and Numbers. The first two times appear in Exodus 12, beginning with the institution of the Passover Lamb to be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The spirit of God strikes down the first born and the Egyptians urge the people to leave (vs. 33), and then the chapter closes with an official establishment of the Passover with specific instructions about WHO can observe it. This is notable because the third ordinance of the Passover later in Numbers changes these laws. It would seem that once Israel became established in the wilderness that God saw fit to make a way for foreigners, specifically sojourners, to observe the ritual as well. A sojourner differs from the identification of a foreigner in that he has been a resident among the Israelites for some time and intends to stay. A sojourner and their family would have become familiar with the cultural and religious practices of the Israelites, and if they desired to observe the Passover it would be a sign that they were truly adopting the Israelite customs as their own. Simply put, God made a way for foreigners and aliens to become members of the chosen nation, to come closer to Him, and he was going to do it again on a much bigger scale.
God draws us to him through rituals because they communicate to us and demand a response. Take, for example, a man named Jesus who sat around a table and celebrated the Passover with his disciples not long before he died. Like the meals of the wilderness wanderers in Exodus he used its elements to teach both Jews and Gentiles as one. “Take this bread…Take this cup…” As the disciples eat and drink they are responding to his call to remember him as the last Passover lamb, their eternal Savior. When this ceremony is repeated year after year correctly it symbolizes a relationship with the Lord in which we act our remembrance of him and live our response to his teaching and calling in our lives. Far from removing ritual from our daily lives, Jesus endorses it! This is why we keep biblical rituals alive today in our home, and add more meaningful ritual aspects to present day traditions to keep God’s messages to us alive in them as well.
What we call communion, to me, seems oversimplified and lacking in the educational intent of what Passover was meant to be. It can still hold significance, and I treasure the teachable moments of that Sunday when our children watch us nibble and sip in remembrance. But the true significance and power of God’s message in the ritual of Passover, incorporates sacrifice and lament with an entire week of feasting and celebration after it! And I believe this ritual specifically is necessary to our adoption of a Christian life. Why do we eat unleavened bread? Why are their four cups to drink not just one? Why do we leave an empty chair at the table and eat bitter herbs? Each aspect of this amazing tradition hold a very special message about God, who he is and what he plans to do. As Christians we are sojourning with God’s people, and God has prescribe a way for us to become one of them but we cannot expect to truly be adopted into a family if we remain ignorant of the practices and traditions that compose their heritage. Giving a Passover Seder meal has become a regular part of our family’s yearly rituals, one among the many that we make meaningful by exemplifying God’s communication to us through the practice and teach my children to respond to Him. For myself alone, some rituals comprise a very deep part of my relationship with God. They represent a place in my heart and mind that is very sacred, and where I treasure memories and hopes and communicate with God on a deep, deep level. God’s intent was for the worship and lifestyles of the Israelites to be DRASTICALLY different from the nations around them, to set them apart by the truth of God. I hope that if someone were to observe the rituals of my life, they would see God’s truth.