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Ritual & Symbol: Power & Meaning

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel, Presenter
Evangelical Lutheran Church in American

 

LECTURE NOTES

INTRODUCTION

     A. Our Lutheran liturgies are rooted in ancient tradition and symbolism

          They go beyond simple words to visually and ritually empower our worship, enrich the pious expressions of our people and connect more deeply to the mysteries of God and faith.

     B. But ritual and symbol are also part of our world

          1. Rich reminders of who we are, where we have been

          2. Definers of past, present and future

          3. Teachers in ways that go beyond words to meaningful participation

     C. Some think our society has no sense of ritual or symbol.

     D. Some also think contemporary worship should be shaped without it because of its lack of presence in society.

     E. This session will explore the power of ritual and symbol in both society and in worship.


 

I. What is it that gives birth to symbol?

     A. A desire to remember

     B. A desire to mark or honor

 

II. Jacob's dream and the pillar at Bethel  (Distribute photo of Pillar from IDB)

(Gen 28:10-22) Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place--and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel [Hebrew = House of God]; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you."

 

     A. An epiphany - encounter with the holy - significant event - life altering

          1. Jacob knows who his God is

          2. Jacob is defined by the encounter = knows who he is = beloved of God

 

     B. This is something that must be remembered

               This is a place that has become hallowed for what happened here

 

   C. So he marks the spot to help with the remembrance

          1. Erects a stone pillar
                   See picture reprint from IDB "Pillar"

          2. = Something lasting

 

     D. Pours oil over it in dedication

          1. A natural gift from God

          2. A commodity of personal luxury

               a. Usually fragrant, combined with perfumes-spices

               b. Could be quite expensive

 

        3. Not unlike the anointing of kings = a marking, a setting aside from ordinary

          4. = Attaching worth to the symbol

          5. = A ritual act associated with the symbol

 

          6. Followed by another ritual act = a vow

               a. i.e., The symbol has given rise to a ritual act

               b. Ritual and symbol are intimately related

 

     E. From now on, whenever Jacob looks upon that pillar, he will remember

          1. Likely will be moved to pious devotion - prayer

          2. = veneration-honor accorded before the symbol

 

     F. Does that mean all who look on it will hallow it?

          1. Obviously not

          2. It may be recognized as a symbol, but its meaning not understood

 

     G. Symbol has power only for those who have been told the story

          1. = Those who claim personal definition through the symbol

          2. = Descendants in the tradition

 

     H. Does veneration of the symbol make it holy? Yes and no

          1. Not in and of itself

           2. The symbol is honored for what it represents

               a. Here = an epiphany of God, where God was known to be

               b. Therefore = holy place = a place where God can be expected to be again

               c. Indeed, God directs Jacob to return there later to worship again:

 

     I. Jacob's return to Bethel with his family

(Gen 35:1-15) God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes; then come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem. As they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities all around them, so that no one pursued them. Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So it was called Allon-bacuth. God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." So he was called Israel. God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you." Then God went up from him at the place where he had spoken with him. Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it, and poured oil on it. So Jacob called the place where God had spoken with him Bethel.

 

          1. Now symbol will become sig. not only for Jacob, but for those assoc. with Jacob

               a. = Beginning of tradition

               b. = Veneration of symbol & ritual action assoc. with it by generations

 

           2. Rituals assoc. w/symbol now more elaborate

               a. Includes ritual preparation by all

                    1' "Put away foreign gods" = confession/repentance of sin of idolatry

                    2' "Purify yourselves" = cleanse, wash = outward symbol of inward renewal

                    3' "Change your clothes" = another outward symbol showing inward renewal

 

              b. Acceptance by God of ritual preparation underscored by protection

                c. Ritual at Bethel now involves more than just Jacob

                    1' = family-defining

                    2' = We are a family/people of God

 

                d. Ritual elaborated to include drink offering = wine

                    1' An everyday drink, safer than water in biblical times

                    2' Liberally available at banquets and special occasions

                    3' Always included among gifts to superiors - cf. 1 Sm.25.18, 2 Sm.16.1

                    4' Here, wine is poured out, prob. at base of pillar - cf. Eccles.50.15

                    5' = gift, sacrifice

 

               e. Presumed ritual: retelling of story of the dream

                    1' Symbol and story always linked as well

                    2' Also possible: renewal of Jacob's vow

 

                f. Again, ritual accords honor to God thru the symbol and what it represents.

 

          3. Entire ritual designed to define faith in God

               a. Starts with a simple symbol, important only to one person

               b. Elaborates into a ritual = symbol in action, involving many persons

               c. Elaborated ritual winds up employing other symbols for emphasis

               d. Ritual = more than just what happens in context of worship

 

     J. Thus Symbols:

          1. Tell us about something significant, important, worth remembering

          2. Tell us who we are in association with that

          3. Tend to elaborate over time

 

 

III. Symbols are not just religious

     A. Death of Jacob's wife Rachel: (very next verses)

(Gen 35:16-20) Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, "Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son." As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel's tomb, which is there to this day.

          1. Pillar for Rachel = tombstone

          2. Marking a person worth remembering

          3. Significant to everyone?

               a. No, only to those connected

               b. But usually recognized by everyone for the symbol that it is

 

          4. = A hallowed symbol

               a. How horrified are we when stones are toppled?

               b. Even resulting language we choose denotes hallowing = desecration

 

     B. Lots of other non religious symbols

          1. National flags - each having its own attending rituals/ways of honoring

          2. American Eagle - symbol of freedom and power

          3. Can you think of others?

 

     C. A host of universal symbols

          1. Light as symbol of life, good

          2. Dark as symbol of death, evil

          3. Water as symbol of life, birth

          4. Sun in its assoc. with light

          5. Even colors have somewhat symbolic meanings

               a. Green = growth

               b. White = good, light

               c. Black = evil, dark

 

     D. Symbols are not necessarily automatic or immed. understood

          1. Red has numerous associations = danger, love, passion

               a. Formerly the color of choice for emergency vehicles and flashing lights

               b. Now there are yellow fire engines and blue & white flashing lights

          2. Meaning behind symbols must be taught

          3. When it is taught and understood, one is included = part of tradition/"family"

 

 

IV. Symbols can change/evolve in their meaning - History of the Cross in Christianity

     A. Originally a Roman instrument of execution

          1. Therefore a symbol of death

          2. Shame assoc. with this symbol - even for early Christians

          3. Therefore no crosses in earliest churches

 

     B. Yet theology of the cross was powerful in mid-first century - Paul's Letters

          1. Pushed Christians to rethink Christ's assoc. w/ cross

          2. Pushed Christians to rethink their assoc. w/ cross

 

     C. By 2nd c., traced on forehead as private act of devotion = ritual first

          1. Meaning

               a. = A connection with Christ - tells me who I am, who my God is

               b. Same meaning as in Jacob's pillar rituals

           2. Practice grew in popularity over next several centuries

 

           3. One small tracing became two, then three small tracings

               a. On forehead, lips, breast

               b. Still seen today at announcement of gospel in some chs.

 

          4. Practice spread over the years

               a. By 5th c., it was used widely in liturgies and had become larger

               b. Traced fully over body with touch of forehead, breast, each shoulder

               c. 3 small crossings became 3 large crossings in east

                         Maintained to this day in Orthodox chs.

               d. Shame assoc. is waning, but not gone

 

     D. Still no crosses in/on churches until larger cross tracings enter liturgy in 5th c.

          1. Reasons:

               a. Shame assoc.

               b. Also early persecution of church didn't make it safe to advertise w/ cross

 

          2. 4th c. conv. of Constantine/relig. tolerance advances cross as vis. symbol

               a. Visual image in the sky that was part of emperor's conversion

               b. Said to have placed a gilded cross in ceiling of palace

               c. Sends mother, Queen Helena, to find and mark places of signif. in Jerusalem

                    1' Begins building chapels/basilicas over them

                    2' She discovers "true cross" at site of future Ch. of Holy Sepulchre

 

                d. Devotion is immediate

                    1' If Christ hung on this wood, it is holy - as is Jacob's pillar = touched by God

                    2' Profane has become sacred

                    3' Profane has become symbol of Christ himself & his redemptive work

 

               e. Divided and distributed to significant people/places in Christendom

               f. Jerusalem piece encased in silver

                    1' = Accorded worth

                    2' Displayed in its case in Ch. of Holy Sepulchre for devotions of pilgrims

 

               g. Brought out on Good Friday for public veneration - Egeria describes c.380 AD

                    1' = kneeling before, praying before, touching, kissing

                    2' Two Deacons stand guard beside - why?

                    3' Egeria states that someone once took a bite out of it to take home

                    4' Sixteen centuries later, 2 deacons still stand beside cross on Good Fri.

 

          3. Rel. tolerance /display of true cross in Jerusalem give rise to cross in chs & art

               a. Still slow development - another 100 years to be considered widespread

               b. When they appear in chs., they are on altars only

                         See Warwick, "History of Christianity," p.30 - 6th c. altar

 

                c. No corpus

                    1' = Still too much assoc. with execution-shame

                    2' If Christ's cross, then = cross of resurrection - he's not there

 

               d. Cross of glory: studded w/ jewels, fine metals - ref. to Christ enthroned

               e. Cross = sign of salvation, victory in this period

                         See "Clip Art of Christian World," p.104 - 6th c. cross

 

     E. In 6th c., Christ started to appear on cross

          1. But always clothed in majesty = Royal or priestly robes

                    See Celtic cross with clothed Christ

 

          2. Still a sign of glory-victory

          3. Christ could not appear dying as on Good Friday - too close to shame element

 

     F. It took until the Middle Ages for shame element to finally die away

          1. In this period, "Passion Mysticism" arose in personal devotional life

          2. = Christ as suffering servant of God - vis. Isaiah 55, etc.

          3. Visually portrayed on crosses = crucifix = Christ of Good Friday

                    See TLW crucifix

 

          4. Old meaning of salvation-victory not gone, but shame assoc. was

          5. New meanings added related to Christ's ult. sacrifice for sin

 

     G. Points learned here

          1. Symbols-rituals intimately linked

               a. Cross starts as ritual first here

               b. Later visual symbol

               c. Once visual other rituals develop, elaborate around it

 

          2. History shows that this symbol took on greater meaning over time

               a. Original meanings not lost - Meanings multiply

               b. Today we have all the meanings and all the crosses - w/ or w/o corpus

               c. Even the signing has original meaning: tells me who I am, who my God is

 

          3. Symbols and attending rituals tend to elaborate over time/repeated use

               a. From simple to complex

               b. = Endowing symbol-ritual with worth

               c. = Given same worth we give to our God and his Christ

               d. Complexity arises from each generation's desire to make it their own

                    1' Innovations okay if they further elaborate the meaning and worth

                    2' But one doesn't leave old ways behind = tradition

                    3' New ways added to old ways = tradition accrues

 

               e. Participating in rituals w/long traditions = connecting w/ the ages

                    1' Adds further meaning to participation

                    2' Links me w/ something so much bigger than myself

 

               f. Traditions remain valid as long as they speak well to contemp. audience

               g. When they no longer speak, reform occurs

 

 

V. Leads to next major learning:

     A. Symbols should speak clearly or they fail as symbols

     B. Symbols must make sense or again they fail

     C. Ritual can help or hinder here

          1. Effective use of ritual-symbols doesn't just happen by itself.

          2. It takes planning

 

     D. Analyze: National Political Conventions of 2000

          1. What's the major function?
               - final nomination and voting for candidates

          2. What's the real agenda behind the function?
               - whip up the people behind the candidate = participation

          3. What are the necessary elements?
               a. Delegates, Convention Rules, Convener, Candidates, Supporters of Candidates

          4. Is there ritual and symbol here. Holy cow, everywhere! - Help me name some:

               a. Symbols: party, nation, big platform, national colors, state pennants/flags

               b. Rituals:

                    Presidential candidate never appears to the end

                    Supporting speakers to whip up crowd first

                    Election of Vice-Presidential Candidate first

                    Always intro of family

                    Now obligatory balloon release

                    Honoring of incumbent President by his party

                    Fitting the peak format into prime time - maxing the audience

           5. What worked/didn't work in terms of ritual and symbol?

               a. Whoever had that panel discussion, ugh - was deadly dull

               b. Ted Kennedy's speech was perfect for participation and involvement
                      Typical liturgical petition & response form:

P: "So if you believe we should use our prosperity to make our children healthy and whole, then fight for Al Gore, because:

R: "He is fighting for you."

P: "So if you believe in quality health care for all our seniors that no matter what the politics, then fight for Al Gore, because:

R: "He is fighting for you."

P: "So if you believe in prescription drug coverage for our seniors, then fight for Al Gore, because:

R: "He is fighting for you."

P: "So if you believe medical decisions should be made by doctors and nurses on the basis of sound medicine and not by accounts and number crushers sitting at computer screens hundreds of miles away, then fight for Al Gore because:

R: "He is fighting for you."

 

               c. Did people know this form or response when they walked in the door? No

               d. Then how did they learn it? Hearing and repetition

               e. Could it be described as a liturgy? Yes or at least liturgical or ritualistic

               f. And what was accomplished by this little ritual?

                     Participation, feeling of involvement, group formation

                     Meaning to personal presence and participation

.

          5. Could the conventions be done simply, informally, in a short day or so?

               a. Remember purpose list is really short

               b. History proves the answer is yes - much more informally, much less involved

               c. So why not less now? More = greater participation, greater meaning

               d. But remember, even in the earliest less formal days, there was still ritual/symbol

               e. Defining, teaching, involving

 

     E. Analyze: Olympics in Sydney, Australia

           1. Ritual and Symbol - lots - name some

                    flame, opening/closing ceremonies, medal ceremonies,
                    arrangement of platforms, medals, national flags

           2. What if something is left out or doesn't go right?

                a. Several gold medal winners stripped of medals for drug use

                b. Meaning now for new gold medalist?
                    Yes, but.....no ceremony, national anthem, etc

           3. Can symbols/rituals clash?

                a. Remember pictures of 1936 games with all those Nazi flags and swastikas?

                b. Remember US boycott of games during Carter presidency over political sanctions?

.

     F. Symbols and ritual need to fit, make sense - it takes planning

 

     G. Note: That doesn't mean all symbols/ritual will be automatically understood/clear

          1. Jacob's pillar would not have been understood by a Canaanite passing by

               a. Perhaps seen as symbol

               b. But meaning lost

               c. Does that mean Jacob's symbol & ritual shouldn't be used? No, of course not

.

          2. Princess Diana's funeral: clappers of bells covered for muffled peale

               a. I did not understand the symbol until it was explained on the news cast

               a. Meaning:  as sign of mourning (fascinating!)

               b. Does that mean it shouldn't have been done? Of course not

.

          3. Meaning is something that is taught, learned, shared

               a. = Inclusion in the meaning, inclusion in the observance/ritual

               b. = Self defining in relation to the meaning = I am a part of this

.

          4. One critique of our Luth. liturgy these days is that it isn't immed. understood

               a. Well, it never has been nor ever will be

               b. These are symbols and ritual of the people of faith, not just anybody

               c. There has never been a time when people didn't have to learn to be Christian

               d. That not only includes Christian daily life, but also worship & its symbols

               e. Once learned, you are a part of it

               f. Once learned, it's meaning connects you with the God of your ancestors

               g. = The whole point of symbol and ritual

.

     H. Another note: Don't confuse ritual with simply being ceremonious

          1. I hope all the foregoing tells you that ritual is what fills occasions w/ meaning

          2. Ritual is NOT just ceremony in and of itself

          3. Ritual provides order and meaning to our lives - symbol in action

.

          4. Many dull-but-necessary rituals:

               a. Morning Ritual

               b. Setting the table ritual

               c. = More functional than filled with meaning

               d. Still, they provide order to our lives

               e. What happens to you if your morning ritual is interrupted?

               f. = Dull but important

.

          5. More meaningful occasions have more elaborate rituals

               a. Table setting ritual can become quite elaborate

               b. Occasion helps define the ritual and its meaning

.

          6. Many of our rituals help us with transitions

               a. Birthday ritual - transition from one age to another

               b. Graduation ritual - transition from one life to another

.

          7. Not always rituals of celebration

               a. Rituals help us with the hard transitions

               b. Graduation = getting us ready never to see a whole bunch of folks again

               c. Funerals = helping us to part and then live without

.

          8. Can take a purely functional need and endow it w/meaning, beauty, richness

               a. At Diana funeral: the need = getting the casket from front of church to hearse

               b. The ritual:

                    1' Solemn liturgical procession, led by the cross

                    2' Military honor guard carrying (could have been wheeled out)

                    3' Solemn music by choir - words printed out to add meaning

                              "Alleluia. May flights of angels carry thee to thy rest."

                    4' Then the silence, then the bells

                    5' It took 7 min. to get to the bells - another 3 min. until casket in hearse

               c. Function developed into ritual, filled w/meaning, beauty, honor

.

.

VI. Our Lutheran Liturgical Tradition's use of symbol-ritual

     A. Christians have a whole host of symbols

          1. Symbolic objects: Bread, wine, water, cross, altar, font, pulpit, book, candle

          2. Symbolic colors: white, red, purple, blue, green, gold

          3. Symbolic designs: fish, triangle, fleur-de-lis, 3 circles, Alpha-Omega

          4. Symbolic actions: crossing oneself, reverence, kneeling, laying hands, anointing

          5. Symbolic sounds: bells, organs, dull clap at Good Friday Tenebrae, Easter shouts

          6. Symbolic smells: burning candles, incense

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     B. All the senses involved in symbol and ritual in our worship.

          1. Even touch - passing peace, receiving bread, being anointed

          2. And taste - eating and drinking

          3. = One's whole being involved with faith = part of family of God

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     C. Ritual options and order provided in Lutheran Book of Worship

          1. Roman Rite - rooted in ancient history - Handout "Liturgy Comparison"

          2. Use of the rite may differ from one Sun. to next

               a. Doing the same ritual the same way Sun. aft. Sun. = dull ritual

               b. Dull ritual can lead to loss of meaning, power

               c. We could not do Diana's funeral week after week as it was done

               d. Even Jacob did not use same ritual without variation

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          3. Disclaimer here:

               a. A ritual's validity/meaning not always dependent on my enthusiasm for it

               b. I may be the one who is dull on any given day, not the ritual

               c. Yet it is good for me to be there

               d. Worship is not just what I get out of it

               e. Worship is not even 1st what I get out of it

               f. Worship = 1st what God asks of me - what I offer in response to his blessings

               g. That's the appropriate starting place for Christian worship

               h. = Another thing that is taught/learned about being Christian

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          4. Nonetheless good liturgy/ritual =

               a. Choices to be made, planning to be done

               b. Ritual elements & symbols to be considered against each other

               c. Unifying factors developed, coordinated

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          5. Church tradition provides a Church Year to help with choices

               a. = Rotation of seasons, lessons, colors, ritual, symbols

                    1' Rotation comes from earliest of days in Christianity

                    2' Ritual organization of seasons part of Judaism

                    3' Therefore participation in = participation in ancient tradition

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               b. Rotation helps provide unifying elements for any given liturgy

               c. Provides order and movement in the Christian life of worship

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               d. The Church year becomes one large ritual observance

                    1' From Christ's birth to Christ's resurrection

                    2' From prophecy and expectation to fulfillment and celebration

                    3' From high to low to high again

                    4' Mirrors life - provides hope - keeps us moving -

                    5' Keeps us connected - to God and to fellow Christians also observing ritual

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               e. Ritual choices for consideration within the rotation:

                         Handout Options for the Communion Liturgy

 

               f. Don't forget the senses in planning the ritual

                    1' Sight - Bright/dark colors, veils, cross/crucifix, banners/none, greens

                    2' Sound - Music up/down/none, shouts, silence

                    3' Smell - Flowers/none, more/less candles, incense

                    4' Touch - oil, ashes, water

                    5' Taste - Red/white wine, un/leavened bread

 

 

VII. Whole point of lecture:VII. Whole point of lecture:

     A. So much within our Chrn. tradition of ritual-symbol that

          1. Undergirds faith

          2. Assists us in our expression of faith

          3. Explains our faith

          4. Provides richness and meaning to our faith

          5. Provides order and rootedness in our faith

 

     B. It is impossible NOT to have some level of ritual and symbol

          1. We are creatures in search of meaning - Jacob not the only example

          2. We are creatures who are moved to remember, mark, honor

          3. This is the stuff that symbols and ritual are made of

 

     C. If we are to have symbols/ritual, then let us make effective use of them