By Larry Beane
The use of ceremonies in the church has become controversial among us 21st century American Lutherans. But it always amazes me how ceremony and ritual are much more easily accepted in other areas of life.
By way of example, as the local fire chaplain, I attended our state's annual memorial for fallen firefighters. It is held at the site of a beautiful memorial area that is being improved year by year. This year, a permanent stage was built. Last year, a large glass plate with a decorative waterfall was added. There is an eternal flame, beautiful statues and sculptures, places for flags and banners, memorial bricks, a brass bell, and carved stone monuments bearing names of those who laid down their lives for others.
It is dignified. Nothing is done on the cheap. The artwork reflects a long tradition within the firefighting culture that spans generations. The annual ceremony is also formal, ritualistic, and traditional.
Most of the time, firefighters tend to be informal and practical in matters of attire and conduct. They don't wear fancy uniforms or march in formation on a day to day basis. They ply a holy vocation that involves using the latest technology and design for clothing and equipment. It's all about what works best in the field in order to save lives.
But on the day of the memorial ceremony, firefighters marched solemnly in rows and columns. Their uniforms were formal, bedecked with brass badges and ribbons and epaulets. Some sported antiquated firefighting uniforms from times past. There was also a parade of firetrucks, led by a Clydesdale-drawn steam unit from the 19th century. There was a color guard. Banners were posted. The national anthem was sung, and it was not jazzed up. Firefighters carried chrome-plated ceremonial picks and axes. Bagpipers and Celtic-style drummers, clad in tartans and bearskin hats played traditional martial music, led by a major toting a large mace. There were salutes, a rifle volley, and taps. There was a ritual ringing of a bell five times, which was repeated three times.
The ceremony lasted two hours in the blazing Louisiana sun. Seven men who fell in the line of duty were honored. Their families were brought forward and treated with compassion, respect, and love by the assembly that gathered on this solemn occasion. The ceremony - with all its attendant dignity and formality and impractical outmoded symbolism - brought comfort to the families of those who died in order that others might live. It was a powerful statement that everything is not about us.
What was not there was also illustrative.
There were no skits or clowns or dancing girls. Nor did anyone accuse the fire service of condemning anyone not in the fire service, or whose uniforms or trucks did not contain a certain level of finery or Latin mottoes, nor those who don't march the same way. Nobody was offended. Since this was not about us, those of us in attendance just didn't see the ritual as some kind of condemnation. Not at all.
There was also no mockery. Nobody made snarky comments about the marching and saluting as being pompous or ostentatious. Nobody complained about the cost. As far as I know, there were no facebook posts mocking the old-fashioned bells, the old-fashioned ornamentation, the impractical horse-drawn apparatus, or the loud rifle volleys. Nobody accused the formally-uniformed firefighters of being "firehouse prancers" or of putting on airs.
I think people understood that this was a special occasion. It was not ordinary. This was an occasion of honor. This was an occasion unlike the daily grind of life in our workaday world. We were doing this in memory of the fallen men who sacrificed their lives for others. It is simply meet, right, and salutary to comport ourselves with dignity at such times. And there is a culture, a tradition within the fire service in which things like ringing a bell five times and repeating this three times has meaning. There is a reason for the use of the colors, the ribbons, the badges, etc. Nobody made fun of the people who carried chrome-plated firefighting tools or the guys wearing the bearskin hats for hours in the heat.
There is a similar role for ceremony and tradition within other vocations and traditions, such as the military, the police, and other occupations that deal with life and death. Even in organizations that don't involve life and death urgency, such as genealogical and historical societies, clubs, fraternal organizations, and even sports teams, there is a healthy respect for traditional ritual. There is a similar (though decreasing) respect for tradition and formality in situations in life such as weddings, graduations, and funerals.
Sad to say, a lot of people within the Church - even within the Lutheran tradition - take the opposite tack. They misinterpret depictions of pastors serving at altars as somehow about them. To see a Gottesdienst cover depicting a pastor at the holy altar that includes a cruet and lavabo should not make me angry or defensive or snarky because my congregation's altar has no lavabo, nor do I, as a pastor, make use of the cruet. To me, this would be as ridiculous as thinking that the firefighters who had gold braided shoulder cords as part of their dress uniforms were being insulting of me because my uniform lacks that particular element. When it comes to the church's ceremonial, some make dismissive comments about "medieval finery" or "fancy vestments" or call into question why we use candles in the age of electricity or bells now that we have iPhones. They might protest that chalice veils and Gospel book covers are unnecessary. Some might argue that the money used on such items could be better spent.
We live in an age of historical ignorance and myopia. People don't know what the meanings of these ecclesiastical symbols are, nor how they connect us to the past in a great organic chain of tradition. But what's worse than not knowing is that, often, they just don't care. They want drinks and cup-holders. They want snacks. They want flip-flops. They want pop music and a show. This is the sad direction of modern American Christianity. And even many of our brethren who are liturgical are offended by ceremonies that deviate in this way or that from their preferences and customs and expectations.
All of this goes to show that Gottesdienst's motto, "Leiturgia Divina adiaphora non est" is true. For if ceremony is all indifferent, why do the advocates of rock and roll and dancing girls get all in a snit when they see clerical collars, traditional vestments, and ancient ceremony? And why do those in the Goldilocks Middle equally decry praise bands and Sanctus bells, as though their brand of extreme moderation is a golden mean to be rigidly followed (the sign of the cross, good; genuflecting, bad. Candles, good; incense, bad)?
Of course, what is lost here is the idea that this isn't about you, it's about Jesus.
Since Christ came into our world to forgive our sins and give us life by means of the Gottesdienst, the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, we interact with Him and with the other people who gather in His name. Such a coordinated communication requires order. And since 80% of human communication is nonverbal, it necessarily involves ritual. And since the Divine Service is a special occasion (in which Christ physically and truly comes to us in His Word and in His body and blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation by means of a miracle), and is not part of our workaday world, and since the altar is holy, the holiest of the holy, in fact (the word "sanctuary" means "holy," and the world "altar" means "raised up"), how can it be any other way than that we would conduct ourselves with dignity at the altar, engaging in ritual actions and making use of elements from within the grand tradition of Christianity, preferably items of quality and beauty, of durability and respect?
What would you think of a man who had the means to buy his fiancee a gold wedding ring, but opted instead to give her a cheap piece of costume jewelry? This is very different from the man who can only afford something very humble. Either way, one would expect a person motivated by love to demonstrate that love with more than words - which is what ceremony and ritual do.
As the pastor of a church that is far from wealthy, but also speaking as an American (and thus counted among the wealthiest people in the world who enjoy nearly universal luxuries like air conditioning, indoor plumbing, automobiles, televisions, and cell phones), most American congregations could afford things like Eucharistic vestments and a full range of communion vessels should these things enjoy a level of priority. I'm grateful to donors whose generosity made it possible for us to have liturgical items that confess the dignity of our King's presence with us, though none of these things are necessary for a reverent celebration of the Lord's Supper. And even when finances inhibit us from having certain things, it doesn't mean that reverence has to take a back seat.
After all, every Sunday Mass is a special occasion. It is not ordinary. It is an occasion of honor, an occasion unlike the daily grind of life in our workaday world. We do this in memory of the unfallen yet crucified Man, who sacrificed His perfect life for others, for us poor, miserable, and fallen sinners. It is simply meet, right, and salutary to comport ourselves with dignity at such times. And there is a culture, a Great Tradition that spans centuries within the Holy Church, in which things like ringing bells and making the sign of the cross have meaning. There is a reason for the use of the colors, the banners, the vestments, etc. Christian ceremonies chiefly teach people about Christ (Ap 24:3), calling to mind, confessing, and conveying that which He has done for us by His sacrifice on the cross.