Jesus had help on his journey--not only the words of Scripture, but also the rituals that had defined his people for generations. He went to synagogue, he visited the temple, and he observed a weekly fellowship meal with his disciples that was to become the Christian eucharist. Rituals mark life's passages and connect us to those who've gone before, reminding us that we're not alone, but part of the ongoing Life of the Universe.
I inherited the "saying of grace" at mealtimes from my family. It was always said by my father on our behalf, a formality, but one we never neglected. "For what we are about to receive, the Lord make us truly thankful." It wasn't so much a prayer as a statement, though he spoke it like a prayer, and we all closed our eyes and bowed our heads. But it set suppertime apart. It was a time to acknowledge that we were blessed, and not to take what we had for granted.
Years later, I came to question the rationale of thanking God for giving me food while throughout the world so many went hungry. Did I really believe this was some sort of favour from God, or perhaps that I deserved the food on my plate? It smacked of elitism, and of arbitrariness. Why me? I didn't want to say those words anymore, the worst of them being, "for food in a world where people walk in hunger."
But I still needed to do something at mealtimes. I needed to express my gratitude for the food on my plate. I needed not to take it for granted. So I paused. That's all. This became the new ritual my wife Jean and I adopted at mealtimes. We take a moment as the steam rises from our plates, we sit in silence, then we take each others' hands and say, simply, that we're grateful. And then we dig in.
Sadly, this hasn't happened much in the modern world. Old rituals have fallen away, not to be replaced. From welcoming the young to burying the dead, people don't know what to do ... so they do nothing. Babies are brought into the world without a word of thanksgiving for the awe-inspiring gift of life. Loved ones depart without anyone thanking them, blessing them, and then letting them go, wishing them well on their journey.
But the rituals we need to mark life's passages are close at hand, on the very tip of our tongues, waiting only for us to claim them. "Someone should say something," we think. "What should that be?" Our instincts will tell us what we need to do. If we pay attention, the new rites will present themselves, in place of the old.
Next week: New Rites
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