For the first two decades of my life I thought that “empty” always had to be said in front of the word “ritual.” It speaks volumes about a certain understanding of the world in which we live and the nature of its relationship to God. Time and experience have given me a radically different take on ritual – both what it really is – and the place it holds in our world. It is not only not empty – sometimes it is the bearer of fullness.
The arguments that arose from the Protestant Reformation have had a dramatic impact on Western Christianity and the surrounding culture. Among those arguments was a new view of ceremony and sacramental acts (ritual). Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer were not enemies of liturgy: their reformed communities continued to worship with “reformed” liturgies. But the central acts of ceremony were radically changed.
In the successive prayer books of Cranmer (1549, 1552) there was a move away from ritual acts. The sign of the Cross disappeared in 1552 under increasing reformist sentiment.
The liturgical reforms meant to make a visual break with the Catholic past. The 1552 prayer book instructed the use of a free-standing table with the celebrant standing at its north side (meaning standing on its left from the point of view of the congregation). There was no inherent meaning in this other than that it should no longer look like a Catholic Mass (in which the celebrant stood with back to people, facing East).
The anti-ritual of the Reformation is rooted in a worldview. Ritual acts indeed are “empty.” The word spiritual comes to be identified with internal, mental, acts of the heart. The beginnings of this worldview are rooted in the dialectical opposition of faith and works. In Reformation short-hand, faith is good and works are bad. Faith becomes synonymous with certain mental acts. Works became associated with almost every outward action. Even almsgiving comes to be seen as a “work.” With the “interiorizing” of all things spiritual, ritual actions became virtually demonized (hence “empty ritual”). Indeed, some began to view any use of ritual as, in fact, demonic (“witchcraft”). Priests became worse than heretics – they were viewed as necromancers and the like.
Of course, the extremes of argumentation rarely make for useful reflection (cf. modern political “discussion”). The exact nature of ritual never came up as a topic worthy of consideration. Is there a good use of ritual? What would make it good or bad?
The liturgical movement of the mid to late-twentieth century began to look at ritual. However (from my perspective) its conclusions were largely predicated on the assumptions of Protestant thought and produced a theatrical understanding of liturgy (resulting in what I have elsewhere termed “pantomime“).
During my Anglian seminary years, studying under a “high church” professor, we were taught that all ritual movements were only done to “illustrate” the liturgy and should always be done in the full view of the people (since it was only for their benefit that such movements were done). This is the “pantomime” aspect. Movement is reduced to an illustration, enhancing the entertainment of a congregation reduced to audience.
Orthodox liturgical practice belongs to a different world. Within Orthodox liturgical tradition, many things (including ritual actions) are done behind the icon screen, sometimes done with the doors and the curtain closed. What is done is visible to the priest, God and the angels. It is a direct contradiction of modern non-Orthodox seminary teaching (including modern Catholic seminaries – except for those who are hearkening back to earlier Catholic practice).
What does a ritual action mean, of what use could it possibly be, if only the priest does it and no one sees it? What assumptions must accompany such movements?
The pantomime view of liturgical action sees meaning as a mental construct. What something means is simply what someone thinks it means. The task of worship is to help each other see and understand meaning. In such an understanding, everything of value that takes place in worship occurs within someone’s mind. Bodies, light, color, sound, bread, wine, smell, text, are incidental: they only have value because they create the occasion for thought. Spiritual and mental are two words for the same thing.
But the actions within the Orthodox liturgical world are not so constructed. They are done with witnesses and when no one sees. The priest says many things in secret and occasionally has directed ritual movements that even he does not see (as at one place in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy). How do we understand this?
The simplest explanation is that the Orthodox liturgical tradition actually thinks something is happening in ritual actions – something that is not an event in someone’s mind. There is a similar tradition regarding the nature of the Holy Eucharist in Roman Catholicism and in Orthodoxy, but their liturgies have now moved world’s apart – particularly in the manner of understanding liturgical action.
What does ritual do? The most obvious answer from the Church’s perspective is that it does just what it appears to do. Ritual actions are iconic in nature – they make present that which they represent. Thus to make the sign of the cross in blessing is to bless. We do with our bodies what we say with our lips (and often more). The reduction of spiritual content to mental content is a denigration of the body and an insult to the Incarnation of our Lord.
The problem is much the same as that originally presented by the iconoclasts of the 8th and 9th centuries. They, too, denigrated physical things (images) and argued for an understanding of the spiritual that was decidedly non-material. The 7th Council declared iconoclasm to be a heresy – particularly because it denied the truth made known to us in the Incarnation of Christ.
Their response can be summed up in the aphorism: Icons do with color what the Scripture does with words. It was the recognition of a principle, modeled on the Incarnation itself. Additionally they said: icons make present that which they represent. Icons are not the same as sacraments, in which what is involved is not a representation. But in the icons there is, nevertheless, a form of presence. For those given to theological precision – icons have what is termed a hypostatic representation.
It is this same iconic representation that can be seen in the liturgical actions of the Church. “Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of the Cross!” The priest says three times over the waters of Baptism as he traces the sign on the water’s surface with his hand. It is an action of blessing. The words and the action are one. But the words are not spoken for the benefit of the believers standing around. They are spoken to the waters and to those being crushed!
This is a challenge to the notion that spiritual meaning resides only in the mind. Those who have reduced spiritual actions to such restricted notions are very likely unwitting iconoclasts. But the arguments that restrict the meaning of ritual are very similar to those put forward by the original iconoclasts against the icons themselves.
As for those who simply oppose all ritual – they take an absurd position. Human beings have bodies and they move. Those movements have always been understood to carry meaning. Why does a pastor stand when he speaks rather than sit? Everything is an icon – regardless. If it is not an icon of one thing – then it is of another.
The actions of Christ, spitting on dirt, making mud and putting it on the eyes of a blind man, directing him to wash in the pool of Siloam, etc., are all ritual actions. I have never assumed them to be empty. The same Lord took bread (in His hands), blessed it, broke it, and gave it. He could have simply stood and said, “Father, we just want to thank you…” and let everyone walk around the table and serve themselves.
There is no empty ritual, for there is no empty action. Everything is filled with meaning and power. Sometimes for good.