Rituals: Something to Hold On To

I’ve been blogging over the last week about Christians and the Mosaic law. In my post, Why the Sabbath Blogs?, I said I like the Sabbath and the holy days because they are concrete things that I can do at predictable times. I have problems, however, with abstract concepts, such as finding rest in Christ.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Years ago, I attended a small Armstrongite church on the first Day of Unleavened Bread, and the speaker said God gave us the holy days because “they’re something to hold on to.”

And this sort of view exists outside of the Sabbatarian tradition. On my Christian dating site, a Protestant was bashing Roman Catholicism for its ritualism and traditions. Someone then responded:

“It is part of being human to give value to semiotics. Some persons find it sufficient to entertain the Lord mentally and live beautiful pious lives. Others need that outward reaffirmation to achieve the same. That said, assuage that hurt you foster and count how marvelous you are in the Lord’s eyes that you do not need ritual or tradition. But reach angelic heights by allowing the lesser of your brethre[n] those rituals and traditions that have an abundance and richness of meaning in their spirituality and covenant with the Almighty. I say this most respectfully.”

I still chuckle at how the anti-Catholic guy reacted:

“You speak very intel[l]ectually, and yet you seem to understand so little of Christ’s [f]reedom especially taught to us by Paul in Galati[a]ns. Paul spent his whole life trying to free Jewish Christians from Jewish [t]radition which also were shadows and types of Christ in order that they might know the [f]reedom that comes from [k]nowing Christ [i]ntimately. No longer do we need shadows and types to understand God for God has given us ‘The Real Thing[,]’ His [o]nly Son Jesus[.] I can speak with authority when I say that the [t]raditions of men do not bring men closer to God, but keep them at a distance. You may feel that these traditions have enhanced your Faith, but I would liken it to a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back…If we want [t]rue [t]radition then let’s all go back to Judaism and [b]uild another Temple to [w]orship God, and [s]acrifice [b]ulls and [g]oats again!”

I thought about this interaction after I attended my Latin mass a few weeks ago. The priest was talking about how Christians are not under the Mosaic law, since it was a disciplinarian that foreshadowed Christ. Now that we have the real thing, he argued, we no longer need the rituals that pointed to him. Yet, the priest was trying to explain why the rituals of the Catholic church are still important. Why did God replace one set of rituals with another?

Eventually, the priest resorted to the “Because Christ gave Peter the power to bind and loose, so we obey the pope’s decisions” answer. But, before that, he said that the law’s rituals helped the Israelites get to heaven, as it kept them from sin through its civil, ceremonial, and moral structures. In essence, it gave them continual reminders of God and sensitized them to right and wrong. Justin Martyr made a similar argument in his Dialogue with Trypho, for he said that the Israelites were so prone to idolatry and sin that God needed to provide them with rituals that elevated their thoughts to God in their day-to-day lives (chapters 19-22). The priest did not mention Justin Martyr, but he contended that the Catholic rituals served a similar purpose to that of the Mosaic law: to give believers physical reminders that can help them focus on God.

As the debate on my Christian dating site made clear, Christians disagree about the value of rituals. Some believe that they are absolutely necessary to remind us of God. Others maintain that ceremonialism indicates spiritual immaturity and a weakness of faith. They don’t like ceremonies because they seem to form a buffer between the believer and Christ.

In the debate over the Sabbath and the holy days, both the anti-law and the pro-law sides get on my nerves. The anti-law side often says: “Paul in Romans 14 treats the celebration of days as a weakness of faith. He tells the stronger Christians to tolerate the weaker ones, yet he hopes that the weak Christians will eventually grow up and stop keeping the Sabbath.”

I have a few problems with this approach! For one, as I indicated in my post, Why the Sabbath Blogs?, it’s not easy for everyone to rely on abstract concepts each and every day. Sometimes I feel that God loves me, and sometimes I do not, but when the Sabbath rolls around, that’s my time with God. My faith is not always solid, but the ritual is. I have a hard time limiting my religion to the mental, since my mentality can swing in all sorts of directions!

Also, some people need rituals as reminders. Not everyone is able to think about spiritual things on a 24-7 basis. There are many people who work a lot, or they’re entangled in the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life. It’s good for them to have time to stop, relax, and contemplate spiritual things. And the holy days are good because each one lets us look at a specific aspect of God’s plan.

But the pro-Sabbatarians also annoy me. I’ve heard them say, “Well, if that guy doesn’t need the Sabbath or the holy days, that’s his business. Personally, I need all the help I can get to live a Christian life!” One Sabbatarian who keeps the holy days was telling me about a Sabbatarian lady who did not. The lady said to him, “I don’t need the Day of Atonement–Christ is my atonement.” He thought to himself, “Yeah, but how often do you think about the atonement? Rarely? That’s why you need the day.”

And then there was an Armstongite who boldly asked, “How can you enter the Kingdom of God if you don’t keep the holy days?” He then elaborated, “If you’re not keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread, then you don’t understand putting sin out of your life and taking Christ in. Without the Feast of Trumpets, you lack the idea of Christ’s return.”

I have problems with this approach as well! For one, it’s a religion of one-upsmanship. Many anti-Sabbatarians convey a message of “I’m so much better than you because I don’t need rituals.” And the pro-Sabbatarian responds, “And I’m so much better than you because I’m humble enough to see that I do need rituals.” There’s not much humility in either approach, since it reeks of “Thank God I’m not like other men” (Luke 18:11).

Second, not everyone needs the Day of Atonement to think about the atonement. While I find that concrete rituals are useful for me, I actually think about Christ each and every day. Christianity has some pretty basic concepts: Christ’s death and resurrection, morality, the second coming of Christ, etc., etc. Not everyone has to celebrate a day to keep those things in mind! They can hold onto them on a continual basis.

And, third, just because one does not keep a day that highlights a particular theme, that doesn’t mean he lacks understanding of that theme. Why should it mean that?

Some people like rituals. Some people do not. People should let others do as they wish without thinking everyone has to do things their way.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Rituals: Something to Hold On To

  1. FT says:

    That anti-Catholic guy is nothing but a RELIGIOUS BULLY—NOTHING MORE! I can’t stand bullies from whatever stripe!

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  2. FT says:

    Also may say this about this man, “Who died and made him God???”

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  3. Cindy says:

    “I can’t stand bullies from whatever stripe!”

    Neither can women, especially on dates.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Yep, you find a lot of bullies in religion!

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