Empty Ritual and Vain Repetition

This blogpost got me thinking…

There were many obstacles to becoming Orthodox, not the least of which is the ideas that had been drilled into me that the Roman Catholics and other liturgical churches were empty of all but ritual and that the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and others was meaningless. I was horrified by genuflection (making the sign of the cross over oneself or others), by the bowing, the kissing of the cross, of the priest’s hand…much had the “taint” of Catholicism, and for many (if not most) Protestants that has a chilling effect, a reflexive horror and distaste that is deeply ingrained.

I found it very difficult to cross myself, although, frankly, it is my Protestant brothers and sisters who showed me that this was a fine thing to do. A women’s Bible study I was part of began each video series with a ritual hand motion intended to remind you of  lessons which were to be ingrained in your thinking.  This physical gesture was to remind you of truths.

Some time later when I was investigating Orthodoxy and reflecting on things that were difficult for me, I was reminded of this study. We do things all the time to remind ourselves of truths, whether it is post-it notes of verses stuck inside drawers and cabinets, on mirrors and dashboards to remind us of God’s truths, or if it is a physical gesture.  Remember Carol Burnett tugging her ear to send a private message to her grandmother? She continued it even after her grandmother died.  Ritual? Yes.  Meaningless? No.

In the way we hold our hands as we genuflect, we are physically reminding ourselves that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Christ has two natures, fully human and fully divine. We remind ourselves of the cross of Christ with each genuflection.  Can it become ritual?  Yes.  Is it meaningless?  I suppose it can be. I have now made the sign of the cross thousands of times.  Do I always think of the Triune God? Do I always think of the two natures of Christ? Not consciously, but you would probably be surprised how often I DO think exactly that. I am reminded in my own flesh of that which I believe.

Many Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, wear crosses around their necks.  I do. Mine is surrounded by the letters IC XC NI KA, which means Jesus Christ Conquers, or Jesus Christ Prevails. I do not think of this each time I touch it, but I am reminded of it when I need to be. Is it less valid because sometimes I am unaware of the message? I certainly don’t think so.

There are many things that bear repeating and in the repetition do not lose significance. The National Anthem never fails to bring a tear to my eye, no matter how many times I hear it. Nor does the honor showed to that flag and that anthem when men remove their hats, when we stand and put our hands over our hearts cease to have significance. It is a ritual, surely, but not insignificant. In a similar vein, the significance of the prayers, the hymns sung, the repetition of Lord, have mercy, the procession of the Eucharist, the closing prayers, the icons kissed is not lost through repetition. It never gets old to hear a child say “I love you.”  It is always pleasant to be greeted with delight upon your arrival, and it is not insignificant, vain or empty in it’s repetition.  In fact, I would venture to say that it gains significance through repetition.

The things we do in the body have significance, probably more than I can possibly understand.  It is not enough to do something once or twice, at least with most things, but instead we must repeat them over and over.  It seems arrogant that we used to sniff in derision about people saying “The Lord’s Prayer” or murmuring Lord have mercy. I am ashamed to say I have scoffed at such things, thinking that I somehow knew better, that my prayers were “from the heart” and as such, better than the ritualized prayers of others.

There is so much more to be said here, but I will close for now with one of the prayers of John Chrystostem: “O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins.”  Now that is a ritual that bears repeating.

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