Nearly everything human (and worthwhile) is ritual if you think about it. A purely utilitarian approach to family dining, for example, would consist in standing around a pot on the stove, each person with a spoon in hand – that way we all eat at once and “efficiently” save the most time (it might even be best to just share a spoon and save on dishes as well). Clearly, however, we attach something more to our time together at table than simply physical sustenance that gets us through the day.
This “ritual” of communal dining is widely accepted as a genuinely human experience worth far more than the nourishment provided by food. It’s a fruitful, spiritual (or at least psychological) time of relationship building and togetherness.
A living Catholicism, however, adds even more depth. For Catholics, mealtime is quasi-Eucharistic. We begin “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” taking up our physical (and communal) nourishment and making it part of something much fuller, and far more meaningful. “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive,” we pray. Make this time holy, we ask. Set it apart by your blessing and let it become something to sustain not just our earthly life, nor even our communal fellowship, but something that mysteriously (i.e. “sacramentally”) shares in the very life of heaven.
So enough accusations of “empty ritual” against the Catholic Church. For nowhere do we find more meaning to the countless rituals of human experience than in the teaching and praxis of Catholicism.
“Yes,” you might say, “but when the culture (or Protestantism) accuses the Church of empty ritual it’s referring specifically to worship.” Here, the accusation is even more tragically ironic. To begin with, let’s make a distinction. It’s one thing to argue what the Church teaches is false, and quite another to argue that it’s activities are meaningless or empty. Pick anything, any devotion or rite, any doctrine or moral precept, any celebration or feast day, and you’ll find two thousand years of rich, multivalent meaning behind it. The informed Catholic understands this. We don’t do things blindly. The truth is, any Catholic who practices his faith blindly is bound to fall away, at least in his heart. For those who understand the richness of a ritual, however, we’re drawn deep into the mystery of it all and experience anything but emptiness.
So let’s get something clear. The culture is guilty of empty ritual, not the Church. In fact, the Church continues to plead with the culture. The Church continues to call the culture (and her faithful) to a more meaningful life. It’s the culture that strips everything of meaning and tempts Christians to do the same. Who’s evangelizing who here?
Case in point: We find it relatively common still to have “Easter” celebrations in our culture. Sure, if they’re public they’re generally stripped of religious meaning and tend to focus on bunnies and candy – a far less meaningful ritual, no doubt – but the spirit of the season is still acknowledged. What really gets me is the loss of the Church’s festivity, however. The entire country celebrates “Easter” until the season actually arrives! While the Church retreats in preparation for the most glorious time of year, the culture prematurely, and blindly, sells the holiday before the appropriate (i.e. meaningful) time. Ironically, the cultural Easter celebrations take place in Lent and then, when the Church begins the fifty day celebration, the culture has already moved on.
Why not wait until the Easter season begins before having the parties? Because, once Easter Sunday comes and goes, we’ve moved on. Easter’s over. The meaning is lost and another year of empty ritual is habituated. That, if at all, is how the culture celebrates Easter.How does the Church celebrate Easter? For starters, the day itself is an “octave” of days. Easter Day is celebrated eight days in a row! Most Catholics don’t even fully recognize the significance of this. We all realize Easter is the high point of the year – without the Resurrection nothing we do would matter (see 1 Corinthians 15:14) – but the profound richness of the Tradition isn’t always understood. The idea of an “octave” celebration comes from our Jewish brothers and sisters; and, for the Jews, it’s not the first day of the octave but the eighth day that is the high point of all the celebrations. That, believe it or not, means that the high point of the Church year is notEaster Sunday, but rather Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter and the eighth day of the octave.
This concept of the “eighth day” holds even more significance of meaning for the Church. The Jews don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, where as we do. The resurrection of Christ, for us as Catholics, is the first day of the New Creation, or… the eighth day. It’s clear that the culture has infiltrated even the Church’s practices, is it not? When was the last time everyone and their mother flooded the churches on Divine Mercy Sunday?
If that’s not a ritual packed with enough meaning, let’s not forget that the Easter season lasts fifty days. The celebrations are supposed to continue to Pentecost. We don’t move on. We marinate in the resurrection of Christ. We ruminate day after day on the glorious freedom of the children of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promises of eternal, resurrected life in Christ. Year after year, we enter more deeply into this mystery, taking fifty days of reminder again and again, so that the gift of new life in Christ is never taken for granted.
The real goal of the Church’s liturgical life and ritual is that we never allow the ways of the world to rob us of the richness and meaning of resurrected life, and to guard against any aspect of life becoming empty ritual. As soon-to-be-Saint John Paul II said (his canonization is on Divine Mercy Sunday this year!), “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” May the coming Easter season be for us all a real encounter with the Risen One and, through the rich meaning behind everything we do to celebrate it, may we find heavenly strength to help our culture discover the hidden joy of redemption.