Ritual and Wonder

The fifth and sixth things I’m teaching my kids for Christmas this year go together.  The fifth is something that’s only appealing to grandparents.  The sixth will make sense to grandchildren.

I remember visiting a Greek Orthodox church for a wedding.  The service was two hours long.  We stood for most of it.  The couple processed in and circled the room three times, signifying the Trinity.  The priest came in carrying the Bible over his head, representing its authority over us.  The couple wore crowns made of flowers, symbolizing the return to the innocence of Eden, as I recall.  Everything was bound by timeless and meaning-rich rituals.  Everything had purpose.

This Christmas, we set up a tree; we pull out an ornament dated for each year your mother and I have been married, some of which have younger pictures of you; we have dinner with the family; we attend Christmas eve services at church; we tell stories of a mysterious saint who leaves presents.  All of this can be written off as frivolity, but in fact, it’s something very different.  Ritual enshrines the value of family in memory and in culture.  Ritual has deep meaning.  Ritual is the museum in which great truths are kept on display.

Conversely, ritual can become the yellowed notes behind which a tenured professor hides.  Ritual can be the keeping of traditions that no longer engage the cultural imagination, like a stained glass window outside of which a new brick wall has been built.  Ritual has cobwebs.  It only gains life when its outward expression is no longer separated from its original emotional content.  It only has content when someone is there to translate the meaning of the symbols.  It only serves its purpose when it can be seen through the eyes of a child.

So remember these two great truths: ritual is deeply meaningful, and wonder is better than ritual.

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