I once observed in a paper on another subject that one of the most frustrating things to hear when asking for directions is, “You can’t get there from here.” What? Aren’t all roads connected? There has got to be some way to get from where I am in physical space to another physical space. True enough about physical realities, but there are some spiritual realities you can’t get to from where a person is at the moment.
No doubt many of you saw the wonderful U.S. News and World Report cover for December 24, 2007. It shows a Roman Catholic priest saying the Mass in high church fashion. The title on the cover was “A Return to Ritual.” Surely every high church or liturgical Lutheran said, “Hooray!” Surely, every Bible-believing Christian [What other kind is there?] found this article a welcome respite from the major news magazines’ yearly harassment of the Christian faith at Christmas. You know the articles: “The Real Story of the Birth of Christ”; “Who Really Was Jesus?” “The Virgin Birth of other Historical Figures”; etc., etc.
I too welcomed the article “A Return to Ritual,” but I respond, “You can’t get there from where most contemporary worshippers are.” I quote from an article by the Reverend Doctor John W. Kleining, an Australian Lutheran. In an essay on Sasse on Worship he says, “Since the real presence of Christ with his humanity and divinity was presupposed by the liturgy, loss of faith in that teaching led, inevitably, to neglect of the traditional liturgy and its rejection for other less sacramental forms of worship” (p.3).
There is no returning to the ritual without first returning to the Reality. Kleining says this in his essay, and thinks that Rome and some Lutherans have done just this. I would agree, but there are some who are adding ritual without the Reality, and there are others who are just adding things to make up for the loss of the Reality. Services with lots of candles; mood music during the Distribution; dramatizing Biblical stories; emotional testimonials; live animals, live shepherds, and a glowing baby Jesus fill the void.
In 1992, reports rocked the Catholic world that only 30% of Catholic’s believed that when they received Communion they were really receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. The Reformed have never wanted anything to do with a bodily eating and drinking of Him. Most Christians are content with a real absence of Christ from their altar. He may be present at the moment they eat and drink Him, but He is not there otherwise. This does not bode well for a return to Reality. The return to ritual may just signal a change in taste as opposed to having been touched by the taste of Reality.
Hermann Sasse observed (I think in This is My Body) that the reason the great cathedrals were built with lofty ceilings and large chancel areas was not for acoustics or to accommodate crowds but because of the reality of the real presence there. They were built around the Reality that God came down to earth on the altar there. Once this Reality hits home, knees bend, heads bow, mouths open in adoration, and ritual will follow.
What you don’t want is for the ritual to lead. This is the worship of Baal. Do you remember when Elijah had his great showdown with the prophets of Baal and when they prophesied victory before kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat? The prophets of Baal had lots of ritual but no Reality. The prophets of the Lord, Elijah in his camel hair coat and leather belt and Micaiah in his prison garb, had little ritual but they were full of the Reality.
Contemporary worshippers can’t get from where they are to the Reality of the Real Presence by ritual. They can get to ritualism, formalism, and works righteousness. Augustine said that whether the Church was dressed in rags or riches She remained the Bride of Christ. With much or little ritual the Church remains the Bride provided Her Groom is really present. From this Reality flows the ritual that is not ritualistic but worship.