Our Pastor has a really cool way of making important, memorable points during the children’s homily each week. This past Sunday was no exception. As he talked to the kids about “Spiritual Muscle Memory” – the things we do routinely to support spiritual practices that strengthen our life in Christ, he told a story of a woman who recently began attending our church.
She came from another religious tradition and it took some time for her to become accustomed to the ritualistic practices in our Lutheran service. After attending for several weeks, she approached Pastor to ask about a specific practice: “Why do you bow to the cross during the processional and recessional for the gospel reading?”
Pastor explained that we bow to the cross of Christ to express honor to the King, just as someone would bow to royalty today. Also, we bow in order to humble ourselves and adopt a submissive posture before the Lord. He went on to explain that these practices are not mandated. You don’t have to bow. One of Martin Luther’s major critiques of the Roman Catholic Church centered on this issue. They’d made optional practices and rituals into laws that members had to follow. Christ did not mandate much of the spiritual practices in the mass. But, as a church, we find them helpful and useful for communicating the proper glory of God and our relative humility.
One Sunday, after having this conversation, Pastor noticed the woman bow to the cross.
This story made me think of rituals and spiritual practices. Why do we do what we do?
The message on Ash Wednesday, which was based on the text of the hypocrites, showing off their prayers and acts of piety, came from the Gospel of Matthew:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their rewards. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And you Father who sees in secret with reward you. Matthew 6:1-4.
Pastor pointed out that in several places Jesus told his disciples that their motivation was what mattered. It’s not what you do, but why you do it, that matters to God. Charity and praying to God, so that your neighbors view you as a righteous person, does not delight the Lord.
Similarly, the rituals and practices in the traditional liturgy are often criticized by non-practitioners as rote and meaningless. Certainly, one could go through the motions of reciting prayers, making the Sign of the Cross, genuflecting, and otherwise participating in the mass in order to be seen as a “good Christian” to those around them. One could fulfill the “law” of attending mass on a regular basis, but if their motivation isn’t communion with Christ and worship of God, then their reward will be limited to their neighbors’ esteem. However, for those who understand the deep meaning of what is happening in the liturgy – Word and Sacraments poured out on us from God – each word, action, and motion is full of significance.
My favorite part of the liturgy is after the consecration when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Although this (along with many other parts of the liturgy) are said each and every week, the meaning continues to grow deeper and more significant to me. It has not become rote at all. Speaking these words of surrender and humility before communing helps me remember my need for a Savior and complete dependence on Christ for life and salvation.