Rituals like Easter, Passover add modern meaning to ancient beliefs

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Rev. Mark Twietmeyer, of Trinity Lutheran Church of Boulder, Colorado, begins the Easter service as the sun rises over the Boulder Reservoir on April 8, 2012.

Cliff Grassmick, Associated Press

Every morning before excavation work began on the ancient Inca temple, archaeologists and local Bolivians gathered for a daily ritual of giving three perfect coca leaves to the local shaman, who buried the offering.

The practice was a way to give back to mother earth for what the excavation would be taking from a sacred site.

That devotion to daily rituals performed by the locals impressed Matt Seddon, a University of Chicago graduate student in archaeology supervising the dig on the Island of the Sun.

"I didn't agree with the theology ... but I realized deep down how much I had missed that part of my life and how important that had been to me in the past," Seddon said of the daily prayers and other rituals he had practiced growing up in the Episcopal Church. "So, I realized my tradition has that as well, and I began to reengage in that."

Returning to the rituals of his faith played a significant role in Sedon's eventual decision to change careers from studying ancient civilizations to helping the living reconnect with religion. Now an ordained priest, Rev. Seddon has been leading his parishioners at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in West Valley City, Utah, in rituals that celebrate one of the most important holidays in Christendom: Easter.

Millions of Christians and Jews around the world this week have been performing their respective rituals surrounding Easter and Passover. In America, surveys show fewer people may attend Easter services Sunday and fewer Jews may incorporate the religious aspects of Passover than in years past. But religion scholars say those who don't participate in religious ritual are missing out on part of the human story, and that those who do participate can find modern relevance in sacred events that happened thousands of years ago.

"The place of ritual is to mark events and mark the passage of time in various ways ... so that we have concrete symbols of the larger realities of God, love, justice, hope, community and family," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a philosophy professor at American Jewish University.

Easter celebration

Much of the ritual that took place for Christians this past week on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday was developed to "make alive something which otherwise would just be on the printed page," said Larry Cunningham, a retired professor of theology at Notre Dame University.

"In the Catholic Church, a lot of the activity like standing, kneeling and making the sign of the cross developed before the invention of printing when 95 percent of population didn’t read or have books," Cunningham said. "So it made the gospel alive."

But the liturgy and ritual gestures during weekly worship and the services leading up to and including Easter still bring the story to life for an academic like Cunningham. He enjoys how the liturgy expresses different moods and tones from the triumph expressed on Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus Christ's entry into Jerusalem, to the sorrow and lament on Good Friday, when Jesus is crucified.

"Then mass on Easter Sunday is an expression joy and rebirth" in celebration of the resurrection of the Lord, he said.

But a decreasing number of people will have experienced the emotional liturgy of Holy Week and Easter this year. A March survey for the Catholic Knights of Columbus showed 58 percent of Americans plan to attend church on Easter Sunday, down from 63 percent in 2009. Another survey by LifeWay Research found 41 percent of Americans plan to attend an Easter service, while 58 percent of those who identified as Christians said they would be in church on Easter.

Paradoxically, Easter Sunday will be one of the more highly attended services of the year for Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister for First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and author of "When 'Spiritual but Not Religious' is Not Enough."

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