Rituals like Easter, Passover add modern meaning to ancient beliefs
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.
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."
"And the person who just shows up at Easter doesn’t get acknowledgement of the poignancy and complexity of life," Daniel said. "If all you get is the resurrection, you are missing a huge part of the human story."
She explained that the rituals performed during Lent and Holy Week acknowledge the darker side of life and the terrible things humanity can do, giving more meaning to the resurrection and the new beginning or change that event represents.
"If you just show up for Easter you are getting Christianity 'lite,'" she said.
An old and new story
Unlike the Christian rituals that take place in a church, the Jewish traditions commemorating Passover are primarily performed in the home. The seder supper, the readings, discussions and other activities focus on the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.
But for Ed Case, who leads the seder in his home, the rituals also have a profound meaning of identity and family tradition.
"That has tremendous meaning to me. I bring out the candlesticks that my grandmother brought from Russia when she immigrated here. I have a special matzah cover that belonged to my mother's father," he said. "The ritual is also about family and that is a key element of Judaism anyway."
The Haggadah, which is the script one follows in conducting a seder, can be customized to fit certain needs or interests, said Rabbi Dorff.
He recalled reading Haggadot written by people who related to the story's theme of oppression, including a group of non-Jewish women in a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and immigrants from the former Soviet Union where oppression meant suppressing your Jewish identity.
"You see the old story come anew again," he said. "It really opens your eyes to new levels of meaning in the story. It shows you it's not just about 3,000 years ago. It's about now."
The strong family association with Passover and the flexibility to adapt the ceremony to one's interrests and needs may have something to do with the high rate of participation in Passover activities.
Case, who is CEO of Interfaith Family, which helps Jews in interfaith marriages practice their Jewish faith, said a recent survey by his organization found 97 percent of the respondents who are raising children in the Jewish tradition plan to host or attend a seder. Three quarters of them plan on telling the Passover story at the annual event.
So, for some, Passover isn't so much a spiritual experience as it is a time to reconnect with one's family and heritage.
"There are plenty of people who wouldn't miss a seder, but who don't attend a synagogue," he said.
Religious ritual, whether practiced in a home or a house of worship, is designed to connect the physical with the spiritual by engaging all of the senses and the mind, Seddon explained.
He said the sanctuary space, the colors, the music, the words, the incense, the ceremony all have a purpose in helping worshippers engage their physical selves with the divine.
"One of the privileges I have in leading ritual is I can stand and look out and see people having different experiences," Seddon said. "And it’s a wonderful, mysterious thing that somehow it will touch and feed people. It's one of the reasons why we keep coming back."
However, a tension exits between how rituals connect people to community expressions of faith in the past and how worshippers today try to place that ritual in a modern-day context and meaning.
As an example, Seddon said that in Episcopalianism, the original purpose of the sanctus bell was to tell the congregation that the bread and wine, which used to be blessed out of sight of the congregation, had been consecrated. But now the eucharist prayer is done in full view of the congregation.
"I see no reason for the bell, but you will run into people who have attached all kinds of meaning to it; something as simple as 'my grandmother donated those bells and it reminds me of her,'" he said.
It's in those situations that Seddon's background in archaeology and anthropology help him navigate between updating and leaving things alone.
"My job is to make ritual relevant to the here and now without tuning out the past, and being sensitive and aware of implicit or understood theology people place on things."
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