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Value of ritual

29 March 2018

NOTHING deadens interest in a news story so much as those fatal words from an informant: “Oh, this isn’t the first time we’ve done this, you know.” Press officers have been known to dredge up a former event or utterance known only to themselves to put excitable news editors off the scent. Entering the final days of Holy Week yet again can be an anxious time for clergy and congregations alike. The desiccated palm fronds are back on top of the vestry cupboard, the lighter fuel has been found for the Easter fire, the Mini-Eggs have been bought and hidden away from the curate. And yet the great question lingers: will it mean anything this year? The great story of Christ’s redeeming work: what if it fails to spark the imagination into life this time?

It is easy to mistake feeling for meaning. It is possible to recount the momentous tale of the first Easter and remain unmoved. “To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not, you must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy” (T. S. Eliot: Four Quartets). Familiarity can suppress the senses. But familiarity is also a friend. The search for novelty is a modern preoccupation. Custom operates at a deeper level than mere emotion, working on the soul as repeated exercise works on the muscles. C. S. Lewis cited the example of brushing one’s teeth: an automatic, near-thoughtless action that has no moral significance and yet does good. Participating in a ritual act has a value of its own, in that it readies us for participation in the work of redemption when we least expect it. Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame had no opportunity to think when he volunteered to take the place of a woman taken hostage by Radouane Lakdim, the jihadist terrorist who took over a supermarket in Trèbes, southern France, last week. M. Beltrame, an active Roman Catholic, paid with his life for an act, a relative said, that was a “thing he would do without hesitation”. We are often the bemused observers of our own rescue and preservation. Salvation is entirely the work of God, and an important lesson is that Easter does not depend on us. But the Passiontide and Easter rituals play their part in transforming the body of Christ into the body of Christ, so that Christlike behaviour can become second nature.

Approaches to this holy time vary. There are those who enter these days in a spirit of patience, alert to the possibility that a familiar thought or gesture can be imbued with a new meaning. Such people are seldom disappointed. It is possible, though, to take a more active part; for there is one emotion at our command: gratitude. Even if church services themselves keep us too busy, the hours surrounding them afford opportunities for quiet reflection on the merciful love that God has for every individual, demonstrated supremely on the cross.

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