“Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
On one of the Sundays of Advent a few years ago a young visitor left our worship service with these parting words, “I don’t care much for churches that have rituals.” A couple of weeks later I saw him again – at our Christmas Eve candlelight service. Hmmmmm.
In some Christian circles it’s almost an article of faith to be opposed to traditional forms of worship, to be anti-ritual. Which is odd when you think about it. If you attend some version of Christian worship on a more or less regular basis, and unless the bunch you are a part of throws a curve ball at you every week, you are returning to a ritual, a predictable format. This is so obvious it’s almost embarrassing to point it out except for the fact that this anti-ritual mentality is widespread and gives evidence to a profound misalignment and misunderstanding of the ritual character of worship, not to mention life itself.
One of the arguments set against traditional worship ritual is that it isn’t relevant. One might ask, relevant to what or whom? I suspect that what the objector is really trying to say is that it isn’t popular. But relevancy refers to something that is true in all times and in all places. Popularity has nothing to do with relevancy, in this respect. This subtle bit of confusion all by itself contributes to no end of really bad thinking and practice where worship is concerned. A great deal can be said about all of this but I want to focus on the often-heard remark that worship must be comfortable, easy, with no tension.
It does not take much imagination to see that this is not how life works. Life is full of tensions. The traditional worship of the church does not shy away from this.The traditional candlelight service held by many churches at Christmas and other times of the year provide a good example. Holiday sentimentality may account for their popularity but what makes them relevant? The relevancy of the candlelight service is located precisely in the tensions that are heightened by the darkness and the illumination of the flames. The service mirrors the time of year when the days are shorter, darkness sets in sooner and daylight is diminished. At the height of this growing darkness we light our homes, trees and communities.
But there is deeper water here, theologically and liturgically.The entire image, symbolism if you will, is of the light pushing back against the dark and overcoming it. This is a mid-winter service of protest against the powers of darkness and the coldness of death. The light represents hope in the midst of fear, seeing in the face of spiritual blindness, being together in the warmth of community whose only source of light and life and hope is Jesus Christ the Light of the world.
When these are the themes of the Christmas Eve candlelight service and its rituals, something relevant to the faith is actually being said and done. The ritual setting becomes Christian worship, not a holiday backdrop. It becomes part of the Law\Gospel proclamation rooted in the most basic paradigm of the faith – in the midst of death we live.
As our candles were lit at the close of the Christmas Eve ritual, and light filled the sanctuary, I spotted the young visitor. His voice, along with the rest of us carried the familiar song;
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, lord at Thy birth,
Jesus lord at thy birth.
A few moments later he came by me at the door and took my hand with a silent smile. There were tears in his eyes.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”