The other night as my family was sitting down to dinner, my three-year old son shoveled into his mouth with a large spoon a favorite food — mac-n-cheese/hot-dog/broccoli goulash — and then immediately spit his mouthful right back out on his plate, exclaiming loudly, “We-we-we got to praaay!!!!”
His dad laughed, “Spittin’ for Jesus, I love it!”
As his parents, we were more elated over his enthusiasm to pause and thank the Lord for his favorite food than we were disappointed at his bad table manners. Praying before meals is a good Christian tradition, and yes it is a form of ritual prayer. A ritual is “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” Protestant Christians also offer ritual prayer when they ask for God’s blessing or give thanks to God in prayer for the meal. The prescribed sequence of action goes something like this….
…. stand up around table, hold hands, bow your head, close your eyes – one of these or some combination of these prescribed actions. The composition of the prayer often follows this or a similar sequence of elements: addressing God (“Dear Heavenly Father…”); thanking God for the food and other blessings; asking God to bless the food; asking God for some additional blessing or protection; sometimes a mention of gratefulness for Jesus and his sacrifice for us; thanking for and asking a blessing for the cook “the hands that prepared the food”; and closing the prayer “in Jesus name”; all present say “amen” (means I believe or so be it); lift heads; open eyes and start eating.
“Amen” is a word passed down through religious tradition. It has long been used to close prayer in Hebrew, Greek and ecclesiastical Latin. Saying “Amen” after our prayer is a multicultural ritual tradition of good form. And, yes the word “Amen” is in the Bible because it is a word that has been used since before Jesus’ time, but it is still a ritual word because of how we use it.
Catholic Christians do the same thing as saying “in Jesus name” when we say “Amen” and make the sign of the Cross. We physically acknowledge with an outward (ritual) sign that our prayer is in the name of the Triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is the same idea, though ours adds a little evangelistic purpose. When others see us praying in public, they may not be able to hear our words; however, when the sign of the cross is used, there is no doubt about what we were doing and who we are acknowledging. Some might say that is “pharisaical”, but I don’t think so. One time my husband, kids, and I were in a restaurant. After praying before our meal, an older couple came up to us and joyfully encouraged us to keep doing this with our kids. The wife said, “I hardly ever see families praying together in public anymore.”
When I was a tiny, little girl, my Lutheran mother taught me to pray every night, I can still hear the prayers echoing in my long-term memory, “God bless Mommy & Daddy, Chris & Matt, Molly, Pixie, Dixie, & Tiger….”. Of course I had to include my two big-brothers, and I genuinely wanted to include the dog and three cats. When I was baptized in the Lutheran Church at age four, she taught me to pray the Lord’s Prayer, in the Lutheran tradition. I still pray today–40 some-odd years later– every night before I go to sleep. I also read and have my devotional, or “quiet-time”, as some people call it. Rituals help us to develop good habits. Our habit can point us back to God, even when our thoughts and lives are far away from Him.
Ritual in Healing
In His ministry, Jesus often used ritual when healing people along with other material elements such as water, dirt, and mud. With the healing of the woman (in Luke 8) with a 12 year long hemorrhage, it was her touch to his cloak — along with her faith — that brought her healing. According to the story, Jesus did not even know she was behind him. He felt the healing power go out of him, but she was already healed at only the touch of his cloak. Jesus said to the woman “your faith has healed you”. Note the past-tense. This was not a ritual, but it shows that even without intention, Jesus healed through a touch to a physical thing.
Do you remember the story of the healing of the blind man in John’s gospel? Father Mike Sears likes to reference this gospel story when he explains the origin of sacramentals (such as holy water) in a homily.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.
He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” (John 9:1-11)
“Jesus even used spit?? …Holy Spit!,” says Fr. Mike.
Ritual in Religious Ceremony
Did you know that every time you wash your hands before a meal, and then pray before you eat, you are practicing a habit related to religious ritual? In Judaism, ritual washing and hand-washing before prayer and religious ceremony is practiced. In the same tradition, the Catholic Priest washes his hands on the altar before preparing the Eucharistic meal. When the bread is broken, the priest recites Jesus’ words at the last supper, directly from scripture,
“this is my body which will be given up for you.” (Luke 22:19)
When the priest consecrates the wine, he recites,
“Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:20-21).
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52-58).
Father Mark Strader writes, “What happens in our lives during the week gives deeper meaning to the ritual actions we have celebrated at Mass,”
As far as I know, most all Christians perform traditional, symbolic and ritualistic actions at weddings. The wearing of the white bridal gown, the lighting of a unity candle, the exchange of vows, and the exchange of rings, are just a few.
“A newly married couple leaves their wedding ceremony, but carry their marriage with them. And, what happens in the days and years after the wedding gives deeper meaning to the symbols they have exchanged (for example, their rings) at the wedding (Mark Strader, 2013).
Ritual Candle Lighting
“The intended Catholic symbolism of candles (prayer rising to God from a burning thing, as represented by smoke and possibly also fragrance) is exactly analogous to the same qualities in incense.” (Dave Armstrong, Biblical evidence for Catholicism).
I know a grown man who, as a child, would visit a Catholic Church on his way home from school to light candles in prayer for his lapsed-Catholic father who was struggling with anger problems in his marriage. His parents eventually divorced and he really got close to his dad much later in life as his caretaker during his father’s later years. Now in his 60’s, he is a born-again Christian. My friend tells this story of lighting the candles as though his ritual prayer was entirely in vain. He says that he believed in a “false Jesus.” I reminded him that ritual without relationship is only ritual. However, I believe that he does not see the forest for the trees. Nine years before the father’s death (in 2004), the father accompanied the son to a Harvest Crusade. At the reception of the message, the father received the gospel of Jesus Christ in a deeper way than before and experienced a turning point in his conversion with the Lord, by their understanding — he “got saved.”
The same Jesus, who heard the son’s prayers as a child, is also the Jesus who heard his prayers as an adult, and answered them. He was truly blessed to witness his father’s true conversion, the answer to his childhood prayers. The ritual candle-lighting that brought the boy into the church to pray to God, as he understood Him, was definitely not and never was in vain.
In the last three years of his life, I got to know my friend’s father as a lovable, slightly cranky but always sweet old man whom my kids adored. By God’s providence and not my planning, he spent his last Christmas Eve in my home celebrating Our Savior’s birth while sharing a meal at a table-for-two with another close friend of mine, my Catholic priest.
© Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Wing Atencio, all rights reserved.