The Right Kind of Rituals

June 28, 2012 - 5:00 am

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” — Isaiah 58:5

I once overheard a sad conversation between two girls attending a funeral. It had nothing to do with the deceased and everything to do with the two teenagers. During the ceremony, one of the girls had noticed that close relatives of the deceased were participating in the actual burial.

In accordance with Jewish tradition, each relative would take the spade and shovel some dirt onto the casket. Then, that person would carefully place the spade into the earth in order to avoid passing it directly to the next mourner. The girl asked her friend, “Why are they doing that?” The friend replied, “I don’t know. It’s just another silly ancient ritual.”

Ouch! The religion that her ancestors had probably died for had become totally meaningless to her! But the sting of her response was quickly replaced by compassion. These girls had been robbed of their heritage. No one had ever explained to them the meaning behind our rituals. If they knew the meaning behind the rituals bequeathed to them, they could not possibly call them archaic and irrelevant!

In this case, the mourners were participating in the burial because it’s considered a sign of great respect to the deceased. Instead of some stranger, the deceased is lovingly interred with dignity and respect by close family and friends. We don’t pass the shovel to each other in order to emphasize one of the great messages surrounding death — in the end, we are all equal. When one person hands something to the other it is a symbol of dominance because the giver has something over the receiver.

These rituals are anything but irrelevant. Yet they are only significant when accompanied by meaning.

Yet, there is some truth to what the teens were thinking. In the book of Isaiah, God posed a similar challenge to the people’s practice of religious rituals:  “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” In other words, God was saying, “I don’t want your meaningless rituals!”

Here’s what God saw:  the fast days the Jews were holding were all about form and little about substance. They would physically humble themselves, but not spiritually, not internally. It’s not about sitting in ashes; it’s about setting the oppressed free! It’s about feeding the hungry and clothing the poor!

God doesn’t want silly, archaic rituals either. If our actions are meaningless to us, they are meaningless to God as well!


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