Ritual as My Third Language: An Autobiographical Account
Abstract: This article addresses the enduring ambivalence in believers churches concerning sacraments. Since their beginning, they have feared that outward forms substitute for inward experience. At the same time they possess a rich ritual life. After describing the nature of ritual, the article examines examples from Mennonite history that illustrate the struggle between form and spirit, focusing on the author’s experience. The community of his childhood relied on both a traditional church calendar and an “anti-calendar.” The essay then summarizes three sixteenth-century Anabaptist theologies of the Lord’s Supper, highlighting that of Pilgram Marpeck as the one with the greatest potential to overcome the ambivalence toward ritual inherent in the Mennonite tradition.
In my childhood universe Sunday was set apart from the rest of the week by a platter of Zwieback-double sweet buns-on the breakfast table. Zwieback were baked only for Sundays, weddings and funerals. Every Saturday afternoon, without fail, my mother prepared them.
Zwieback were more than bread. They were a sign that the workweek was over, and that the day of rest and praise had arrived. This movement from ordinary time to sacred time was not an action confined to our family or neighbors; it was a custom carried on in continuity with our ancestors. Zwieback symbolized a way of life, a way of measuring time.
Historically, believers churches-with their emphasis on existential faith-have been wary of sacraments, regarding them as outer substitutes for an inner reality. Yet Jesus himself had commanded his disciples to baptize and break bread. This ambivalence concerning two claims that are both woven through the scriptural record has dogged Mennonites through the centuries. The most common way of living with it was to make it clear that there is no magic or mystery involved in the ordinances. In evangelical movements within Mennonitism the suspicion of sacraments extended to all ritual: each encounter with the divine was to be spontaneous. Yet the simple domestic custom of Sunday Zwieback suggests the indispensable role of ritual in reinforcing community. To say that you have no rituals is tantamount to saying that you have no communal life.
Is there a way of overcoming this ambivalence toward outward form without undermining a belief in the direct experience of God? Yes, but only if we can come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between spirit and matter. There is always more than meets the eye in routinized gestures-there are no “mere symbols.” Human beings are embodied creatures; it is part of our nature to use physical objects and gestures to pass on meaning. In his poem “Lullaby,” W. H. Auden writes that for lovers “Soul and body have no bounds…”; for them the body perfectly conveys the soul. At its most grace-filled matter makes spirit present.
Since students of ritual in various disciplines, whether anthropology or theology, disagree on terminology, clarifying the meaning of central concepts is the first task. The second task is to propose an explanation for the ambivalence in our tradition toward outward forms. These clarifications should illuminate several stories about my own development as a symbol-seeking creature.
“Ritual,” of course, is a broad term, often incorporating more particular expressions such as “sign,” “symbol” and “sacrament.” The liturgiologist Nathan Mitchell simply calls ritual, “an agreed upon pattern of movement.” The philosopher Suzanne Langer describes ritual as, “the formulation of overt behavior in the presence of sacred objects” as well as, “the most primitive reflection of serious thought, a slow deposit, as it were, of people’s imaginative insight into life.” Scholars of ritual famously eschew definitions in favor of the phenomena of behavior themselves.
The following descriptions may be helpful. A ritual is the totality of words and gestures that brings a symbol or sacrament to life. A sign designates the reality to which it points in a way that makes common sense (e.g., smoke is a sign of fire). A symbol is an object that evokes cosmic or historical realities that cannot be reduced to a single word or object (e.g., the cross is a symbol of the Gospel to those initiated into its meaning). By contrast, a sacrament-at least in the Christian vocabulary-has a very particular meaning within the Gospel story. It is a repeated action initiated by Jesus and bearing the promise of his presence. It has a certain “givenness”; its core meaning is fixed by its origin but its form is malleable. To illustrate, the Lord’s Supper is the sharing of bread and wine in memory of Jesus but it has many forms of ritual expression from an Orthodox liturgy to a Plymouth Brethren breaking of bread.
I venture four unscientific statements about the components of ritual; their content should become clearer in the stories that follow. The term “act” includes words, gestures and objects.
1. The simplest kind of ritual is a repeated act whose associations become a door from the present to the past or future. The baking and eating of Zwieback on Sunday is such an action.
2. A more complex ritual is an act of mythic origin that tells a story about life’s meaning. In the Brethren-Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book, the prayer after footwashing states, “We have done what words stammer to express. Accept this gesture of love as a pledge of how we mean to live our lives.” By imitating the “upside down” act of Jesus Christians make clear their belief that humility and servanthood make the world go around.
3. Another function of ritual is that it is a means by which individual experience is made part of collective experience. I remember a funeral that opened with the hymn “Come Ye Disconsolate, Where’er Ye Languish.” From the first bar onward my silent sorrow was joined to that of everyone else’s in the room.
4. In its most complex form, a ritual is an event that condenses reality, acts out memory and stylizes emotion. The Lord’s Supper expresses the vast story of the Gospel in the simple gesture of taking bread, blessing, breaking and sharing it. When we eat the bread we taste the presence of Jesus, given for us. Each of us has responses of awe, unworthiness and gratitude that we hold with varying intensity as we participate in such a sacred act. Without restricting the scope of individual feelings, ritual expression gives us common gestures, like kneeling, and common cries, like the ancient response “Lord, have mercy” or the hymn “Just as I Am.”
In ritual action gestures and words are condensed; it is of a different order from literal language. Ritual action is, in some ways, like poetry-compact, and with enough ambiguity and multivocality of expression to allow for a range of existential meanings. Literal expression is necessary for the everyday but it is too sluggish, too earthbound, too particular to convey universal meaning. I have been in many conversations with advocates of potluck suppers who claim that they are the equivalent of the Lord’s Supper in our time. This claim confuses these two orders of expression. Potlucks build common bonds but they lack the gripping, transcendent simplicity of symbolic expression. Neither form of expression can replace the other in the building of community but they should not be merged.
Given that ritual is innate to community, why have the great communitarians, the believers churches, been unable to express their clear convictions concerning the visible church unequivocally in visible signs? The reason goes back to the sixteenth century. Catholic and Protestant reformers alike wanted more than an arm’s length acquaintance with God through outward forms. They feared that ritualized forms of religion allowed people to be content with a pre-structured, passive experience of the Holy Spirit when a transformative one was possible. But Catholic theologians argued that the effect of sacraments was metaphysical-they left a mark on your soul whether you knew it or not. Protestants, and here the Anabaptists were most consistent, countered that the whole point of meeting Christ was to experience his grace and be changed by it.
I identify with this insistence on God’s offer of a tranformative enounter with him. I share the fear that the forms of religion can become hollow and delude us into thinking that going through the motions is enough but recoil from the conclusion that some sixteenth-century Anabaptists and their contemporary descendants drew from it. The cry for the renewal of individual and corporate spirituality in the sixteenth century began as a corrective to the misuse of ritual but ended up demanding its abolition. In their frustration with dead externalities the reformers put their focus on living internalities. But when the Spiritualists, like Casper Schwenckfeld, started saying that you could find Christ in your heart and on your own without the mediating witness of the Bible and the church, most of the Anabaptists realized the internalization of faith had gone too far.
Pilgram Marpeck responded with a compelling critique. His distinctive contribution to the theology of the believers churches was his realization that the spiritualist corrective, made into the norm, would unmake Christianity as a religion of incarnation, of God taking on flesh. “Christ became a natural man for natural man. . . . He was not here for the benefit of spirits and angels but for man’s sake-who has flesh and blood and natural sensitivity.”
This is Marpeck’s summary of his own argument. The Gospel comes to us in outward ways, from preaching to the breaking of bread; it becomes life-giving when its ritual expression fulfills Auden’s dictum that “soul and body know no bounds,” when it is the means to the intended end, an encounter with the living Christ. Yet naked experience-including such a mystical meeting with Christ-is impossible to sustain; we can only hold onto it by casting its reality into repeatable forms. In their bones people know that grace is embodied-why else would nineteenth-century revivalists, those artists of individual and inward religion, have insisted that someone coming to faith must make that tangible by the visible act of coming forward at the end of a preaching service?
Mennonite ambivalence toward “ritual” as the external expression of faith has persisted through the centuries. I was surprised, for example, at the reaction to set forms I encountered in an Old Colony Mennonite wedding. After the service I went to the minister to ask for a copy of the admonition and vows, which were both delivered in formulaic fashion. He assured me that he had used no written forms and that his words had been inspired by the moment.
Sometimes the debate has been between false and true ritual. An “ordinance” was considered a New Testament custom whereas a “sacrament” was a perversion of New Testament usage. Feeding this suspicion was a marrow deep anti-Catholicism. It functioned more as a subconscious than conscious prejudice. There was not a large Mennonite body of anti-Catholic writing in North America in the ninetheenth century, as was the case in some other forms of Protestantism in North America. But there is abundant anecdotal evidence for it.
Until the mid-twentieth century, for example, most Mennonite congregations kneeled for prayer. Yet when I tried to reintroduce kneeling in the pastoral settings where I worked, the most common protest against it-from people of various Mennonite backgrounds-was that it was “Catholic.” In my pastoral experience prior to the 1990s movement toward more liturgical forms was feared to be a regression into the broken rituals practiced by Catholics in the sixteenth century.
Stories from my upbringing can best illustrate the innate ambivalence in the Mennonite psyche concerning ritual. I grew up in the Mennonite Brethren part of the Mennonite world. It was even more suspicious of “dead ritual” than other parts of the Anabaptist community because it had arisen in protest against what it called “a memorized faith” among mid-nineteenth century Mennonites in Russia. More than other Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Brethren foster an intensity of religious experience. For that reason the wrestling match between spirit and form was particularly hard fought.
On the one hand, we were carried through the year by the liturgical stylizing of time. It began on the first Sunday of Advent, at home and at church, with the lighting of the initial candle. Every Sunday until Christmas had an edge of anticipation. It was only after the children’s program on Christmas Eve that Christmas itself began. Once we children were in bed our parents decorated the tree. While it was still dark on Christmas morning we clamored to come down and see the tree. Once the candles were lit we were beckoned into the living room to see the glistening tree and unwrapped gifts beneath it-the most dazzling memory of my childhood. Then came Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas, followed by New Year’s Eve and Day with reflective services on both occasions. Finally came Epiphany, the end of the twelve days of Christmas, marked by the taking down of the tree.
Paralleling these traditional symbols of religious time in our church were two contemporary sacred occasions, a week of deeper life services in the spring and a week of evangelistic services in the fall. Even though the deeper life meetings were held before Easter they were deliberately not linked to Lent, because they championed a religious experience that saw form as the enemy to be overcome. As I look back on it I’m amazed at how these two antagonistic religiosities coexisted in our church. For example, Good Friday was observed with a solemnity that still stirs my soul. Maybe these enemy forces both had a grip on us because we realized we couldn’t live without either of them.
Thus, we had two ways of measuring sacred time at church. One was a pared-down following of the traditional calendar. The other was an “anti-calendar,” a conversion-focused piety that bristled at the confining of the Spirit to the rhythm of the church year. When I first wrote these lines, I stated that the anti-calendar wanted nothing to do with a faith that grew through repetition and predictability. But, in fact, it did! The evangelistic meetings happened at the same time each year; they presented a mandatory rite of initiation-either going forward or speaking with the minister after the service, and always led to converts requesting baptism. These steps have striking parallels with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, pioneered by the Catholic Church on the basis of patristic models.
In our world three languages were needed to communicate meaning and identity: German, English and ritual. The change from German to English illustrates the competition between different ritual universes. The impassioned debate that accompanied this shift expressed this tornness between traditional ritual forms and revivalistic ones. German was the living voice of the past, the language the cloud of witnesses had spoken. I remember being inspired in church singing hymns, thinking that I was confessing our faith in the very words and music my grandparents and their grandparents before them must have used.
With the shift from German to English the preaching themes changed. Gone were the references to the Hebrews in the wilderness and in Babylonian captivity and analogous talk about the suffering of Mennonites in Russia. Speaking German was one dimension of belonging: it was a sign that you were not ashamed of the Gospel and the peculiar community that represented it on earth. There was a link with a continuous tradition, something evangelical converts to liturgical churches find so significant. There was also a deliberate insularity, a use of ritual forms against their own grain, to exclude rather than include. But that is a discussion for another occasion. As German receded the tug toward actually becoming fundamentalist, rather than merely borrowing from it to bolster a different identity, increased. The inerrancy of the Bible became a more important mark of the church and nonresistance a less important one.
Participating in this transition from one mode of expression to another brought my first awareness of the fact that ritual, as a seamlessly stitched narrative of stylized words and acts, is richer and broader than ordinary language. People can participate in an action whose content they would fight over if it were simply verbalized. This notion became a decisive part of my pastoral ministry early on when I was chaplain at Conrad Grebel College. Some students had experienced an adult conversion; what mattered to them was Jesus as our sin-bearer. Other students had caught a vision of Jesus as a “young and fearless prophet” of peace and justice. The two groups had little in common.
But with prayer and sweat we were able to craft forms that had room for both approaches to Jesus and brought them, at least tentatively, into interaction. This happened most profoundly in communion. The healing power of Jesus’ death was unmistakable in the symbols. But so also was the healing power of his life as he sat at table with outsiders. His freely offered life opened the door to our reconciliation with God but did it not also open the door for our reconciliation with one another? The wholeness of the Gospel and the unity of the church took flesh in the breaking of bread; all of our debates on that subject were mere commentary on a reality that had become unmistakable to us in the sacramental encounter.
This matter of ritualized language forms being broader than rational, literal ones seems profound enough to warrant another example from the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, where I was a minister for ten years. Finding poetic language that could speak on behalf of people whose day to day religious vocabularies were at odds with each other turned out to be a major pastoral challenge. We fell into the trap of reducing our public prayers to generic generalities. They offered ongoing sustenance to no one. Then we tried to create forms that had room for different kinds of people. During the congregational prayer we often used outlines that made sure we prayed for “those who have never heard of Christ” as well as “structures that condemn people to lifelong poverty.” And sometimes people would offer their own petitions within that order-some with a warm-hearted piety, others with a prophetic passion, still others with the cryptic voice of the skeptic. This approach to worship was not merely a means of making room for everyone’s view-although it sometimes descended to that. At its best, the holding together of different dimensions of the Gospel and different experiences of it changed everybody and enlarged their picture of what Christians pray about.
Models for language and gestures that have such breadth first came to me from other traditions, as when I first accompanied Catholic friends to Mass during the reforms of Vatican II. The changes in the shape, language and spirit of the liturgy were so encompassing that they overwhelmed not only me, a spy from Anabaptist land, but my friends themselves. I found a unity between inward and outward, form and spirit that utterly confounded my anti-Catholic prejudice. One Sunday I experienced an electrical charge just before communion when the people cried out, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; only speak the word and I shall be healed.” This liturgical sea change in Catholic worship had two effects. One, it was unmistakable evidence for the fact that a community’s longstanding symbolic repertoire can be reformed. Two, a community does not have to choose between inward spirit and outward form; a synthesis is possible.
Despite my attraction to its new spirit, Catholicism remained an unreachable universe. Think of my joy when I discovered Anglicanism, that remarkable marriage of Catholic form and Protestant spirit! I remember the first Sunday I attended evening prayer at All Soul’s Anglican Church in London to hear the great hero of my Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship days, John Stott, preach. The service opened with, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name,” a gesture that this community shared with mine, then went on to the strangeness of a confession of sin and the reciting of the Magnificat. The sermon was a ringing declaration of Jesus’ power to save, yet its language and tone were cut from exactly the same cloth as the liturgy itself-understated yet pregnant with meaning. I had grown up in a world in which the language of ritual and that of proclamation were at odds with each other. Ever since then my (unrealized) ideal has been liturgical worship prayed by people with evangelical faith.
I was looking for deeper worship-worship that saw form as its friend. I was drawn to the cycles and symbols of Mennonite church life but also repelled by them. My baptism at age seventeen had marked a coming to faith in which Christ was not only my parents’ savior but had also become mine. Yet the most memorable part of the day of my initiation into the Ottawa Street Mennonite Brethren church was not baptism itself but the communion service that concluded it. A solemnity descended on the congregation that told me more was happening here than met the eye; when I looked into the cup I knew we were in the presence of a greater reality than we had words for. I had experienced the mystery of grace; I had “touched and handled things unseen.” After that I knew there was a world worth exploring within my own tradition.
Reading old prayer books and minister’s manuals, taking communion in the General Conference church where I was a seminary intern-white cloth to receive the bread, nodding to one’s neighbor as one passed the cup-only whetted my appetite for the source of all these secret wonders. Finally, I concluded that doctoral studies were the only way to uncover the hidden fruit on the almost barren tree of Mennonite worship. As I worked to define my dissertation topic, I focused more and more on the Lord’s Supper. When I broached the matter with my adviser, his first response was that I should get him a complete bibliography of all the secondary literature, focusing on book-length treatments of the Mennonite Supper. A month or so later I returned to report that there were none! He was dumbfounded-as was I. Once the shock had passed, it was clear that this would be my topic.
To my delighted amazement I found several extensive treatments of the Lord’s Supper by sixteenth-century Anabaptists, as well as a host of fragmentary references that illustrated the importance of this ceremony to the people who had overthrown all ceremony. Almost as amazing is the fact that all the significant theologies of the eucharist among the Anabaptists had a different theological structure and addressed different pastoral situations. Common to all of them was a belief in the church as the sacramental body of Christ, his visible presence in time and space. Three authors provide the rudiments of a theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Balthasar Hubmaier, Dirk Philips and Pilgram Marpeck.
For Hubmaier the breaking of the bread is largely our response to the preceding offer of Christ; it is our pledge to lay down our life for our neighbors just as Christ laid down his for us. Hubmaier has grasped the horizontal momentum of biblically grounded ritual. He provides a much sought-after connecting point between worship and peacemaking.
For Philips, communion is the symbol of our mystical feasting on the body and blood of Christ. However circumscribed, there is something here of “the real presence of Christ,” which stands at the heart of Catholic and Lutheran theologies of the eucharist. For Marpeck the Supper is our union with Christ and one another. Marpeck is the seed bearer of a believers church understanding of the incarnation. But unlike most of his contemporaries and those who came after him, Marpeck was able to break through to an understanding of the sacramental that crosses the chasm between inward and outward, mediated and unmediated experience. He sets us on the road toward an at-home-ness with ritual that is infused with faith. It was this sensibility that I brought to my work on the Hymnal: A Worship Book and the Mennonite Minister’s Manual. It underlies my attempts to craft a believers church theology of the Lord’s Supper.
My autobiographical excursus into the world of ritual concludes with a question. How do we nurture “an at-home-ness with ritual that is infused with faith”? The answer lies in making the most of the historic Mennonite ambivalence about form, in affirming the interconnectedness of the inward experience of faith and its outward expression in ritual. This gives us a necessary safeguard against the temptation of religion to domesticate passion through form. But we also need to befriend the fact that we cannot and need not transcend our creatureliness to faithfully receive and give the Gospel. Marpeck reminds us of the good news that goes against the grain of this fear: “Christ became a natural man for natural man.” In him and in us spirit takes on flesh. We all know you can’t love someone inwardly, or at least, you can’t love someone only inwardly. We love and remember and hope concretely, with bread and wine and Zwieback. Auden’s experience of overcoming the boundary between spirit and body, meaning and form, is what happens in true worship.
. A helpful summary of current understandings of “sign” and “symbol” relevant to worship may be found in N. Sagovsky, Liturgy and Symbolism, Grove Liturgical Study #16, (Bramcote Notts: Grove Press, 1978). A concise overview of the range of meanings attached to the religious use of the concept of “ritual” is found in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 2002), 407-410.
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. Ronald Grimes is typical in that regard. See his Deeply into the Bone (Berkeley: University of California, 2000). Most of the book is descriptive in nature. But on pp. 4ff Grimes distinguishes between “traditional” and “invented” ritual. In the last chapter, he refers to the film “Babette’s Feast” in his pithy reflections on ritual as ordinary gestures with infused meaning (344ff). Grimes’ method is similar to that of Peter Burke, a historian of culture. Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper, 1978) offers a clear methodology and many vivid case studies but offers no definition of ritual and related concepts.
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. Today much Catholic sacramental theology shares this concern. See, for instance, J. Martos, Doors to the Sacred (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982), 108-109. “Arguing along the lines of scholastic theology, the Catholics defended the view that the sacraments were always effective because they understood the effect of the sacraments to be metaphysical, not experiential: the primary effect of a valid sacrament was the sacramental reality conferred on the soul, not an experience of grace felt by the recipient. . . . The sense of the sacred was so lacking in Catholic sacramental practice that many reformers felt compelled to either reject them as superstitious or to interpret them in new ways.” One of the outstanding recent attempts to fuse the sacramental and the experiential is Donald Gelpi’s writing on conversion.-Committed Worship: A Sacramental Theology for Converting Christians, vol. 1 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1993), esp. 6ff, 15ff, 231-235.
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. The concern of the Swiss Anabaptists was the scriptural use of ceremonies. The radicals in Zurich, for example, became a congregation when they broke bread and baptized. See Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1966), 21-29. But from the beginning there was also a strident iconoclasm, like the smashing of holy water stoups in the St. Gall cemetery. See H. J. Goertz, The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996), 39ff.
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. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, Study Edition (Chicago: Liturgical Training, 1988.), 14-123. The initiation follows a progression from evangelizing through exorcism, study of the Word, presentation of the candidates, to baptism itself.
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. “A Form for Christ’s Supper” is a complete communion service. It contains a “pledge of love” as preparation for the breaking of bread. It asks, “If you will love your neighbor and serve him with deeds of brotherly love, . . . lay down and shed for him your life and blood… in the power of Christ , who laid down and shed his flesh and blood for us, then let each one say individually, I will.”-H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, eds., Balthasar Hubmaier, Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 403.
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. “But the food and drink that is eaten and drunk is the bread of heaven, the Word of God, the waters of the Holy Spirit, yes, the flesh and blood of Christ.”-C. J. Dyck et al, eds., The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1992), 114.
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. “Just so, the water is not the bath, but you need it in order to bathe. . . . Even as these things have a use in nature, so believers use them naturally (because they still live in the natural state), but bound . . . to the supernatural eternal essence and spiritual working of God in the whole person, inward and outward.”-Walter Klaassen et al, trans., Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and his Circle, vol. I, (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1999), 105.
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. See “Communion as a Gathered Body,” in The Measure of My Days, ed. R. Miller and J. Miller (Telford, Pa.: Cascadia, 2004), 151-163.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Ritual As My Third Language
*John Rempel is assistant professor of historical theology and assistant director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies at A.M.B.S. (Elkhart, Indiana).
MQR 79 (January 2005)