In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.
Learning How to Be A Christian
These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.
When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.
Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.
Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church
Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.
Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.
The Importance of Ritual
Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.
Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.
I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.