I have always had a fondness for the more quiet and contemplative services of the church year. I often manage to attend Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services. In part for the practical reason that they are in the evening and thus compatible with my own idiosyncratic schedule, but mostly because they are two liturgies that really speak to me.
I was in church for this year’s Ash Wednesday service and part of my time was spent just looking around and absorbing the atmosphere of the worship space as I settled in for the service. Looking at the candles, stained-glass, and crosses covered in purple cloths, I was reminded of both the power and danger of using physical objects to understand the mysteries of God.
I know some of the power of the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services comes from the ritual acts both contain that are only done once a year. The imposition of ashes and the washing of feet are actions that are rare and special and thus may contain even more power to move and mystify than the weekly prayers and communion.
Ritual actions such as lighting candles, processing with the cross, bowing, kneeling, crossing oneself, receiving the ashes, and taking communion are all ways to make a physical connection with the deep and vast mysteries of God.
When I imbue everyday objects or actions with ritual meaning, I give those objects and actions power to help me deepen my understanding and relationship with God. However, being human, it can be easy to take it too far. I can forget that the candle* is not holy, that the candle is not my connection with God. That any power it has comes from the place it holds in the ritual. The candle is not God, the leaping flame is a way to evoke the complicated mystery of God in a way that my small self can grasp.
If I treat the candle itself as holy and start to worship the ritual of lighting and extinguishing it then God is no longer the focus at the heart of the ritual. When that happens, I drift toward magical thinking. ‘If I light this candle X good thing will happen, or, I will be protected from Y bad thing.”
If I give into that temptation, I reduce God down to a vending machine or an accountant. This narrowing of God into something that can grant wishes or who balances the books after death is the dangerous side of the power of ritual. It is where ideas like the prosperity gospel come from (if you obey god and are a good person you will prosper, if you don’t you will suffer and, more insidiously, if you suffer it is because you must be a bad person). From there it is a short step to the idea of: ‘everything happens for a reason’.
I know that some folks find the idea of everything happening for a reason to be helpful. I think of it as bad theology. Things, good and bad, do happen to us and we may or may not reflect on them an learn something.
However, the universe is big beyond understanding. Putting myself at the center, letting my ego convince me that everything, good, bad or indifferent, that has ever happened to me was on purpose, and that I was the target of specific actions by God or the universe so I would ‘learn’ is stepping into the shoes of God.
I may never know why something happened to me. I may come up with a reason. I may even learn something from the bit of ‘everything’ that falls on me but that doesn’t mean that I am the center of the universe. Just as the candle is not God, neither am I. When I use the candle’s flame to explore the vast mystery of God then the candle and I are both in the right place: focusing our attention on the expansive mystery and overpowering wonder of a God who loves all of creation.
*or any other object or action used in ritual worship
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
© 2019 Kristin Fontaine