Rituals: Pillar of Christian Culture
What does it mean to be Christian in our world today? Christ’s words should ring in our hearts: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This commandment should distinguish our habits, opinions, and schedules down to the minutest details. It should be our theme song. What does it mean and how do we live it? We walk out this path in the culture and rituals of our Church. The liturgical life, the sacred calendar, Vespers and Matins, and all the traditions of the Church. The more we tap into our Orthodox heritage of culture and rituals, the more we render to God what is God’s.
The Pharisees had set up a trap. The Jews were divided at that time. There were two camps: one cooperated with the State and the other resisted it. In a climate charged with politics, everyone wondered where Jesus would fall.
“Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Christ stood above it all. He asked for a coin. Looking at it, he said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” “Caesar’s” the crowd responded. “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat. 22:15-21).
Caesar is just as alive today as he was back then. He is the State, the system, or whatever you choose to call it. Our laws, our roads and buildings, even our ability to go to the supermarket are made available to us by the system. We get our earthly goods from society, and so we should pay back into it. In the end, Christ paid the taxes, while keeping a distance from the whole debate. He was concerned with a different kind of kingdom.
“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
What belongs to God: your culture. Society provides our food, shelter, and money. The minute it reaches in to provide our values and culture it has crossed the line. Yet this is precisely where we Christians so often fall flat. Society must not provide our values. It most certainly must not provide our culture. What is our culture? What does it mean to be Christian in the modern world? "You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22). Christian culture begins and ends in this proclamation. Our motto as Orthodox Christians is: “Church as Culture.”
Why is Orthodoxy so ritualistic? Society today looks at rituals as a rival to Christianity. Yet, the Orthodox get more excited about rituals than anyone. Our whole life revolves around them. Indeed, we deem rituals to be the heart of our relationship with God and sanctification. When God singled out Abraham in the world he called him to be set apart.
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s family. Go to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). “You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure” (Deut. 14:2).
God was meticulous when instructing the Jews how to live and worship. Entire books in the bible record his instructions for a highly ritualistic culture. Why? Their rituals ingrained their faith into daily habits. Rituals are habits infused with faith and vision.
Far from making rituals obsolete, Christ came to fulfill them. The Old Testament rituals were black-and-white. The New Testament imbued the rituals with color. Jewish culture was a foreshadowing. Christian culture is the real thing. What does it mean to be Christian in the modern world? It means to define one’s identity, one’s lifestyle, one’s culture, thick and through, by the culture of Holy Church.
What is Orthodox culture? The New Testament is a single account of the exciting birth of a new culture. Following Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would come and lead the Church to all truth (Jn. 14:26), the apostles travelled from city to city building this new culture. They delivered the traditions and rituals, written and unwritten (Acts 16:4, Rm. 6:17), which were the pavestones of this radical culture. Two thousand years later, we can look back and see an unbroken continuity of these traditions in the Orthodox communion.
All our rituals: our Liturgy, from the Asperges to the Ite Missa Est, our daily offices, Vespers and Matins, our rituals for processing through the streets and all those beautiful customs: the lighting of the advent wreathe and the blessing of homes in Epiphany. What are these? This is the breathe of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church in the world. These are the little habits that pull us out from the monotony and meaninglessness of secularism. Our rituals are not mere sentimentalities. They are society’s only chance to find peace.
We have to remember what we have set out to accomplish. We are called to be the salt of the earth. “If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Mat. 5:13). Do we understand our responsibility? In a world that has lost itself to relativity and nihilism, we are in charge of keeping the light lit.
On April 15, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame went up in flames. To many, it was the apex of our modern tragedies, the end of an age. There is so much to fear. It is tempting to cave in or become paralyzed. But has the world ever been very different? Honestly, aside from our phantasies and daydreams, has the Church lived in any scenarios less riddled with problems? To keep on with our mission today is no less difficult than it was when Barbarians desecrated Rome and Bolsheviks detonated the Russian churches. We have no less reason to be joyful. For the Church is our Eden in the desert, our ark in the storm. We rest in paradise with Christ.
What does it mean to be Christian today? We carry the tune in our hearts: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Our identities, our habits, our culture all belong to God. May we find the determination to give them over to Him.