Rituals Determine Eternity
“What did you go out to see?”
Those were our Lord’s words to the crowd. What were you looking for? As we journey through Advent, the Church throws us this question. What are you looking for? You can imagine Christ’s words echoing down from his thrown on Judgement Day. What did you spend your life pursuing?
A recent Starbucks campaign raised profits with the slogan: “Take comfort in rituals.” It was brilliant. They were not just selling a good product. They were selling a lifestyle. You can get good coffee anywhere. Starbucks offers a ritual. Start your day with that soothing smell of roasted beans, frothy cream, and an energy jolt to get you by. We are liturgical beings. Our whole lives revolve around rituals, and these rituals define who we are. In fact, our daily liturgy shapes our deepest desires.
Google, another industry renowned for persuasion, took a new platform. They would not merely help you find what you wanted. They would teach you what you should want. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, explained, “Most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what to do next.” The Latin axiom goes: “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Viviendi.” As we worship, so we believe, so we live. Our whole lifestyle is a liturgy — habits and rituals that demand time, energy, and adoration. That lifestyle, be it the lifestyle shaped by the world or Christ, determines our eternity.
So how will we respond to God, on that final day, when He asks, “What were you looking for?”
John heard about Jesus. He sent two disciples to ask him if he was the Messiah. “Are you He who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered them:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).
Christ simply makes the plain obvious. His presence was sufficient. “Hear and see.” His actions and miracles were the testimony. Anyone with open eyes could see that God was on earth, but that was not enough. “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” Not everyone wants God. We usually assume we are looking for God. Much of the time, we are not looking for God as God. We are looking for a god in our own image, a god the way we want god to be. For some, God’s coming will be the ultimate joy. For many, His coming will be offensive, repulsive, dreadful.
What are you looking for? Now Christ challenges the crowd: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:7-9). Everything in our gospel today is about desire. What are we pursuing? What drives us?
Are we chasing after “a reed shaken by the wind?” In other words, are we obsessed with vanity? Do we arrange our lifestyle, our schedule, our budget around fluff or eternity? Our 2021 Calendars are out. I will go through them briefly during announcements. The Church Calendar is so beautiful. It is one of the most magnificent gifts of God. For the Orthodox, time is sacramental. The holy days are not just one more “thing to do.” Annus est Christus. The calendar is Jesus Christ. It is window that welcomes Christ’s life into our life. St. Paul writes to the Colossians: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him” (Col. 2:6-7). For Orthodox Christians, the Church Calendar is the way we do this. It is our means for walking “in Jesus Christ.”
While starving in his prison cell, the martyr, Archpriest Gregory Petroff, wrote his famous prayer, “Akathist of Thanksgiving.” In one of the lines in his prayer, the holy man described the Orthodox understanding of Holy Days:
“Why is it that on a Feast Day the whole of nature mysteriously smiles? Why is it that then a heavenly gladness fills our hearts; a gladness far beyond that of earth and the very air in church and in the altar becomes luminous? It is the breath of Thy gracious love. It is the reflection of the glory of Mount Tabor. Then do heaven and earth sing Thy praise: Alleluia!”
For so much of life, we really do not know what to do. We have all kinds of decisions to make, and sometimes it feels like guesswork (or gambling). But if there is one thing we can be confident, it is how we should schedule our calendars. Arranging our lives around the Holy Calendar, first, before everything else, is one of the most important things we can do. The same can be said about all our rituals.
Will we spend our lives “chasing after a reed,” superfluousness, or will we spend our lives chasing Goodness, Truth, and Beauty?
“Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment?”
On one level, we can spend our lives chasing celebrities, filling our hearts with pop news, or lusting after movie stars. On a more subtle level, we idolize leaders or ideologies. We become so obsessed with a movement that the movement takes priority over everything else. Whether it is socialism or the free market, global warming or homeschooling, whatever it is we get excited about, every thing becomes destructive when it becomes more important than God. Only one ultimate pursuit will heal the soul, the pursuit of God.
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’
Advent arrives at the end of the year to prepare us. What will we chase after? In the spirit of the Starbucks slogan: “Take comfort in rituals.” Our rituals make us. Our habits shape our loves and our worship. In the quiet of Advent, we have an opportunity to cut away, chisel, reshape the kind of ritualistic lifestyle that will point us towards eternity. May God give us quiet and reflection, this Advent season, so that we can pursue with fervor the heavenly kingdom.