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The Purpose of Ceremony: Eyes Front!

February 16th, 2007
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I’m generally impressed, and grateful, for the comments that are sent in to this blog. They are usually always thoughtful, intelligent and well reasoned, along with being cordial and gracious. Sure, there are a few exceptions, from time to time, but that’s why God created the "delete" key in blogging software. And then there are comments that come in that I find so impressive that truly deserve their own separate posts. Here is one of them. Thanks Mike.

As an Army soldier I cannot and will not speak for Marines, but formality and practiced precision go deeper than our close association with death.  As one who performs funeral honors frequently, I can tell you that the military bearing is a sign of my honor to the departed and their family.  That is the motivation and focus as we practice and prepare.

As a superior once told me, "That man up front spent his entire life serving others.  The least you can do is serve his widow for an hour on Saturday."  That has stuck with me.  No better place is this sentiment shown than at Arlington, where men march the exact same 21 steps and pause at 21 second intervals in all weather 24 hours a day 365 days a year for long dead heroes we can’t even name and most Americans never visit.

My hat off to you for correctly identifying this as an object lesson for the spirit of the liturgy: humility and deference when confronted with someone else’s sacrifice – not our own.

The focus on the ritual directs our focus to the things that truly matter.. it points us to the things that we would overlook if we did not observe the ceremony.  It is never about the ceremony itself.  The ceremony is a tool that pulls our attention away from ourselves and forces us to face objective reality apart from our personal situation.

No honor guard ever serves at a funeral out of personal pride in the merit of his bearing and training.  The service, the ritual, the "liturgy" that we follow is done to communicate our heartfelt gratitude and respect.  To take away proper ceremony is to divorce an act of proper respect.  In the minds of most (including my Drill Sergeants back at Basic), you cannot separate ceremony and respect because ceremony IS respect.  The two are linked so closely that where ceremony is lacking, respect will be also.

One always effects the other.  For the military, ceremony and respect are linked.  For the church, we prefer to see it in terms of practice and doctrine.

The amazing parallels between being a Soldier and being a Christian are too many to identify in this post so I will just touch on a few of them.  Certainly St. Paul identified it:  we are both at war against a deadly enemy and alone we cannot hope to win.  Preparation, unity, ceremony, and repetition are tools to accomplish the task of victory.  The necessary death of the old life so that a new life can be made.  The consequences for a lack of vigilance is certain death.  As a Soldier, I desperately cling to my training.  As a Christian, I desperately cling to the cross.

Maybe this is why the US Army saw the importance of formulating a common creed and requiring that it be memorized by all recruits.

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  1. Matthew J. Surburg, M.D.
    February 16th, 2007 at 05:34 | #1

    The statement here which best expressed the main point was “It is never about the ceremony itself. The ceremony is a tool that pulls our attention away from ourselves and forces us to face objective reality apart from our personal situation.” In my own civilian experience, I know no more formal or ceremonial place than an operating room. Sterility is maintained through what are truly elaborate rites of purification. If the ceremony were an end unto itself then the liturgy would indeed be sterile. In OR, the sterility safeguards the health of the patient, and the ceremony is a reminder that it is for that patient’s benefit that everyone is present. In the liturgy, there is one Surgeon and we are all patients, but the ceremony still reminds us that we are the beneficiaries of His healing care.

  2. February 16th, 2007 at 12:21 | #2

    I dunno, I think the ceremony needs to be more relevant.

  3. Rev. Al Bergstrazer
    February 16th, 2007 at 16:59 | #3

    Previewing your Comment
    The metaphor of the Military Funeral ceremony, and the O.R. are good. However ‘it is not about the ceremony’ is where our church has been going wrong for many years. This is where the license to do as we please is penciled into the margins.
    Many of the U.S. Military’s customs and traditons are unique to us alone, such as the playing of “Taps” at a comittal. Britain’s Royal Marines, the Israeli Defense Force, and Japanese Self Defense force all have their own ceremonies, but they are not ours.
    The ceremonies of the US armed forces are rooted in the Colonial Army and Navy, in the Army of the Potomac, they were hammered out in Antietam, and Gettysburg. They were carried on through Beleiu Wood, and Guadalcanal, through the Chosin River through the Ia Drang Valley and the Hanoi Hilton; and now to Kandahar and Bhagdad. The ceremonies not only honor the dead, they bind the living together as brothers. They remind us of who we are; of our Great Grand Father’s courage in WWI, our Grand Father’s honor in WWII, our Father’s sacrifice in Vietnam. The customs and ceremony tie us to them, and them to us, though the orders from the CINC are different, our oath is the same our fathers, and therefore the goal is the same as theirs was we preserve and defend the same things as they did.
    Am I saying it is about the ceremony? In a sense, it is about the SAME ceremony, in as much as it is done for good reason, not arbitrarily.
    The military goes to great lengths to train and enforce its traditions, I’m not sure the same rigor can be applied to the church, lest we rob our brothers of their christian freedom.
    Unless; the liturgy (the ceremony) is what ‘it’ is indeed about.
    If through the word spoken, preached, and sung, through the sacraments rightly administered we are one with Christ, and so made living stones built up into that great temple the church-then the liturgy is not only for Christ, it is about Christ -and Christ is about the liturgy-inextricably so. If the liturgy is not only where the promises of Christ are heard and taught, but manifested, then it is indeed ‘about’ Him, because he comes to us through that which we call the litrugy.
    There are church bodies that have fine orders of service, they say all the right words but their priests believe little or none of it, and they have fallen into dead formalities. We have also seen churches that have created their own unique services; (facismiliies of copies of synonyms) in which they are very sincere about what they say and do-except that what they say and do is trite, meaningless and in some cases altogether false.
    The liturgy still serves us well and will continue to serve us well if we know what it is, and why it is, we will be spared dreary fomalism on the one hand and forgettable tripe on the other.

  4. Mike
    February 16th, 2007 at 17:01 | #4

    I think it is important to point out that a person’s subjective opinion of a ceremony does not effect its value or impact it objectively.
    People or groups who hold the military and/or funerals in contempt in no way detract from the objective reality of the departed’s sacrifice or our respect for them. An honor guard’s duty and respect is still the same regardless of how it is received and regardless of what onlookers decide for themselves about what is going on.
    In that same sense, a member of an honor guard who may privately hold a low opinion of his task at a funeral in no way detracts from the objective reality of what his actions represent. To the widow, the effect is the same no matter who presents the flag and what that person feels privately about what he is doing.
    And so the value of the ceremony is not in the unpredictable feelings of the one who performs it or the one who observes it. The value is in what it says objectively and the clarity of that message it is attempting to convey. It is then possible for a ceremony to be performed in an empty manner to someone who holds no respect for it… and a third party understand its purpose and hear the message of the ceremony clearly.
    The same is true of the liturgy. People who see the liturgy and judge it as dead and worthless do not impact its value whatsoever. They cut themselves off from its true meaning and deeper message, but do not spoil it for the rest of us who understand what is being said and what is being done.
    On the opposite end, those who perform the liturgy in a hollow manner do not ruin the liturgy by their private opinion or apathy. The effect is objective and is still a blessing to those who receive the message openly and honestly.
    It must follow then that the liturgy can only be judged on how it is performed and what it communicates, and not on one person’s private opinon of why specific individuals are doing it and what the motives of their hearts are. While the underlying motives are the reason for the performance of a ceremony, the ceremony itself is not dictated by any one person’s motive at any given time.
    Those who claim that there is no life in the liturgy, that it is no longer relevant, and that it is hollow repetition have closed themselves off of the objective reality of what is being said in it. Alternitavely, they may be attempting to see into the hearts of those who are participating so that they can judge the “why” in an individual instead of taking in the “what” and the “how” of what is being done.
    In either case, it is their subjective opinion and/or imperfect interpretation that has clouded their understanding of what is truly being presented which is an objective message living in the liturgy itself and not residing in the subjective hearts of those in attendence.
    In going back to the funeral example, someone’s opinon of what the honor guard must be thinking in order to behave so rigidly and ritualistically is of little or no true value to everyone else… particularly the widow who so desperately needs to hear the message that the ceremony is designed to communicate.

  5. Bill Kerner
    February 17th, 2007 at 14:25 | #5

    I am an attorney, and my practice requires that I appear in court almost every working day. The administration of justice requires high ideals and respect for those ideals. In an attempt to show respect for those ideals, we too have formalities that we must observe. I mention this, because the formalities of a court of law have similarities to those of the Church that are different that military formalities.
    Unlike the military, we in the practice of law are not organized into regimented units in a uniform and prescribed way. We arrange ourselves into various organizations, from highly regimented large firms, to smaller firms, to family businesses, to (sometimes fiercely) independent one person operations. Each firm is completely free to create its own internal structure, subject to ethical rules which are broad enough to allow for the highly diverse nature of the law practices they govern. Of necessity, the formalities we observe in court have to be broad enough to allow for some diversity as well.
    Our procedural rules are designed to preserve dignity and decorum in the search for the truth, and the administration of justice according to whatever the truth is found to be. We speak in turn, or when directed to do so by the court. Our comments are directed to the court, not to each other (the court is not a place to conduct individual squables in the street). We refer to each other by our titles (possibly using our last names to distinguish one from the other, never by our first names) when on the record. We stand to show our respect for the judge or the jury when they enter the courtroom. We have rules of evidence and procedure that attorneys are expected to know and observe, and to instruct our clients to observe. When we say “we address the court” as opposed to “address the judge”, we do so because what transpires in the court is more important than any one person who occupies the court for that moment.
    And yet, our formalities are such that our diversity is accommodated and our differences are respected. The rules must be broad and flexible enough that different attorneys from different organizations with widely disparate logistical problems can all be accommodated. There are alot of local variations in how these rules are carried out and enforced. Different emphasis is given to different rules by different judges. The formalities must be formulated, and must be observed, in such a way that respect is shown by all manner of diverse judges and attorneys for each other, despite sometimes very wide differences between them. There is a very firm principle (in my state at least) that the court should not allow noncompliance with procedural rules to adversely affect the substantive merits of the case. In other words, the formalities exist to serve justice, not the other way around. We do not create formal rules for their own sake, or to build up our own pride.
    By analogy, so it is in the Church. There is a lot of diversity among Lutherans personally. Allowances should be made among us for those differences that are not matters of doctrine. Personality differences and local custom should be respected…BUT, some formalities (and SOME standardization of those formalities) and decorum are absolutely essential to maintaining the attitude of reverence and respect for God and His ministry on earth required in a service of divine worship. To be worshipful is, by definition, to feel or offer great devotion or respect. The formalities of the Church are designed to, and do, just that.

  6. Pastor Gary Galen, Edwardsville IL
    February 17th, 2007 at 15:07 | #6

    Believe it or not, a few years ago a neighboring UCC church had a contemporary funeral service. Our members who atteded (relations) were schocked.
    Nice analogy that you presented – the altar as the tomb, Christ’s Body and Blood, the suffering on the cross. I don’t think the response should be “yay, yippee” However, because of the Resurrection, I think we can render joy appropriately (and I don’t mean “whopee” or anything)

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