The Power of Ritual

The Power of Ritual
Attending an Anzac Day dawn service less than 36 hours after celebrating the Easter Vigil in my parish gave me cause to reflect on the similarities and differences between the two.
The central elements of Anzac Day ceremonies are set down by the RSL and never change. Typical services follow a pattern that is now familiar to generations of Australians: introduction, hymn, prayer, an address, laying of wreaths, recitation of the Ode, the playing of “The Last Post”, a minute of silence, “Reveille”, and the singing of both New Zealand and Australian national anthems.
The traditional order of service is never rearranged, elements omitted or replaced with something “more modern”, and a commentator does not laboriously explain the meaning of the various symbols and rituals throughout the ceremony.
Anzac Day services are simple but powerful because of the traditional rituals and other symbols and actions that we all connect with: sprigs of rosemary, the eternal flame, white crosses, marble memorial walls, red poppies, uniforms, medals, flags at half mast, silence, darkness, and a simple phrase “Lest we forget”.
Rituals are so important in moving us from the day to day routines of our lives into that other realm where we become aware of who we are in the midst of a grander schemer; the spine tingles, the soul stirs and we can be moved to tears.
The symbols and rituals of the Easter Vigil are also extraordinarily powerful: sparks flying from the Easter fire outside the church, a towering pillar of light leading the assembly into a darkened church, the aroma of incense as the paschal candle is honoured, the solemn singing of the once-a-year, ‘this is the night’ Easter Proclamation, the flickering flames of people’s candles, hearing the wonderful stories of our salvation, periods of profound silence between readings, that magic moment when all the lights suddenly come on, bells are rung and the joyous strains of the Gloria ring out for only the second time since Ash Wednesday, the splashing of water from which the neophytes emerge as people reborn and with which all present are sprinkled, the smell of chrism. Time seems to stand still, or rather, we are moved beyond this present time into kairos, God’s time.
And yet, and yet, there are those who do what would be unthinkable with Anzac ceremonies. From comments and questions I receive, it seems that in many parishes around Australia the liturgical rites of the Easter Vigil, and the Triduum in general, are systematically mutilated, not through carelessness or lack of good intention, but through misguided planning and misdirected creativity. Already this year I have heard about small woven palm crosses replacing waving branches at the Entrance on Palm/Passion Sunday, and a small wok carried into a church after the Old Testament readings and the Gloria omitted at the Easter Vigil.
Those who prepare parish liturgy need look carefully at the rites as set out in the Sacramentary and consider how they can be celebrated simply and strongly rather than how they can be updated or reorganised. There is such power in the Roman rite that it will almost always be second best to change it. The role of liturgy planners is to help unleash that power.


Elizabeth Harrington