The Ritual Pattern of Life and Liturgy

Several weeks ago I was roped into attending a party where cosmetics were demonstrated and sold – you know the sort of thing I mean! Afterwards it occurred to me that a common ritual pattern is followed on occasions like this, and at a whole variety of social situations. That common ritual pattern is one of GATHER – LISTEN – DO– GO.
At sales parties, silly games were played as “ice-breakers” to help the attendees who often do not know one another feel more relaxed and attentive. This is the GATHER phase.
After this, the presenter demonstrates the latest products, explaining their multiplicity of applications and extolling their virtues, while those present LISTEN attentively.
Then people get involved with catalogues and price lists, deciding what to buy from the many items on offer and placing orders. Discussion also takes place about who might be willing to host another party in the future. This is the business part of the proceedings, when participants DO something.
Everyone knows that the appearance of cakes and coffee means that the end is in sight. The games, demonstration and business transactions are over and we share food and drink before we GO home.
This ritual pattern has not changed in more than 30 years. Why? Because it works, and it works because it is based on the common rhythm of human social interaction, ranging from 21st birthday parties to sporting events.
We GATHER through rituals such as introductions, finding a seat, getting a drink, greeting others. We LISTEN as speeches are made, stories told, jokes shared, rules explained, information and messages read out. The DOing part might involve singing an anthem, cutting a cake, dancing the bridal waltz, exchanging and opening presents, playing a game, eating and drinking. Then we take our leave and GO – with farewells, hugs, handshakes, promises to call, etc.
Ritual is essential because familiar patterns enable us to enter into an event – we know what will happen next, what is expected of us and how to respond.
Liturgy follows this same ritual pattern. The Introductory Rites (song, greeting, penitential rite, opening prayer) GATHER this group of individuals into a community of worshippers who together will do the liturgy, that is, offer praise and thanksgiving to God.
In all liturgical celebrations, the Introductory Rites are followed by readings from scripture. We LISTEN as God’s love for us is expressed, the divine covenant announced, the history of our salvation recounted and the mystery of Christ recalled. We LISTEN as the homily unfolds the mysteries of faith contained in the word that has been proclaimed and relates this word to our lives today
Following the readings we DO the ritual – baptise in water; anoint with oil; lay on hands; take, bless, break and share bread and wine; ask for pardon and receive absolution; exchange vows and rings.
The Concluding Rite is better called the “Blessing and Dismissal” because it is not the end at all. We GO to live the mystery we have just celebrated, to be the Body of Christ which feeds the hungry, to bring Christ to our homes, communities and workplaces.

Elizabeth Harrington