This past Tuesday K and I attended our first-ever Passover Seder, hosted by a Friend from a culturally, if not religiously observant, Jewish family. It was not strictly a traditional affair, as the great majority of guests were Quakers, and we passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer for the ceremonial hand washing. However it was no less meaningful for that, especially since we used the unique Haggadah that our friend's family adapted to reflect their spiritual and social outlook.
Our friend made a reluctant but very capable matriarch, leading her makeshift family through the blessings in both Hebrew and English. I smiled at the irony of all these Friends, many of whom quite ambivalent about anything having to do with organized religion, engaged wholeheartedly in Jewish ceremonies thousands of years old. When the youngest member of our dinner party, a six-year-old daughter from a Quaker/Presbyterian family, was asked to read the ancient question, "why is this night different from all other nights?" I know I wasn't the only guest who got chills.
The conventional wisdom says that Friends abhor rituals. I'm generally quite fond of them, myself. I suppose this would make me a pretty bad Quaker, except that I've always understood Quakerism's historical aversion to religious ritual to be rooted in early Friends' disdain for empty ritual -- that is, practices which become so rote and meaningless that they actually separate people from God, rather than bringing them closer to God. After all, Meeting for Worship is a ritual. Monthly Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business is a ritual. A Quaker wedding might look a lot different from, say, a Catholic wedding, but it's still a ritual act.
Rituals are inescapable parts of life. If they're performed in a spirit of gratitude and humility, they can add dimensions of amazing depth and beauty to daily existence. I confess I've never had the discipline to be one of those people who turns the simple act of putting on their shoes in the morning into a sacrament, but it's certainly something I aspire to. So on that basis, I can readily and happily participate in rituals, like our Friendly Seder, in which I perceive the same reverence, the same sense of profound gathered-ness, that I experience in silent Meeting for Worship.
It was in that spirit that K and I went to our friend's church for Maundy Thursday, which included the tenebrae service and the rite of footwashing. Perhaps it's because I didn't grow up rooted in any particular denomination that I found these ceremonies so meaningful last night. Or perhaps I'm becoming one of those awful "Quakerpalians" that I've been warned about. But washing a stranger's feet, looking up to see her smile as I dried them, was one of the most moving experiences of my life, especially since the entire time I had the words of John 13:6 in my head: "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand."
That statement, it seems to me, delivered by an affectionately smiling Jesus to his confused and worried friends, is at the heart of all ritual. During the tenebrae service, the altar is stripped, item by item, and the church is darkened until all that is left is the glow of a single candle. We are left suspended in the darkness, waiting anxiously for what is to come. The service ends with an awful, crashing noise, a shocking, sonic representation of humanity's inherent bewilderment, ignorance, and terror. Congregants leave the church in silence, not sent forth with a gentle, uplifting admonishment as usual, but with a reminder of sacrifice on the Cross.
In those symbolic acts we are brought face-to-face with the mystery of faith: a pattern emerging out of chaos; light flickering persistently against the overwhelming gloom; a breeze that cuts the stagnant air, a promise of new life in the midst of pain and death. I'm drawn to rituals because they take me out of the warm comfort of my certainty and lead me out into the wide-open darkness beyond. And I don't know quite what it is I'm meeting out there, and I don't know why. But my faith tells me that later I will understand.