Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 90-92
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Christian Views on Ritual Practice
The Ongoing Creation of Loving Community: Christian Ritual and Ethics
Jay T. Rock
National Council of Churches of Christ
At the center of Christian practice is an ethical imperative: "This is my commandment," Jesus says; "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). This principle of active love lies at the heart of Christian living.
The argument about who is to be included in the circle of those to be loved, much alive in Jesus' own day, continues unabated. Christians do not agree whether the "sisters and brothers" whom one is instructed to love in various passages of the Christian canon refers only to the family of those in the Church, or to the family of all humankind. But there is certainly agreement that simply professing love is not enough: the love God has given is fully embraced only in being done.
Given such a central emphasis on reconciling, active love, it is not surprising to find Christian ritual almost always directly connected to, and fully completed in, ethical behavior in the world. Even in the important ways in which Christian rites serve to open the individual and community to receive God, to become aware of the presence of the Ultimate Reality in their lives, one finds implicit links to acting in love. Christian ritual is itself incarnational: it continuously creates and recreates a community into which it incorporates individuals, and it reactualizes moments of sacred history in a way that opens them to the active participation and concrete action of the people.
Some comments on the nature and significance of commemoration in the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, may illustrate what I mean. These are the central liturgical celebrations of Christianity, one recalling the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, the other, more complex, connected to the events of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. They are commemorations of past historical events, the memory of which is preserved in the theology and practice of the community. But their celebration by the community makes these events existentially present, and their meanings real and accessible, in several ways.
Through Baptism, individuals enter into the Jesus community, and participate in the life of Christ. The rite is understood to effect a permanent bond between the one baptized, and Jesus, in whose name she is baptized. The one being baptized is taken down into water, and there is understood to die and rise with Christ: the ritual "makes present again what God has done through Jesus" and brings the Christian into direct, existential relation to the "actual happening of salvation in Christ." 1 Through this connection, the person undergoes a transition from the ways of "death" and "darkness" into the way of "light."
The Eucharistic celebration, similarly, provides believers a way of entering into the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. In it, Christians both take part in these [End Page 90] acts of redemption--his death and rising again--and also take into themselves the body and blood of Jesus. The sacrament is a central way in which Christians partake of/take part in the Body of Christ. The rite commemorates a past event, but more importantly, it brings to present life the person of Christ, and allows active participation in the ongoing, communal expression of God's self-giving in Christ.
In these rituals, a particular kind of historical memory is at work: that of anamnesis, which the Lutheran liturgist Frank Senn suggests might be best approximated in English as "reactualization." 2 This kind of remembering involves not simply a return to past events, but the placing of the past into the present situation. Ethicist John Pawlikowski reminds us that this concept has roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the biblical sense of zakar: just as it is only in being remembered by God that we continue in existence, remembering in this sense "brings the past as close as possible so that it becomes...