I’m not sure if Nate had ever used a clock until he married into my family, where you learn to tell time before you learn to count. On the other hand, I never knew that being late was not a criminal offense, until I married into Nate’s family where you are loved just the same whether you show up for dinner at half past six or six minutes past eight. Being on time was as foreign to Nate as being flexible was foreign to me.
My family opens Christmas gifts in a circle—one at time, everyone gets their own turn. Nate’s family has a free-for-all where everyone rips open their packages all at once. Naturally, Nate found my family Christmas dreadfully slow and I found his shockingly irreverent.
In my family, it is common courtesy to announce to the household when you are leaving it. “Bye! I’m off to such and such and I’ll be back around this time,” is what we say, and we wouldn’t think to leave the house without reciting the regular litany. Thus you can clearly see why early in our marriage I nearly called the police after Nate went missing one day. I was convinced he must have dropped dead somewhere or been kidnapped, because you don’t just go missing from your very own house without a tragic reason. Turns out he’d been for a walk down the block, but he hadn’t thought to let me know he was going.
Anyone who has been welcomed into a new family has experienced these ritual barriers. It’s like a language barrier, only you’re both speaking English and still you cannot understand one another. Things are strange, incomprehensible, absurd, even downright offensive, until, of course, you learn to talk their talk. Bit by bit the rituals get explained, but explanations alone don’t always do the trick. Eventually you start participating in the family traditions, and little by little they convert you, into a Renfro, or a Williams, or a Martindale, or a Johnson.
When you stop and evaluate your own rituals from an outsider’s perspective, you can see why they might seem strange if you weren’t so used to them yourself.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan highlights the absurdity of our holiday traditions if only we look at them with new eyes: at Easter, when we want to celebrate the day Jesus rose from the dead, what do we do? “How about eggs?” he asks. What does that have to do with Jesus? you might ask. “Alright, we’ll hide them,” he answers. Still not following his logic? “Don’t worry, there’s a bunny!”
We are so at home in our own rituals, aren’t we? Christmas trees and Easter bunnies and Thanksgiving parades—we couldn’t imagine life without them. But recently I read about some alleged freemason practices, and it all sounded so strange because it was utterly new to me. They were rituals outside my normal experience. Foreign rituals, rituals we do not understand, can seem appalling, even terrifying to the uninitiated.
If you try to picture the day and age before communion, the Eucharist, was a regular practice, you can imagine why the Jews got a little squirmy when Jesus starting telling people to drink his blood. It was hardly a ritual they understood or could relate to. Swallowing blood was harder to wrap your mind around than swallowing a Thanksgiving turkey or a chocolate bunny.
Unless you regularly browse the new Teen Paranormal Romance section in the bookstore (yes, that is a real genre now, thanks to Twilight), then Jesus’ words are bound to disturb you if can listen with fresh ears. Drink his blood? Eat his flesh? If you really listen, this sounds like material for the next vampire book, not the central practice of Christian worship. This is a far more disconcerting than a friendly family feud about how to spend a holiday or how to load a dishwasher. This is a ritual barrier of enormous weight.
You and I are comfortably familiar with communion by now; that is to say, we are comfortable with our particular familiar way of administering it. There are still plenty of communion practices to keep us suspicious or uncomfortable: the way Catholics ring that little bell or the way some churches all drink from the same cup without even wiping the rim between sips. There is the way this church over here does communion every week—my goodness, it must become rote and meaningless! Or the way this church over there only does it every quarter on a Sunday night—my goodness, they’ve practically abandoned it altogether! Good thing you found Covenant, where communion gets done right.
But the truth of the matter is that liturgy should, on occasion, make you squirm. Worship is supposed to get under your skin. I don’t mean worship over there in the megachurch down the street with the huge stage lights or the temple where they burn the incense. I mean right here in your very church home, I hope the worship gets to you now and again. On the one hand, there are parts that feel like coming home—the benediction you’ve memorized by heart or the song that means the world to you—and those familiar things are important. They are a stabilizing force for living out faith in a chaotic world. But on the other hand, if something in the worship doesn’t ruffle your feathers now and again, then something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
You are exposing yourself to the Great Mystery of God, after all, and that makes this a holy place, a hallowed place, and hence an inherently spooky place in its own right. Spooky because you can never be sure what to expect. Spooky because something other-worldly resides here. Spooky because engaging faithfully in worship week after week will change who you are, if you enter with your eyes and ears and spirits open. Worship is an “Enter at Your Own Risk” kind of event. No amount of theological education, not even a lifetime of church-going, can prepare you for the things that are liable to happen in this place.
Granted, some of the unexpected things happen because we’re a group of diverse people, trying to be unified in our variety, and just like a family, things are bound to get messy and people react to messy in all sorts of perplexing ways. But other unexpected things happen too—things that can only be explained by the Presence of God in this place, and if we close ourselves off to anything that feels out-of-the-ordinary, we might just be closing ourselves off to the very Spirit of God alive in this place.
Perhaps you no longer bat an eye when you drink the blood or eat the flesh of your Savior. But something is bound to make you uncomfortable if you stick around. There is no end to the mystery, no limit to the depth of the relationship we can have with the Divine.
Jesus could have sugar-coated his words, instead of being so blunt about blood-drinking and flesh-eating. But I think he chose words with a startling affect on purpose. He needed people to know that he was willingly giving up his life for the sake of the world, and that did not mean that our new life in Jesus was going to be easy, or straightforward, or safe.
New life means a new family too, and while family ties are powerful and wonderful, they also require that you learn a whole new language, a whole new way of relating, a whole new way of being and of being together. Taking the life of Christ into your very body is bound to disrupt things, tear you open, create something new, and part of what it creates is a bond with the rest of the family. You always share the sacred meal with others, as a reminder that Christ gives life to the whole world and not just to you. This is a meal that binds you to humanity—a family tradition, so to speak, that lets you know you belong and that people around the world are in the family too.
You can spend a lifetime learning the family ways and the family talk, and I don’t mean studying explanations. I mean you can spend a lifetime living a new set of rituals—practices and prayers that lead to peace and compassion, gentleness and mercy and large large love—all the marks of the family of God. There’s always an open invitation to join the family, always a call to dive a bit further in than you already were, but just be prepared for an incredible journey, not a comfortable one, but a path full of wonder. Amen.