Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cleansing Rituals

This week is Holy Week, of course, for Christians with its Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday that leads to Easter.  For our Jewish friends, it is a special week too because they observe Passover, one of their high holy observances in which they recount their ancestors' deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish families often host a Seder, which is a ritual meal with foods that remind them of the Exodus story.  They eat foods that resemble the bricks that they had to make by hand and the mortar that went between the bricks.  They eat an egg, a lamb shank, and parsley that they dip in salt water to remind them of the tears of their ancestors.  The story of the Exodus is read again with pauses at which they eat a specific food.   The eating is accompanied by drinking glasses of wine to remind them of the joy of the Lord that brought them out of slavery.

Pieces of matzoh bread are eaten along with the other foods to remind them of the unleavened bread that was eaten because the captives in Egypt could not wait for bread to rise.  In each home, they are to cleanse the house of any yeast that may be there as it is forbidden during Passover.  Yeast breads are not allowed in the house either so this cleansing has to take place in preparation for the Passover observance.  All breads that are of a risen nature must be eaten or put out of the house before Passover begins.  Anything that contains leaven (bread, cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, cereals) must be removed from the house.

In homes that are kosher, even the dishes that are used in preparing foods that contain leaven must be removed from the house during Passover week.  Special Passover dishes are stored all year and brought out to be used during Passover week.  The house must be thoroughly cleaned, and all crumbs from leavened products must be removed.  All traces of anything that may have contained leaven must be gone.  Preparing the house for Passover is a major "spring cleaning."  It is a huge task to clean the house and change over the kitchen.

In the morning of the day that Passover begins at sundown, any leavened products that are found in the house is burned.  A Jew cannot even own leavening during Passover so households may give their products to non-Jews for the Passover period with the understanding that they will receive them back once Passover is done.
Sometimes, Jewish families will sell their products to others and donate the money to a charity as a form of "wheat money" as the holiday begins.

The Seder meal is held and the ritual reading of the story of the Exodus is done and as it closes the saying is done, "Next year in Jerusalem" as it is every Jew's wish to be in Jerusalem for such a meaningful time.

I have had the honor to be invited to Seders held in homes and synagogues.  I was a guest of a rabbi and his family one year.  I was invited to a private Seder held in a home with a group to which I belonged another time.  Then, when we had become established in our current location, my wife and I were invited to a Seder held at a small synagogue in a neighboring town.  A very sweet Jewish lady who was the grand dame of the Jewish congregation invited us and included me as one of the readers.  I was very honored and humbled that they would think of including us.

I am a bit envious of our Jewish friends when it comes to the great ritual that they observe at the holy times of the year.  Our Roman Catholic friends also have many great rituals involved in their religious experiences. We Protestants seem to have cleansed our faith traditions of as many rituals as we could leaving our faith practices with the minimal requirements.  No cleansing of our houses in preparation for Easter.  We may vacuum and dust but cooking the ham and dying the eggs does not require as much sanitation as being sure there is no yeast in the house.  Protestants rely upon faith to save us, which is very true, but somewhere along the way ritual became connected to "works" and were thrown out along with the other things that we lumped into that category.

When we go on vacation and we decide to go to church on a vacation Sunday, we usually end up at an Episcopal Church.  Most of the time there is not a United Church of Christ congregation in the vicinity so we find the local Episcopal Church and worship with them.  Something about the "smells and bells" and the rituals of the Anglican tradition speaks to my spirit.  Something about kneeling at an altar to receive the Eucharist, receiving the wafer and drinking from a common cup as I play tug of war with the priest who is holding the cup reaches me.  I have found myself with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes many times when I have risen from that altar.  I do not have the same experience as we pass the elements down the pews as the organ softly plays.  Something in the ritual touches my spirit in a way that I cannot describe.

Those of us in mainline Protestantism have a faith that incorporates head and heart.  We want to think along with feeling our faith.  Many times we cognate the faith to the place where everything is explained for us and to us and we only have to shake our heads in assent.  The rituals have almost disappeared as we have cleansed our traditions of all but those which are absolutely necessary.  I sometimes miss kneeling and facing an altar and reading from a prayer book with words that are ancient and proven.  I sometimes yearn in my spirit to feel once again the connection that came from being part of familiar rituals.  Perhaps we Protestants should reclaim some of our heritage that spoke to our ancestors and find the meaning in them that we once found meaningful.  Our own version of the "smells and bells" does not have to be the same as our religious cousins enjoy but perhaps we can find added meaning in words and practices that have a familiarity in them that were once enjoyed in our pews.

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