Well, once again another year has come and gone, and a new year has begun unfolding. Maybe your family has a tradition for ushering in the start of the next calendar. I know my family does. In Alabama, you’re supposed to eat greens, black-eyed peas, and hog jowl (this last one is both a soul food southern delicacy as well as a vegan nightmare). You eat these things in the hopes that they will bring you money, luck, and health in the coming year. I haven’t the faintest idea why, or why the South holds such a tradition. Nor do I know how the tradition started. But you can bet your boots that I was eating greens (not my favorite), black-eyed peas (okay, these I love, I’ll admit), and hog jowl (which is a bit too crunchy for me) on New Year’s Day. And maybe it really is a silly practice, but had I not been able to partake in it, I would have felt like something was missing.
That New Year’s Day dinner got me thinking about ritual. Our rituals have power, I think, even the small or silly ones. Repeated motions, special sets of actions that demarcate special things… our rituals create identity and allow us to practice that identity. They connect us to each other, in the present as we perform them together, in the past as they were done before us, and in the future as they will be done after us. Shortly before Jesus was arrested by the Roman authorities, he gathered with his disciples, and he gave them wine to drink and bread to eat. And he told them to keep eating this meal, and as often as they did so, to do it in remembrance of him. Jesus didn’t give the disciples a creed to recite. He didn’t open up a theological debate about what to believe. He didn’t give them an easy set of rules concerning what worship was supposed to look like. Instead, Jesus gave the disciples something to do, a physical, concrete action that would become foundational to the life and identity of his church. Nearly two thousand years have passed, and Christians are still eating that bread and drinking that wine.
Even on the days when I have been profoundly frustrated with or deeply wounded by the church, I could never give up communion. I need it too badly. We Christians have many rituals, of course. Hymns, baptism, marriage, ashes, anointing, foot washing, funerals. All are rich with meaning. All have the power to craft identity and relationship. But if I could choose only one, I know it would be communion. As Christians, we proclaim that the breaking of bread together is not only meaningful, but holy. We proclaim that God’s grace is present and active in our rituals, and that that grace can transform us. Even if we don’t understand how (I know I don’t understand the mystery of the Holy Ghost, or how black-eyed peas could bring me luck), if we pay attention, we might catch a glimpse of God’s glory. We might just touch the sacred.