I could hardly complete the first chapter of philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s new book, The Disappearance of Rituals, without acknowledging its applicability to contemporary preaching in every way. Rituals, Han reminds his readers, are symbolic acts. Their significance is noted by the fact that they, “…represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based.” In other words, ritual—symbolic acts—bring forth a universe of values-laden meaning peculiar to a community (e.g., a church) without speaking. They are a form of meaningful communication without oration. The kind of communication engendered by rituals is “symbolic perception.” A person perceives the symbolic act—the ritual—and recollects the meaning with which it has been imbued. That meaning is not something fresh or new but rather something familiar, something with which they are already well-acquainted. The rituals of preaching, then, draw from the past stable, solid, even permanent meaning to settle their perceivers (i.e., congregants) in unsettled times.
Unless, of course, no rituals are to be found. When no preaching rituals are present, then neither are the enduring values nor meaning they augur. Preaching without associated rituals becomes impoverish preaching because preaching entails more than mere speaking. The act of preaching ushers forth the biblical values and metaphors of the Christian tradition to reinforce our confidence and familiarity with divine realities.
A host of symbolic acts connected to preaching come to mind. Preachers may pray at the communion rail before preaching. Preachers may ascend the steps or assume the entrance of a pulpit, manipulate a text, open the pulpit Bible, kneel before the crucifix, convey the sermonic salutation (Philippians 1:2), elevate their hands for the benediction that concludes the sermon (Philippians 4:7), and/or they may pause before preaching to communicate a spirit of gravitas or officiousness. Or they may do none of these things. Does it matter? Indeed, it does matter.
It matters because rituals transport our minds and emotions from the domains of transience and into the world of permanence. Han states it this way, “Symbolic perception, as recognition, is a perception of the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability.” Preaching without associated rituals is symbol-poor and susceptible to notions of instability, impermanence, and flux. Take, for example, the custom of kneeling before the crucifix before preaching, as the congregation looks on. This act, dating back to the mid-300’s, although altogether unnecessary, nevertheless evokes apostolic humility on the part of the preacher who will not speak his own message but one commissioned by the cross-enthroned Christ. It is a ritual most helpful for people for whom the customs of a monarchy are unknown or foreign. The preacher takes audience before the crucified Lord, receives the royal proclamation (particularly, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” from Luke 23:34), and then delivers it. Within this ritual, there is the symbolic perception of the biblical metaphor of kingdom and apostolic commissioning. Stated succinctly, the ritual connects with the enduring, unchanging message of Christ and the purpose of the priesthood to proclaim His will. The entire ritual recalls notions of regality and apostolicity, setting a context in which auditors then anticipate a royal proclamation.
Rituals transport our minds and emotions from the domains of transience and into the world of permanence.
When we consider further the ritual of ascending or assuming (entering) the pulpit, which should never be a causal or inconsiderate movement, but stately and intentional. It is akin to an ambassador or emissary emerging onto a balcony of the royal palace, as it extends over the courtyard, with an official message to the kingdom’s people that has life and death implications. Here we have the spatial elevation of the preacher connoting authority, now situated in a fixture adorned with mementos, icons, or sayings of the Sovereign Lord whose regal proclamation he is about to declare with divine approbation. None of these are nouveaux concepts. Instead, they are drawn from the contents of Scripture and rehearsed by church custom over countless centuries for the purposes of expanding our imagination concerning the narrative, indeed, the very drama of redemption in our midst. Such things aid in the stabilization of life by connecting us with the communion of saints and a theological tradition that imbues the present with meaning and significance. Such things also induce repentance for the presumptive superiority of our age that has traded solemn ceremonies for the vapid “celebration” of everything (e.g., “celebrate Diversity,” “celebrate Pride,” “celebrate National Corn Chip Day,” etc.). Rituals dampen modern arrogance by a humbling conformity to a tradition that eclipses our moment and a catholicity far grander than the individual.
These rituals of enduring meaning and value provide an interesting contrast to the two-dimensional PowerPoint presentations and digital displays which routinely accessorize preaching today. The latter have no abiding meaning. This is because such accessories are faddish and docetic meaning they only “seem” to exist in spatial temporality, but they do not. They are not of the permanent world, nor possess enduring meaning. Rather, they are ephemeral, virtual, and hyper-transitory technologies for projecting holograms. Notions of endurance and permanence are displaced by the contingent, the flickering, and that which is in flux. Rest for weary souls cannot be found among things lacking durability. Where there is no pulpit, crucifix, ambo Bible, or communion rail, there is likely to be no ritual. So, the conveyance of that which is permanent and stable evaporates for the parishioner, too.
The preacher simply walking into the middle of the stage or standing by a transparent and portable podium, outfitted with a remote for advancing the slideshow, puts the preacher at center. With no accompanying ritual, auditors may be unsure from whence the “message” originated. Contemporary presentation engenders expectations of a contemporary message. If nothing else, the impermanence of contemporary technologies and ritual-less public speaking do not so much convey the wrong theology as set forth an anthropology: not the things of God but the things of men (i.e., technology, consumption, entertainment, variation, personality, movement).
Han would like his readers to appreciate a definition of rituals as, “…symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world.” For our purposes, that definition could be altered: Rituals are symbolic actions of making oneself at home in God’s world. These theologically infused symbolic actions affect our perception of time in the same way sacred fixtures (e.g., altar, font, pulpit) affect our perception of space. The crucifix (a fixture) occupies space and thereby confronts us with its everlasting meaning and message. Likewise, rituals affect time, making it “accessible” and “habitable,” to use Han’s descriptivism. In a world now measured by nanoseconds, broadcast images that change every two seconds, and habits which include checking our smartphones literally hundreds of times during our waking moments, rituals stabilize life by proving time with a solid structure. Rituals “hold” time, giving a durability to things like preaching, the gospel, church, and the presence of the Lord. Maxims like “The Word of the Lord endures forever” cease to be a mere slogan fit for coffee mugs, but monuments persisting through time and withstanding the fluctuations of our post-modern, post-Christian milieu. The rituals of preaching thus serve as stabilizing resting points. Their very repetitiveness and sameness are what convey familiarity, comfort, and durability. They stretch the past into the present with the hope of the future also being anchored in history, God’s control and movement of all time to its Omega Point. They do not do this alone, of course, and the power of God is not in such things per se. But they do ready the mind and settle the spirit by ushering the past into the present for a serious engagement with the Word of God that endures forever.
Rituals are symbolic actions of making oneself at home in God’s world.
A ritual’s durability makes it antithetical to that which is consumed and disposed. Things that are consumed and disposed have no durability because they are engineered to be replaced. They serve to keep us on our toes for what may be coming next and trying to adapt, morph, and change to keep pace with that which is ever shifting. But the point of a ritual, like rituals in preaching, is to affect our experience of time by making it “linger.” It is the lingering effect of rituals that confront us with meanings which have not changed. Han says a ritual confronts us with its “self-sameness.” As I have written elsewhere, rituals, like the liturgy and the sacraments, resist domestication and confront us with a world and worldview brought forth from the Bible and through twenty centuries of Christianity for the purpose of arresting our contemporary worldview through its self-sameness.
One final point from Byung-Chul Han that relates to the beauty and dignity of the established preaching rituals of the Church. Han opens by saying, “Ritual practices ensure that we treat not only other people but also things in beautiful ways, that there is an affinity between us and other people as well as things.” Then he provides this quote from novelist Peter Handke:
“Mass teaches the priests to handle things in beautiful ways: The gentle holding of the chalice and Host, the slow cleaning of the receptacles, the turning of the book’s pages. And the result of the beautiful handling of things: A spirit-living gaiety.”
Although Handke speaks of the rituals of Holy Communion, nevertheless his words are readily transposed to the sermonic event where there ought to be a meaningful handling of the Word of God. The rituals of preaching are meant to advance the beautiful message of the beautiful God, bringing to mind the prophesy of Isaiah (reiterated by Saint Paul): “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (52:7; cf. Romans 10:15). What beauty, one wonders, do contemporary sermons with no ritual import?
To be sure, all of what has been said here could be said for the rest of the conduct of the Divine Service. But the sermon stands out as essential, not only because it is the commissioned means of divine grace, but also because it is situated in the Divine Service as the bridge between its two great ritualistic high points: The reading of the Holy Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar. So, the accompanying rituals of preaching find their place and semblance within the Liturgy. Combined with the actual Word of God proclaimed, such rituals become a complement, adorn, and reinforce the proclamation of Christ to His kingdom people.