Last week, I talked a little bit about the way that I study ritual, and how I find rituals to be so important. And not just rituals like the Eucharist that we perform every day, but rituals that are small ways in which we introduce ourselves to one another and perform a kind of identity, the ritual of shaking hands, for example and whether or not that’s a ritual that’s received or practiced says a whole lot about who we are.
And as I was reflecting on today, I was also thinking again about ritual, but I was thinking about this concept called ritual failure. And this happens when there’s a kind of mistake or a kind of brokenness or something happens to the ritual that means that it kind of collapses a little bit. And this happens every day and it explains a lot about who we are. Those moments, for example, when you go to shakes hands and someone instead opens their arms up for a hug. That’s a moment of ritual failure. You’ve mistaken what was going. You thought it was a formal moment, but it was actually an intimate moment.
And this is part of the reason why these exchanges, these rituals are full of anxiety, often. We have a kind of ritual anxiety. And they also explain why there are moments in which we have an incredible moment of ritual grace. So, for example, this morning I was talking to Pastor Manisha right before the 8:00 service, and she was giving me this list of things to do. And I was saying, right, right, right. And then we finished our phone conversation and I said, I love you. And there was this awkward moment. And I realized I had fallen into the ritual of when I talk to Claire; I always finish by saying I love you. But instead, it just kind of tumbled out of my mouth and there was this awkward moment. And then Pastor Manisha said, “Well, I love you, too, with agape love.”
That was a moment of ritual crisis, a moment where there was a kind of ritual break. And these moments where the ritual kind of destroys itself, they say a lot about us. They reveal often a deeper moment. They reveal the anxieties that we often invest in our rituals, but they also reveal the kind of desire for spiritual connection that we want inside our rituals. We want our rituals to have meaning. We want them to kind of be transformative. We want them to achieve what they’re supposed to achieve.
And Palm Sunday is one such ritual. It’s this incredible moment in which you have kind of ritual breakdown and ritual crisis that happens. And it’s embedded in the memory of the church. You have that moment in which we celebrate the time in which Jesus enters Jerusalem and people are waving palm fronds, and not a week later, that whole ritual self destructs. And the people are chanting, “Crucify him.” You see, Palm Sunday itself is a kind of text, a kind of memory to us of ritual failure.
And oftentimes when people write about ritual failures, they always say that it’s the fault of the worshipper. And in this case, that is the case as well, because on Palm Sunday we remember the fact that we have a part of ourselves that will worship Jesus and, at the same
time, a part of ourselves that will deny Jesus and betray Jesus if given half a chance. And so the whole text of Palm Sunday together with the Passion from the Gospel of Mark, these are moments of ritual failure. And we can learn a lot in these moments. We learn a lot about our anxieties; we learn a lot about our desire for spiritual connection. And we also learn a lot about our desire and our need for grace.
A few years ago in 2014, I travelled to Israel and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is the site where Jesus is supposedly, according to memory, crucified. They have a piece of the rock of Golgotha on which the cross of Christ stood.
And there is, just a few feet away, the place where people believe that Jesus was initially buried. And Constantine in the 320s, after he decriminalized Christianity, he built this enormous basilica around it and he carved away at the stone outside of Jerusalem only to have that part where the cross stood, standing, and then carved away the cave around which the tomb of Jesus supposedly was and created this little church around it. And there’s this flat mat that was used for bodies that is underneath an enormous marble slab.
And for centuries, people have traveled to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to complete a pilgrimage. During the Crusades, knights believed that unless they went and touched every part of the place of Golgotha and the place of resurrection, they would have not completed their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They would not receive the reward of the forgiveness of their sins. And so I went into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a huge amount of ritual anxiety and hope that somehow I would experience some kind of transformation while I was in there.
But what I discovered was, first of all, it was 100 degrees and freakishly hot. And secondly, it was the largest tourist trap in the world. Not only were there just so many onlookers and people bumping into each other, also they had what seemed like just bands upon bands of these militant nuns who had been selling buttons for decades in order to afford the trip. And they were not going to be denied their moment to get in there and touch everything. And it was like getting jostled. And although I am an Episcopalian who likes to hug, I’m still an Episcopalian who likes my personal space. And so I had a hard time somehow, getting in there and not feeling kind of like I was being bumped around all the time.
And my little group went through all the sites and we came to this other site that was constructed in the 13th century. It’s called the Anointing Stone and it’s this beautiful stone of a kind of dark marble on which it is said, according to legend, that Jesus’ body was anointed with the spices before he got placed in the tomb. And I knelt down, and I put my hands on the cool stone, and then my friend, Chris Dean, who is a priest, she stepped back to take my picture. And then she looked at me and she said, “Can you look more prayerful?”
And it was at that moment that I had ritual failure. It was at that moment I realized I’m fooling no one. There’s nothing for me to get spiritually out of this incredible visit. All I’m going to be aware of is of myself. Being told to try to look more prayerful, nothing freezes you up more and keeps you from praying. It’s a little bit like when people say to me, “You’re funny; say something funny.” And it’s at that moment I just turn to stone. I can’t say anything except maybe read from a phone book.
But I learned something during that whole moment. Because after I was reflecting on everything that went on that day in the hotel that night, I realized that the mystery of Christianity is not a mystery that I somehow have to travel back in time to realize. That I did not need to somehow recreate my relationship with Jesus by some kind of historical reenactment. But the mystery of Christianity, the joy and power of saying and confessing that Jesus is Lord-well, that mystery is always available to me. Because the mystery of Christianity isn’t a journey I have to take. It’s to remember the journey that God has taken to me and to you.
The mystery of Christianity is what Jesus would do as he came into this world to die for us so that we might no longer experience death, so that we might know his love and his grace and his forgiveness. And the mystery of Christianity that is revealed in all of these ritual failures is that Jesus keeps coming.
In fact, there is something in the whole fabric of our Passion today from the Gospel of Mark that shows us, in the midst of all of these ritual failures, where Pilot is unable to somehow work out a deal for Jesus, where Jesus is chosen over Barabbas, a murderer, where an innocent man is going to his death. In the midst of all of that, God in Christ is still coming towards us.
And that is to convince us of the fact that Christ’s forgiveness for us is infinite. It’s we who become tired of asking for forgiveness. Christ’s love for us is everlasting. There is no height and no depth; there is no breadth that can measure the infinity of God’s love for us in Christ. It’s we who get tired of living in that love. And part of the reason why we have all of these ritual failures in the Gospel is to remind us that there is no way for us to recreate by our own devices, the love of God in our lives. That the only way we can receive these moments is through accepting the grace and peace that has come to us through a God who is willing to have his face spit at and nails driven through His wrists for you and for me.
The art I have for you today is from Anselm Kiefer. The original title of this is Palmsonntag, which is German for “Palm Sunday.” Kiefer put this art together. He chose being an artist after a moment of ritual crisis. I read an interview that he gave a few years ago, and he said that initially he was incredibly religious and he thought he might have a religious calling. And he went to his First Communion and he was hoping for some kind of spiritual connection with God. And he went through that First Communion – he was raised Catholic – and he said, “I felt nothing and I was so disappointed. And so I turned to art as a way of somehow capturing that spiritual connection, that spirituality that I wanted to find in my own life.”
And Palmsonntag, or Palm Sunday, is a commentary on today’s gospel and on the practice of Palm Sunday. Because here he has this enormous palm, which is an incredible facsimile, and it’s been pulled up and lying on its side and is quite dead. And the palm, of course, is meant to symbolize an image of eternity, because palms always seem to regenerate themselves. That’s the myth behind it. But it also is meant to convey to us the way in which palms represent a gift to Christ.
Now, that’s a moment of ritual failure right there. We can receive that as grace, which is what I’m going to do and invite us all to do together. So palms, for Kiefer, he creates this beautiful piece, because he wants to suggest that that palm is a representation of our own desires to somehow give thanks to God in a way that is inevitably defeated. There is nothing we can do to get our way to God. There is nothing we can create in our own lives. There is no ritual we can employ.
And, in fact, what Palm Sunday invites us to do is to think of all the ways we have tried to create for ourselves ambitions that we wrap in religious language for ourselves, for our family, for our country, for our community, for our church. All of these things which have been wrapped in religious language, these things must die. Because at the end, there is only the person confronting themselves and confronting their frustrated ambitions, their ritual failure. And there’s only the realization of God’s grace. And that, for Kiefer, is the message of Palm Sunday. There is nothing but grace. There is nothing we can do to get our way to God. There is only God’s grace working in our lives. And this should embolden us in all of our rituals this week. This should embolden us in everything we do, and everything we try to accomplish this week.
About four years ago, I was going through one of those everyday rituals. I was checking out of the grocery store and I suddenly became aware of the person, the couple in front of me. It was the mother and her son. And I looked at her and I realized that she was a working mother, and I realized that she was dead tired. And she bought these two frozen shepherd’s pies, and she placed them on the conveyor belt. And her son was a little boy who was big for his age, and he was in his own little world, kind of dancing and making little gestures with his hands. He had no idea that she was exhausted.
And I suddenly saw myself in the little boy. And I remembered the fact that my father travelled so much when I was little. I remember my brother was off at school. And I remember there were so many nights when it would be just me and my mom who worked tirelessly at her job. And so I reached over and I said to the mother, “I was your son. He’s me.” And she burst into tears, and she said, “Thank you.” In what way can you risk a ritual this week?