The Importance and Power of Ritual

By Fr. Aaron Johanneck, S.T.L.

     As a junior in high school I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C.  Among the many beautiful and fascinating sites, programs, and shows I took in, one of the most memorable experiences was watching the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

     The Changing of the Guard is an impressive ceremony to behold.  The Guards of Honor keep watch over the tomb twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year in honor of all missing or unidentified service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  The three guards who are involved dress in dignified and impeccably maintained uniforms.  Every movement—how they walk, how they turn corners, the reverential salute they give to the tomb, how their weapons are inspected—is carried out with the greatest attention and precision. 

     While there are no explanations given during the ceremony, the ceremony itself communicates a great deal about the importance of what it represents: namely, the value of the sacrifice of the service members represented by the tomb.  With almost no words offered or exchanged, those observing understand that they are in the presence of something significant, even sacred.  All of this is communicated with no explanation of the ritual.

     Ritual has the power to do this.  It has the power to speak to us on levels that are deeper than words.  Who is not moved by military rituals?  The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The folding of the American flag.  Military honors at funerals with the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of Taps.  Even if we do not know all of the history or the meaning behind these rituals, they have a power to speak to us, and to demand our respect.

     This is also the case for the rituals of the Catholic Church.  The Church’s Sacred Liturgy is filled with rituals.  In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass there are processions and gestures, incense, bows and genuflections, the beating of our breasts, the carrying of the Book of the Gospel, the kissing of the altar.  The celebration of each of the sacraments is made up of many rituals.  We may not know all of the history, symbolism, or meaning behind every element of these rituals, but when they are celebrated with due honor, reverence, and prayerfulness, they communicate much to us even without being explained.

     In fact, too many explanations can greatly reduce the beauty and power of a ritual.  Ritual with no, or minimal explanation helps us to understand and experience that we are entering into something that is bigger than us; something that is important and worthy of our veneration.  In the case of the Church’s liturgy, we are drawn into the heavenly liturgy, the worship and adoration of God that never ceases.  In the Sacred Liturgy, we give honor and praise to God for the ultimate sacrifice of His Son who gave up His life and shed His Blood not only for our nation, but for the salvation of the whole world.  In the liturgy, we are united to His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and we offer ourselves to the Father in union with Him.  We rightly give great reverence to military rituals for what they represent; how much more should we reverence the rituals of the Sacred Liturgy for what they not only represent, but actually make present?

     Whether a military ceremony like the Changing of the Guard, or the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, when these rituals and ceremonies are carried out well, with dignity and honor, they help us to understand on a deep level that that which we are observing and participating in represents (or in the case of the liturgy, makes present) something important, beautiful, and powerful.  Even without explanation, they can communicate to us that we are in the presence of a truth worth reverencing, and even giving our lives for.