When we were children, we trooped up to kneel at the communion rail on the Feast of St. Blais for the priest to bless our throats with two crossed candles. In Luke’s gospel reading we learn of a ritual that is no longer practiced. Today is also Ground Hog Day, recalling what was once the Candlemas bear. These things led me to reflect on rituals and the rules surrounding them.
Some years ago, I was looking after two children, a boy 10 and a girl 12, who were cousins but had little in common. No problem, I thought. Just give them board games to provide hours of entertainment. (Did I mention we had no electricity there?) They finished the first game in 20 minutes. Without guidance, they both cheated on every turn. They had no fun. They were both bored. They both tried to win but they did not actually play the game. Those two children taught me a lot about rules.
Sports add choreographed physical activity to the rules of games, creating a kind of ritual. Each sport has its own rules but, in all sports, before the game the players must agree to play according to the rules. The point of the game is not to obey the rules but to play together and have fun. Much of the joy of games and sport is finding a time and place where the rules of human interaction are clear and simple.
Life is complicated and laws, rules and rituals exist on many levels: civil, legal. economic, community, club, family, table manners, etc. The role of religions in life is “to light, to guard, to rule and guide” as the prayer to our guardian angel puts it. When a new light appears in the world, new laws and rituals are needed. Luke, in both his gospel and in Acts, tells us about the difficult work of early Christians to reconcile the laws and rituals of Judaism that they grew up with, and the new rules and rituals required by their encounter with Christ. Regarding table manners, at one point Paul rebukes Peter for following the law forbidding Jews from eating with Gentiles, even when those Gentiles were Christian. (Acts 11 and Gal 2) There are other areas of difficulty in figuring what new rules are needed to follow the new light that they have been given.
Jesus often pointed out that obeying rules is not the purpose of religion, but rather living a life of love is. Sometimes we encounter others who follow a different light, Christian and non-Christian. We have the problem of how to relate to them. Jesus also helps us there. What we call the Golden Rule is not a rule at all. It is a call to look inside to the light within us and to “Treat others the way we would like to be treated.”