Light of truth

Question: Ritu Jacob

Sometimes it seems that the emphasis on the ritual exercises evades and shrinks human responsibilities and becoming a kind of idols. Why the believers of God do not heed attention to the miseries of humans. What is the real meaning of Christian rituals?

Answer: Saji Mathew Kanayankal CST

It is a fact that Christian life is sustained and nourished through prayers, devotional exercises and some celebrations. We cannot think of Christianity apart from these fundamental religious expressions. Most of the devotional practises are articulated through various rituals expressed in the forms of signs, symbols, prayers, chants, music etc.,. These rituals, which are described as the ‘the dynamic core of experience of faith’ are essential elements of universal religious consciousness. The enchantment, an avenue that often comes through art, architecture, poetry, or other media already predisposed to enable human beings to see things beyond the limitations of the horizon of our human visuals. These are also a particular way of God relating to human beings and their life situations.


Modern anthropology underlines the cultural and social significance of symbolism and for anthropologist, ritual is a system of prescribed, standardized, formalized behaviour regulating and controlling a social situation. As embodied spirits, human beings are symbolic beings in our mode of being, and ways of thinking, acting and communicating. To be human means to be coexist and to participate with others in inter-relating and inter-communicating. The rituals and symbols have creative and transforming powers. These are the hermeneutical dynamics of human existence and the inter-personal relationships are actualised through the symbolism. In a way, it is religious and cultural constraint.

We cannot think of religious expressions and articulation of faith apart from the rituals and sacraments since there are considerable interaction of corporal, visual, and verbal expressions, all having a relation to cultural experience and tradition. Therefore, rituals and symbols are essential in human life, especially in one’s faith expression for “the mystery of human person requires this mediation, not only as a creature embodied in spirit, but as one who relates to others, searches for freedom, and is open to transcendence” (German Martinez, Signs of Freedom, 12).

In Catholic tradition, sacraments are the articulation of seeing God in all things and through these expressions one experiences God’s presence in his/her life in the midst of different realities of life. The unfathomable mystery of God is disclosed to human beings through the sacramental signs and symbols and one experiences His grace by participating in it. In fact, all of these various forms are capable of being vehicles to discern God coming towards us and our world which have the potentiality to draw us into the transcendental dimension of God. Thus symbols become the essential elements of religious communication. They allow people to grasp human reality in its deeper meaning. They open to the vast reality of what is incomprehensible mystery and lead people into it. Human beings link transitory existence through symbols to the ‘Total Being’- God. Thus is the significance of the traditional definition of sacraments: “the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” The world of symbols thus is essential to the fundamental understanding of ritual and sacramental expressions.


However, it is to be noted that the depth and profundity of the word ‘sacramentality’ is complex and inter-disciplinary related with many dimensions of human existence and it affects the believer in various and many ways. The immanent and transcendental dimensions of God, on the one hand, keep the believer ‘here and now,’ but, on the other hand, transcend and surpass him/her beyond the limits of the present world. In Christian tradition, it is expressed with two different terminologies. The term ‘mysterion’ points towards an inner reality of the sacraments, where assacramentumdenotes the outer celebration of the inner reality. Mysterion is a comprehensive description of the revelation of Christ in person in incarnation and in the scripture and in the Church and a deeper meditation of that revelation. The inner reality becomes tangible through the outer expression of symbols and rituals. And the following are some important significance of the symbols.

First of all, symbols are the means of transformation. It means basically symbols posses the potential for religious, cultural and social transformation. The symbolic forms mediate, communicate, and develop the deepest human experiences. Paul Ricoeur thus calls symbols as opaque and hence their inexhaustible depth is a deeper mystery.

Secondly, symbols open to new dimensions to reality. It is true that the reality is beyond human grasping capacity and there is always some kind of ‘hiddenness’ in human religious experiences. The fullness of realityis incomprehensible, but it can be experienced at least partially through the communicative and mediating function of symbols. As Karl Rahner points out, “The whole of theology is incomprehensible if it is not essentially a theology of symbols” (Theological Investigations, IV, 235).

Third, symbols invite one to participate in the mystery and therefore they have mediating, communicative and revelatory functions. They veil and unveil, bear and evoke. In doing so they help the participant to transcend the material image, to enter and contemplate. As Leonardo Boff comments; “in the ephemeral [human being] can read the Permanent: in the temporal the Eternal; in the world, God. Then the ephemeral is transfigured into sign of the presence of the permanent, the temporal into the symbol of reality of the eternal, the world into a great grand sacrament of God”(Sacraments of life-Life of the Sacraments, 1-2).

Finally, symbols are to be lived out. As symbols, the sacramental materials are intrinsically related to what they express. They have some inherent qualities, which makes them adequate to their symbolic function and irreplaceable. We can find meaning to it only through interiorizing the mystery of the symbols. In fact, when we live out our ritual symbols, when we cherish them, experience them, and open ourselves to their inexhaustible significance, our lives become transformed and we will be able to live our religiosity in an authentic way. Thus, the rituals with its symbols are not mere static expressions; they are the dynamic expression and meaningful articulation of religious experience. However, it is sad to see that many times we forget or ignore this deeper significance of symbols. Instead of opening to the horizons of its splendour and beauty, we fail to cross the narrowness and rigidity of ecclesial terminology to a broader context of life experiences.


The term ‘ritualization’ is defined as ‘the action or process of ritualizing something.’ However, its description in the zoological context will be helpful for our analysis. It is described as ‘the evolutionary process by which an action or behaviour pattern in an animal loses its original function, but is retained for its role in display or other social interaction.’ In the sphere of the context of the Church, ritualization can be used to describe to point out the attitude to minimise the nuances of Christian worship and prayer into certain rigid formulations of practises of certain rituals with some mechanical performances and formulas. It is true that sometimes the symbols lose its real meaning and we try to keep its external forms and people may repeat as a community or as group without understanding its profundity. Sometimes, people will be very strict to keep its external formulations or methods forgetting the real spirit. Leonard Boff has already noticed it by calling ‘ritual mummification.’ When abstract, restrictive and juridical ideas of rituals highly influence the people, the authentic human experiences are easily faded away. It become mere act centred without focusing the dynamism and internal deeper meaning. Any ritual practises, forgetting fellow human beings and his/her pain will become meaningless and unauthentic.

The contemporary world, which is highly influenced by neo-liberal market economy and consumerist traits devalued symbolic imagination and scorned the sacred as fading supernaturalism irrelevant to human existence. In the market dominating world of today, even where people are objectified, we forget to see the wider horizons of human reality. When the ‘other’ has a little significance they cannot bear a deeper meaning or serve a symbolic and sacramental function. As a result, there emerges an unbridgeable gap between ourselves and God, the divine is reduced to something material, His reality in effect is treated as equivalent to the totality of the world. As Karl Rahner warned; “Now it is a lasting and tragic misunderstanding for us to turn these sacramental sings once more into circumscribed enclave, such that it is in this alone that God is present, and that the event of His grace take place” (Theological Investigations, XIV, 169). Pope Francis in his recent apostolic exhortation has pointed out this danger in a subtle form; “the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting.

The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 58).

He also wars against the possibility of self-centredness and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. As he says, “This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 57). The simple fact is that “once we believe that everything depends on human effort as channelled by ecclesial rules and structures, we unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 53).

Authentic Christian life is derived from accurate interpretation of the Bible which is not merely rules-based or ritual-based. Rather, it is relationship-based. The living God through Jesus has made those who believe in Christ His own children. As Christians it is our responsibility to see things beyond its material realms and to reflect on the beauty and splendour of the richness of symbolic expressions of various rituals, customs and traditional practises. Rituals are always rituals with its symbolic meanings and interpretations. Though they touch reality, they are not reality. Once we open to the reality through rituals, it becomes meaningful. Otherwise, we will be doomed into the pit of ritualization and enslaved into its complexities.

Leave a Comment