During my college years, my friends and I created a new holiday called Mer-Happy New-Christmas-Year Eve. As you can tell from the random assortment of words in the title, Mer-Happy New-Christmas-Year Eve was meant to cover all the holidays between the end of final exams in December and the start of January term a couple weeks later. With the exception of a very homesick first semester of freshman year, I loved college – I loved my classes and my friends, I loved the cafeteria food and the magic of my first snowy winters, and as a music major, I loved the hours in practice rooms and rehearsal. Most of them, anyway. So when a holiday break came around, it was always bittersweet. Excited to go home, already excited to return to campus. Enter Mer-Happy New-Christmas-Year-Eve, the celebration to end all celebrations that would let us celebrate the holidays together without actually being together. I’ll spare you all the very silly ritual details of this made-up holiday experience, but just know that it did involve a solemn procession around campus with someone wearing their laptop sleeve on their head as a bishop’s hat. And the pipe organ in the campus chapel was involved. Obviously. Apologies to anyone who attended St Olaf College between the years of 2012 and 2016.
Those were very silly days. But as I look back on Mer-Happy New-Christmas-Year Eves of yore, I am struck by some of the depth of what was going on there. We had constructed a ritual that would help bear the weight of that moment in the year. There were inside jokes and memories that helped shape what we did to celebrate. But aside from that, there was a deep affirmation that we loved one another and we loved where we were – that if we couldn’t be together in body for a holiday, we were with one another in spirit. In laughter and singing, in a campus processional and Christmas carols and silly outfits, we were grounded in community and mutual care for one another, in appreciation for where we had been and where we were going. As I flew home to South Carolina each December, I went with the memory of that ritual. It helped shape my sense of relationship and brought me back to campus again with a renewed sense of belonging.
Rituals are like that. They ground us and shape us, little by little. They shape our lives around common values and experiences, and at their very best, they make room for us to recognize the holy – the presence of God in our midst. And sometimes, as in the story we just heard about Simeon and Anna and the baby Jesus, something extraordinary happens within the framework of ordinary ritual.
This story happens forty-ish days after Christmas. The angels’ songs have long faded; the shepherds have returned to their flocks; the manger that once held the Christ child is back to being just a feeding trough again. And the young family is on their way to Jerusalem. They’re headed there for a religious ritual of presentation – we know from the Older Testament that this is a Jewish custom. The gospel writer, Luke, mentions four times that the family is doing what is customary – they are entering into the ritual life of their community, grounded in the customs and practices that shape their ancestors. And in the midst of this moment of ordinary, customary ritual comes a great surprise. Enter: Simeon.
Simeon, we learn, has been prayerfully waiting and hoping for a very long time. God made Simeon a promise – that he’d see the Messiah before he died – and something prompts him to leave home and go to the temple that day. He arrives and takes the child in his arms, wrinkled hands grasping tiny fingers and toes, and sings. In the midst of this ordinary moment, an extraordinary song bursts forth. “God, you can let me go now; let me go in peace, just like you promised. I’ve seen salvation with my own eyes, and it’s out in the open for everyone to see. It’s a light that reveals you to your people in our land and beyond.”
I imagine that the song hangs in the air there in the temple in silence. What a remarkable moment. Simeon breaks the silence to speak again, this time to Mary. His words are beautiful and chilling: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel. And a sword will pierce your soul.” Again, silence. This was not what the holy family must have expected from this ordinary visit to the temple. They came with the child and the turtle doves and are going home with an exuberant song and prophetic word.
And the surprises are not over. Another elder appears, Anna, a dedicated temple attendee, a faithful daily worshiper and pray-er. Anna catches a glimpse at this baby and begins to spread the word – this is the one we have been waiting for. This is the child who brings redemption. As the young family returns to Galilee, they leave behind a community that is beginning to buzz with the words of Simeon and Anna. They leave behind a song and a prophecy. A witness. And as we all know, the story is not over yet – this is only the beginning.
This extraordinary moment in the Jerusalem temple reveals again how ritual grounds us and makes way for surprising beauty. Our lives are full of rituals both large and small, whether or not we name them as such. Think about the rituals in your own life. Are you an early morning coffee person? Does your day feel kind of weird if you can’t get up before everyone else and take those first sips alone in the dark? Are you a walker or a runner or a biker or a swimmer, and do you feel a bit off-kilter if those routines aren’t in place as usual? I know a Westminster family that does Sunday morning pancakes, and I know many of you are nighttime readers – you can’t wind down without a few chapters of the novel you’re working on. These little rituals keep us grounded and, in a way, they shape us, telling us something about what and who we value.
There’s a wonderful writer and pastor based in the twin cities named Meta Herrick Carlson who writes blessings for ordinary moments in our lives. She is convinced that when we take time to celebrate these ordinary moments, they gain more power to ground and shape us. She writes, “It feels good and holy to notice God’s attention to the regular, to consider God’s investment in the little moments that matter to my daily life, to bless the pretty decent things and call them good.” She has blessings for standing at the bus stop and for the courage to say “no.” Blessings for making it one day sober or launching a young adult child into the world. Blessings for what she calls “b-list holidays” like Tax Day and daylight saving time. And she has a book called Ordinary Blessings for Parents, which includes a blessing for sibling rivalry, for learning to drive, for sleep regression.
Meta Herrick Carlson gets it – rituals make room for us to see what God is up to in the world around us. Rituals ground us and shape us, sending us out to see what God is up to outside of our own comfortable spaces. And sometimes the inbreaking of God appears, making extraordinary what once was ordinary. Sometimes our very own Simeon appears, singing a song of promises fulfilled and offering a word of blessing.
Of course, not all rituals are created equal. As much as I love my morning cup of coffee and nighttime New York Times mini crossword, there are some rituals that are so deep and so embedded in community that they have the power to shape us profoundly as a people. These are rituals like baptism and Communion, like singing hymns of praise and lament, like praying the Lord’s Prayer – thy kingdom come – and hearing that we are forgiven, over and over again, week after week, no matter what. These are the rituals of our worship. They root us in the grace of God and send us out to live lives that respond to that grace.
And sometimes, within these ordinary patterns of our life together – our liturgies and liturgical seasons – there is space for moments of surprise. I can recall a recent baptism when the child being baptized simply could not get enough of the water in the font. They squirmed and wiggled in Meghan’s arms, reaching for the water – it looked like that little one was trying to dive into the font! Many of us went away from that Sunday wondering what it might look like for us to crave those waters of renewal in a similar way. What it might feel like for us to long for that flood of new birth and liberation.
I think also of a moment that sometimes happens at the end of the 10:30 service in the sanctuary. We come to the closing hymn, once the young ones have returned from Children’s Church, and a couple of our brilliant and wonderful five-year-olds slide out from their family’s pew to dance in the aisles to the music. There is nothing quite like seeing children dance to the hymn, “Light Dawns in a Weary World” – it helps convince you that light might actually be dawning in our own weary world.
And I could go on for days, but just one more example of a beautiful surprise breaking forth from our weekly patterns of liturgical life. On Christmas Eve this year, it was especially tender to hear of the “little town of Bethlehem” knowing about the war raging in that region. We sang “yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,” and remembered the suffering and strife in Gaza. We sing or listen to that hymn every year, but there was a heartbreaking newness to it this year. Room for us to feel the pain of our neighbors and to hope with them for a new future. Rituals don’t just ground us, they open us.
The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor coined a lovely phrase, “holy envy,” to describe the feeling of respecting a tradition that is not one’s own; being enamored with a ritual or practice that comes from outside your own community’s common practice. I have holy envy for a tradition that is prominent in many African American churches and communities, called the Watch Night service. The first Watch Night service was the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect in this country. African and African American folks gathered that night, some in secret and some in public, to welcome in a new year that offered the glimmer of hope for liberation across the country. Frederick Douglass said of that day: “It is a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine, are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn upon us.” Within the ritual of welcoming a new year, this remarkable and world-changing moment birthed a whole new ritual. Many African American churches across the country continue to celebrate the Watch Night service on New Years Eve – they’ll gather tonight, remembering ancestors who longed for liberation, marking the ways that communities and neighborhoods and individuals still long for liberation these many years later.
Our neighbors at Fellowship Missionary Baptist had a watch night service on last year’s New Years Eve, and I watched the YouTube recording of it and was grateful to have done so. The service began with praise and ended with praise; there was preaching and praying, singing and rejoicing, and powerfully, there was the chance for church members to share testimonies of where God had been present in the past year. One church member shared a powerful story and ended it by saying: “this whole world is upside down, but God is still in control.” It is with that assurance that communities who celebrate Watch Night move into a new year, rooted in this ritual that names God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.
As we ourselves move into a new year, I wonder how we might each reflect on the rituals that ground and sustain us. From the morning cup of coffee to the sacrament of Holy Communion, I wonder how God’s grace is transforming us, day by day, within the rhythms of these patterns. Rituals do not guard us from hardship – I’m reminded of Simeon’s words to Mary: the falling, and then the rising. What rituals can do is ground us in what is true: that God is the creator of all that is good; the Jesus Christ has come to us this season to enter into our own story; that the Spirit journeys with us, always, no matter what. We’re in a season here in Westminster that is, and I almost hesitate to say the word because we are saying it a lot, but it’s such a great word: liminal. It’s an in-between time, our former senior pastor, Tim, has retired, the Pastor Nominating Committee is at work, and we are here in this liminal, in-between space. Meaningful rituals are especially helpful in liminal seasons. These are the times when we get to double down on the practices and rhythms that have grounded us for generations. When we start to feel a little unhinged, those rhythms are solid ground to return to.
And every so often – or, really, every week – something surprising may come from those rhythms. Like a flower that grows from a bulb we’d forgotten we’d planted in the fall; like a kite that catches the rare gust of wind on a breezeless day; like a child dancing in the aisles to a hymn about light dawning in our weary world. So it is with presence of the Christ child in our midst, this Christmas season and beyond. May we listen and respond in gratitude.