Nothing, in my experience with Orthodoxy, is done in the spirit of fulfilling the obligations of a mindless “ritual”. Everything has meaning. Now, it is possible (even probable) that an uninformed person might mindlessly engage in a pious act with no knowledge as to why. Yet it’s not the fault of the “empty” ritual, as much as it’s the lack of knowledge of the person involved. In Orthodoxy each act, and action is pregnant, brimming, with biblical, and theological reasons as to the “why?” And if ritual were merely a robotic, mindless, thoughtless, and careless repetition, I too would join with those that say “…ritual be damned…”
But the beauty of the ancient faith is that everything is spiritual. Everything. Everything is full of meaning. Everything has a reason and a purpose. This is the definition of the word “catholic”. Catholic does not describe a group of Christian people who obey and subscribe to the leadership of the Pope of Rome, in fact it’s not a denominational moniker at all. Catholic means, wholeness, fullness, completeness… that which has been believed, taught, and practiced everywhere, at all times, and by all people. This is why in Orthodoxy ritual is not a mindless and heartless repetition because the test of time and the lives of saints have attached biblical and theological significance to each holy action – giving them fullness – catholicity. Granted, as mentioned above, not every Orthodox person (sadly) is aware of the richness and the fullness of the meaning behind the symbolic actions within the ethos of the Church, but again that does not negate the fact that nothing in the church is simply done – for the reason of getting it done.
Here are some closing thoughts on the topic of light and the use of candles in Orthodox piety and practice. Again, being a tenaciously biblical people, we take our cue from the text of Sacred Scripture. Light, and “light of life” are constant themes in the teaching of both Old and New Testaments; life and light are the signature self identifications that Christ uses for Himself. But beyond the biblical references to light, fire, candles, and lampstands in the Bible – the reason candles mean so much to us is rather simple:
They bring us comfort. Comfort to our souls and bodies, since we are organic beings, people created out of the soil of the earth, formed by the Hand of God, having the breath of life breathed into us from conception. We are sensual beings. That is how God made us. We feel, we touch, we see, we taste, we are attracted to aromas that cause us to relax and be at peace. All of this explains why we would rather see a candle burning in front of us, instead of viewing a pixellated image of one projected on a Jumbo-Tron screen in a cineplex “worship” auditorium. We would rather have an actual baked apple pie on our plate, instead of a cinnamon spiced air freshener hanging in our car. Nothing beats an encounter with the physical… thus the beauty and power of the Incarnation. God, who is spirit, is born of a Virgin mother, was delivered in a cave, was wrapped in cloths, who cried, ate, and felt joy and sadness. All of this reminds us that in a world filled with illusions and simulations, in a culture of holographic fantasies… we are a people called not to virtual reality – but to real reality!
We see light. But it’s more than light, it’s a gift of beauty given to us from a sweet-smelling beeswax candle.
We smell fragrance. But it’s more than aroma, it’ s a gift of love given to us from the sap of a precious tree.
Glory to God for things that are real, tangible, physical, authentic and messy…for in a tech-driven world where our “experiences” are more passively viewed on a screen than lived out in reality… a simple candle is a feast beyond belief.
Here are some final thoughts from “Fundamentals of Orthodoxy”
The candle has yet another profound meaning. The burning candle represents the entire life of the faithful, from birth to death. It stands for the inner flame of love for and devotion to God. A Christian should burn like a candle before God and his whole being should gradually be consumed by this divine flame thus marking the end of his earthly life. Blessed Simeon of Thessalonica (15th century) states that pure wax symbolizes the purity and chastity of those who offer it. It is offered as a sign of our having repented of stubbornness and self-will. The softness and pliability of wax speaks of our readiness to obey God. The burning of the candle represents man’s deification, his becoming a new creature through the fire of God’s love.
The candle is a witness to faith, of man’s belonging to the Divine light. It expresses the flame of our love for the Lord, for the Mother of God, for the angels, and for the saints. One must not light a candle with a cold heart, merely as a formality. The external action must be supplemented by a prayer, if only the simplest one, using one’s own words.
The burning wax candle is pleasing to God, but He prizes the burning of the heart even more. Our spiritual life, our participation in the liturgy and mysteries, is not limited to the candle. The candle will not free us from sin, will not unite us with God, and will not give us the power to wage the unseen warfare. the candle is filled with symbolic meaning, but we are saved not by symbols, but by the full reality: Divine Grace.
What do you think about ritual? Signs, symbols that explain deeper biblical meanings and theological realities? Are these good? Can they, and do they, help us enrich and inflame the practice of our faith? When can rituals become a danger?