Twelve years ago this week, I found myself at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I went with a seminary group to spend a week at the monastic community in the village of Taize in Burgundy, France.
During the first day in Paris, I went to the cathedral to pray. Pope John Paul II was dying in Rome.
Hundreds of people gathered in the nave as the clergy led us in prayer. With each sung response, one of the priests poured a scoop of incense into a large, ornate dish in the front. Enormous clouds of incense rose into the air, symbolically lifting our prayers into heaven.
I sat near the shrine to Joan of Arc. It was one of the most prayerful experiences of my life.
Every religious tradition recognizes the importance of ritual and liturgy as ways of embodying our prayers. Sufi Muslims have whirling dervishes (a member of a Muslim religious order noted for devotional exercises) who spin in prayerful circles. Jews light candles to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Tibetan Buddhists chant while mindfully creating intricate sand mandalas, or graphic and often symbolic patterns. Hindus bathe statues in milk as a sign of devotion. Some Native Americans offer prayers with hot stones and steam in sweat lodges.
In all of these, ritual matters. As humans, we yearn for ways to embody our prayers. Too often, Christianity focuses on the space between our ears, as though our religious practice consists of only thinking the right thing.
During Holy Week, we have many opportunities to experience the power of ritual and embodied prayer. We observe Palm Sunday by re-enacting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by waving palm branches and singing hymns. We remember the stark grief of Good Friday with solemn prayers and the Stations of the Cross. We begin the Great Vigil of Easter in darkness with only the light of the Pascal candle before triumphantly proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ with bells, hymns and light.
Ritual matters. Religious practice matters, because we are members of the body of Christ in and through our own bodies. May your religious practice be rich and graced during this Holy Week.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at email@example.com.