Acts of God (without the drama)
Ceremony. Pageantry. Ritual. We love these things.
From the routine of family mealtime prayers, to a small town holiday parade, to the deliberate ceremony of a military burial or the glamorous spectacle of televised award shows, we are a people who find meaning in rituals.
So too in the church. Many of our congregations embrace a liturgical practice that varies only in the slightest degree from week to week. The repeated drama of the liturgy and gathering of the faithful to sing, pray and give praise creates a constant murmur of blessing, hope and promise, stretching from week to week, season to season and year to year.
Yet in the Old Testament and Gospel readings this week, we are invited to behold moments of dramatic blessing that take place without the drama of ritual, liturgy or ceremony.
Naaman, the Assyrian general of our first reading, complains about the lack of appropriate pageantry for his healing. Surely much of his gripe is rooted in an inflated ego -- "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!" (2 Kings 5:11). But beyond any ego-stroking that he was expecting, Naaman here reveals a seeking that is shared by all of humanity for grand displays of power and awe-inspiring spectacle.
But he ain’t going to get it. Elisha, the one who could work wonders, decides to work a wonder in a rather underwhelming fashion. Elijah, Elisha’s predecessor, had made quite a spectacle of his face-off with the prophets of Baal, but there would be no spectacle here. So low-key is Elisha’s approach that he sends a servant to deliver a rather simple prescription -- go take a bath in the Jordan River, seven times and you will be made clean. And Elisha’s servant delivers these instructions without even a single ritualistic gesture.
Similarly, in the Gospel Jesus encounters ten lepers from a distance. Unable to approach Jesus, they call from afar, asking that Jesus -- whom they acknowledge as their "Master” -- have mercy on them. Jesus sends them to the Temple priests, where, we assume, a grand sequence of cleaning rituals and sacrifices would have taken place (see Leviticus 14). And yet, it was not through any ritual action but rather simply as they turned toward the Temple that the ten were healed. On a road, without any pageantry or even witnesses to ooo and ahhh, these men were healed.
Liturgy is a gift. Generations of faithful Christians testify to the power of these ritual words and actions that proclaim the blessings and grace of God. But do we notice when God's work happens outside of the regular liturgy?
- As Christians who celebrate and recall the activity of God through liturgical gestures and rituals, are we able to encounter God apart from rituals?
- What does it mean for us who are ritually minded, both in our secular and sacred celebrations, that God’s blessings sometimes come to us in a quiet walk or in an ordinary bath?
Pastor Chris Duckworth serves Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church in Arlington, Va., where he has responsibility for education, youth, family and young adult ministries. He is a husband, father, political junkie, baseball fan and an on-again, off-again blogger.