On the south side of Magdalen College, Oxford, sits an Anglican chapel used weekly for worship.
When I first stepped into the 15th-century building, not only did I have a sense of traveling back in time, but I also had the experience of entering an atmosphere of worship long before the worship service actually began.
The smell of incense lingered in the air, giving the light a pathway to trace and creating a presence in the air that one could almost taste.
The sight of the stained-glass windows and ornate carvings told visual stories of biblical figures.
I saw several people before me bow and cross themselves as they entered, and so I did the same, engaging the sense of touch.
Echoes from footsteps lingered long after they had ceased. And then, the service actually began.
The organ music didn’t just emanate from a corner of the room, it filled the entire sanctuary, deep bass notes I could feel reverberating throughout my body.
The procession was colorful, holy vestments glimmering in the light filtering through the icons.
The priest didn’t just speak; he called for a response, and the congregation followed suit. The smell of incense grew stronger. The sermon was short, decentralized but precise and to the point.
We walked up front and made a cross with our hands, receiving the wafer, the strength of the taste of the real wine hard to ignore. I had become an active, engaged participant in worship.
It was an immersive, sensory experience, which “broke the script” and brought worship to life.
I had entered the world of liturgical worship and, somehow, I felt right at home, in spite of my Baptist upbringing.
As I continued to visit the Anglican chapel worship services from January through June 2006, I became aware of a certain flow and organization to worship, especially leading up to Easter.
Unbeknownst to me, this was all very intentional and part of a centuries-long tradition of living into the story of Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection in what is now called the Revised Common Lectionary.
In this way, the very passage of time is marked by a yearly journey through the life of Christ.
As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, we are participating in a ritual that, for the early church, was a time of beginnings, a time of penitence and baptism.
Our modern tendency in the Baptist church is toward instant gratification, baptizing people very quickly after their profession of faith.
But long ago, one went through a lengthy process before baptism was offered at Easter.
Thankfully, as Ruth C. Duck observes in her book, “Worship for the Whole People of God,” “Today’s churches are coming to consider Lent as a time of deepening commitment and of grace in preparation for and remembrance of one’s baptism.”
Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday – the point of it all was to journey with Christ all the way to death and resurrection, which is symbolized in baptism.
You go under the water as Jesus went to the grave, and you are raised to new life just as he was.
This is all central to the Christian life, and so the church developed traditions to help us remember, to keep the story alive, lest we forget and fall prey to our own human nature and the whims of our fancy.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about “empty rituals” and many a warning against them. But the point of the ritual is not the ritual itself but the story.
Everything we do in worship each week is designed to help us orient our lives toward God and immerse ourselves in God’s story.
So, if you’re like me and the Christian calendar and church year are a little foreign to you, don’t mistake the ritual for the story to which it points us.
We were not made for ritual. We were made to follow Christ, and the rituals remind us of who we are, where we came from and where we’re headed. The traditions give us direction.
So don’t get caught up in the ritual but instead let it get you caught up in the story, for it is only after we’ve waded into waters too deep for standing that we can truly surrender to the flow and let it take us where it will.
God is flowing. Are you ankle-deep in the shallows? Are you swimming against the current? Or are you caught up in the flow?
Justin Bishop is Associate Pastor of Heritage Fellowship in Canton, Georgia.