The Simplicity of Christian Ritual
Hebrews 9:1-10
Then truly the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.

The language of sign or symbol enters very largely into all the affairs of life. The human spirit craves and finds embodiment for its impalpable, evanescent ideas and emotions, not merely in sounds that die away upon the ear, but in acts and observances that arrest the eye, and stamp themselves upon the memory, or in shapes and forms and symbols that possess a material and palpable continuity. The superiority of sign or symbol as a vehicle of thought is in some sort implied in the very fact that it is the language of nature, the first which man learns, or rather which, with instinctive and universal intelligence, he employs. There is something, again, in a visible and tangible sign, or in a significant or symbolic act, which, by its very nature, appeals more impressively to the mind than mere vocables that vibrate for a moment on the organ of hearing and then pass away. Embody thought in a material representation or memorial, and it stands before you with a distinct and palpable continuity; it can become the object of prolonged contemplation; it is permanently embalmed to the senses. Moreover, it deserves to be considered that the language of symbol lies nearer to thought than that of verbal expression. As no man can look into another's mind and have direct cognisance of another's thoughts, we can only convey to others what is passing in our own minds, by selecting and pointing out some object or phenomenon of the outward world that bears an analogy to the thought or feeling within our breasts. And if further proof of the utility and importance of symbol were wanting, it might he found in the fact that all nature is but one grand symbol by which God shadows forth His own invisible Being and character. The principle on which symbolic language depends being thus deeply seated in man's nature, it might be anticipated that its influence would be apparent in that religion which is so marvellously adapted to his sympathies and wants. But when we turn to that religious economy under which we live, by nothing are we so much struck as by the simplicity of its external worship — the scantiness, unobtrusiveness, and seeming poverty of its ritual observances. And this absence of symbol in the Christian worship becomes all the more singular when contrasted with the sensuous beauty and splendour of the heathen religions amidst which Christianity was developed, and with the imposing ceremonial, the elaborate symbolism, of that earlier dispensation from which it took its rise.

I. The simplicity of worship in the Christian Church is a sign of spiritual advancement, inasmuch as it arises, in some measure, from the fact THAT THE GOSPEL RITES ARE COMMEMORATIVE, WHILST THOSE OF THE FORMER DISPENSATION WERE ANTICIPATIVE. TO THE Hebrew in ancient times Christ was a Being of whose person and character and work he had but the most vague and undefined conceptions; to the Christian worshipper He is no shadowy dream of the future, no vague and visionary personage of a distant age, but the best beloved of friends, whose beautiful life stands forth before the mind with all the distinctness of history — whose glorious person and mission is the treasured and familiar contemplation of his secret thoughts. The former, accordingly, needed all the elaborate formality of type and ceremony, of temple and altar and sacrifice — of symbolic persons and objects and actions, to help out his idea of the Messiah and of His mighty work and mission. But to enable the latter to recall his Lord, no more is required than a few drops of water, a bit of broken bread, or a cup of wine. Around these simplest outward memorials, a host of thoughts, reflections, remembrances, are ready to gather. Deity incarnate, infinite self-sacrifice, reconciliation with God, pardon, purity, peace, eternal life through the blood of Jesus, union with Christ, and in Him with all good and holy beings, — these are some of the great Christian ideas already lodged in each devout worshipper's mind, and which awake at the suggestive touch of the sacramental symbols to invest them with a value altogether incommensurate with their outward worth. The very simplicity of these material symbols implies that the senses have less and the mind far more to do in the process of spiritual conception than in a system of more imposing and obtrusive materialism.

II. The simple and unimposing character of the Christian ritual is an indication of spiritual advancement again, inasmuch as it arises from the fact, THAT WHILST THE RIGHTS OF JUDAISM WERE .MAINLY DISCIPLINARY, THOSE OF CHRISTIANITY ARE SPONTANEOUS AND EXPRESSIVE. The Jew could not eat or drink, or dress, or sow or reap, or buy or sell, arrange his household, hold intercourse with neighbour or friend, perform any one function of individual or social life, without being met by restrictions, forms, observances, which forced religious impression upon him, and, in combination with the more solemn ceremonial of the temple, left a constant deposit of spiritual thought upon the mind, and drilled the worshipper into religious habits. In a more spiritual and reflective age, on the other hand, in which the spiritual perceptions have become developed, and the mind has become receptive of direct religious instruction, such sensible helps to the formation of thought are no longer necessary. The mind in which truth has become an intuition needs no longer to spell out its conviction by the aid of a picture-book. The avenue of spirit thrown open to the worshipper, he no more requires to climb slowly up to the presence-chamber of the king by the circuitous route of sense. But if ritual may in such an age be dispensed with in great measure as a means of instruction, it still performs an important function as a means of expression. No longer necessary as a mould for the shaping of thought, it has still its use as a form in which religious thought and feeling may find vent. If the necessity for a visible temple and sanctuary to symbolise God's residence with man has ceased, now that He who is "the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person" has dwelt amongst us-if to prompt our minds in conceiving of sin and sacrifice, no scenic show of victims slain and life's blood drenching earthly altars be needed, now that the stainless, sinless, all-holy One hath once for all offered up the sacrifice of a perfect life to God — still there is in the Christian heart the demand for outward forms and rites to embody the reverence, the gratitude, the devotion, the love of which it is inwardly conscious. The soul, in its relation to an unseen Father, still craves for some outer medium of expression that shall give form to feeling — that shall tell forth its devotion to the heavenly Friend as the smile, the look, the grasp of the hand, the meeting at the festive board, the gifts and tokens of affection, externalise and express our sentiments towards those we love on earth. And the conclusion to which, from this argument, we are led is obviously this, that the glory of our Christian ritual lies in its very simplicity. For the manifestation of our common life in God, and of our common faith in Christ, the mind craves some outward badge or symbol; and so, in gracious condescension to our needs, our Lord has instituted the two sacramental rites; but even these He has prescribed but in outline, leaving all accessories to be filled in, as the varied needs of His people, in different times and places and circumstances, should dictate. And in this lies the very grandeur of its worship, that in the "chartered freedom" of our Christian ritual, each nation and community, each separate society and church and individual, lifting up its own note of adoration, all axe found to blend in the one accordant anthem, the one manifold yet harmonious tribute of the universal Church's praise. I conclude with the remark, that the simplicity of the Christian rites serves as a safeguard against those obvious dangers which are incident to all ritual worship.

1. The chief of these is the tendency in the unspiritual mind to stop short at the symbol — in other words, to transfer to the visible sign feelings appropriate only to the things signified, or to rest content with the performance of outward ceremonial acts, apart from the exercise of those devout feelings which lend to such acts any real value. A religion in which ritual holds a prominent place is notoriously liable to degenerate into formalism. The true way to avoid this error is, obviously, to remove as much as possible its cause. Let there be no arbitrary and needless intervention between the soul of the worshipper and the Divine object of its homage. Let the eye of faith gaze on the Invisible through the simplest and purest medium-Deprive it of all excuse to trifle curiously with the telescope, instead of using it in order to see. And forasmuch as, to earthly worship, formal aids are indispensable, let it ever be remembered that that form is the best which least diverts attention to itself, and best helps the soul to hold fellowship with God.

2. Moreover, the danger thus incident to an elaborate ceremonial, of substituting ritual for religion, is increased by the too common tendency to mistake aesthetic emotion for religious feeling. Awe, reverence, rapt contemplation, the kindling of heart and swelling of soul, which the grand objects of faith are adapted to excite, may, in a man of sensitive mind or delicate organisation, find a close imitation in the feelings called forth by a tasteful and splendid ceremonial. The soul that is devoid of true reverence towards God may be rapt into a spurious elation, while in rich and solemn tones the loud-voiced organ peals forth His praise. The heart that never felt one throb of love to Christ may thrill with an ecstasy of sentimental tenderness, whilst soft voices, now blending, now dividing, in combined or responsive strains, celebrate the glories of redeeming love. It is easy to admire the sheen of the sapphire throne, while we leave its glorious Occupant unreverenced and unrecognised. Banish from the service of God all coarseness and rudeness — all that would distract by offending the taste of the worshipper, just as much as all that would disturb by subjecting him to bodily discomfort, and you leave the spirit free for its own pure and glorious exercise. But too studiously adorn the sanctuary and its services; obtrude an artificial beauty on the eye and sense of the worshipper, and you will surely lead to formalism and self-deception.

(J. Caird, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.

WEB: Now indeed even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service, and an earthly sanctuary.

The Pot of Manna
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