Ceremony Seeking Meaning

By Colton Lott

I graduated from college this past May, joining about 1.9 million other students who were conferred a bachelor’s degree this year.[i] Like many of these students, I went to my commencement and heard words of life, wisdom, and foo-foo as we were set off into the sunset with shards of hope, crystalline dreams, and massive amounts of student debt (but hey, who’s counting?).[ii]

While I was decompressing in a school sponsored reception, I began talking to my favorite professor. As we were chewing the fat, one of the topics we touched on was the odd phenomenon that is graduation, especially how students in the United States make such a hullabaloo about commencement. And sports. And church. And weddings. And lots of things.

So I’ve been obsessing on why the culture I was born into obsesses about pomp and circumstance. Why is there a cavernous drive to have ever-expansive ceremonies to mark the turning points of life? Big graduations, expensive weddings, and elaborate celebrations for birthdays and anniversaries dot the landscapes of our lives, mostly without critical questioning. Kindergarten graduations are becoming formalized and holidays are becoming holimonths. This is without mentioning in detail the ways we sincerely celebrate relatively meaningless accomplishments, such as dating someone for a few weeks, doing well on a required task for school or work, or a pet’s birthday.

Capitalism drives much of this “biggering,” but to have expanded consumption serve as the only answer for this phenomenon seems stunted. A surface response is that our society is starved for true and/or profound meaning and we try to fill this hole with ever-enlarged celebrations as a supplement or substitute. But the question I’m more interested in is: “Why are we so famished for a true and/or profound meaning to enter into our lives?”

One of the biggest contributions made by the emergent church movement is it attempts to detail why and how our culture is being unanchored from what was previous understood as a “given.” Phyllis Tickle identifies our questions du jour as revolving around our collective source of authority and lack thereof; what constitutes true “human-ness;” and how we relate to other systems of life, especially other religions.[iii] Just as has happened, and will happen, we have become untethered and are desperate for a rock on which to rely.

The disciples of Jesus offer us a poignant analog. As followers of Christ, they were drawn into an alternative lifestyle that required them to live without traditional boundaries, without the culture’s guideposts that could sustain, correct, or reassure them. They were untethered, unanchored, and forced to seek new meaning for the time and place they were situated in. In Luke 9, we see Peter, James, and John following Jesus up the mountain for what will be the transfiguration of Christ and the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

When things started really happening, Peter jumps up, johnnie-on-the-spot, and wants to “construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33, CEB). Before Peter could even cease speaking, the other two figures leave, a voice from the cloud speaks, and they are eerily back to their regular programming.

What a celebration! What a ceremony! Like Peter, we want to capture the holiness that comes through in the flash of light, but like Peter we are powerless to do so. We cling to the hope that if we could just make these shrines bigger, just a bit bigger, we could hold down something deep, we could examine something true. But the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, is heartbreakingly ephemeral.

The wish is that the celebration or the ceremony holds the meaning, but that is not what we experience. When Christ is transfigured, there is no significant change within him, but only the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is—the ceremony offers only a glimmer of what the profound and/or true meaning is. Birthday parties don’t magically make someone have a year’s worth of wisdom and growth, but the celebration serves as a pause to merely recognize what has happened in the past year. One of the common critiques of marriage is that a piece of paper doesn’t “mean anything;” there is something true to this contemporary argument, as the formality and ceremony doesn’t make a meaning, but the wedding points to the change that has, is, and will be happening between two people.

As hard as we try, we can’t find solve our dilemmas and problems of the twenty-first century by making ceremonies and celebrations more spectacular in the hope that they will be more meaningful. While it would be easier, we can’t substitute the party for the cause of the party. We have to continue struggling and asking the hard questions of meaning, even though the progress of answering such questions can be frustratingly minimal. Just like Peter, James, and John, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain into a very messy, unknown world. Just as Jesus wreaked havoc for the original disciples, we are living in holy disorder, too. We live in the tension, both desperately waiting on something profound and/or true to come our way and rescue us from our insecurities and angst, and also realizing that in following the radical Jesus we slowly gain something meaningful and get to glimpse something ultimate.

 

[i] https://www.naceweb.org/press/faq.

[ii] The servicers on your debt. That’s who’s counting. And, like the undead or crab-grass, they never go away. Ever. 

[iii] This thought is detailed most accurately in her book The Great Emergence (2008).