It is extraordinary to me to think that at one time in my life my patriotism was more liturgical than my worship of the crucified and risen Christ. I had (and still have) very strong opinions about how one should conduct one's self in the presence of the American flag when the national anthem was playing. The drunken men that would laugh and talk during the anthem or the kid that would leave his baseball cap on caused me deep indignation. There is a collective tradition that we as a country have established as a way to convey our respect for our shared heritage. It consists of standing, putting our hand over our hearts, and remaining respectfully silent as the flag is displayed. Most of us have probably done it a million times in school or at a sporting event. It is perhaps most moving to observe an Olympic athlete, after years of hard work and tears streaming down his or her face, saluting the flag. Watch it a million times and you will shed a million tears.
I also remember when President Ronald Reagan passed away. The days of pagentry and (dare I say it?) liturgy to honor our great president lent a spirit of solemnity and gravity to his passing and allowed us all to unify as Americans. I don't think I would have been too comfortable had any of the honor guard soldiers decided that he didn't think the uniform really represented how he would like to express his personal love for Reagan and showed up in khakis and a polo. The fact is, at that particular time that soldier's personal feelings didn't really matter. He was a soldier for the United States military performing a collective act of respect on behalf of an entire nation. And there are simply rules. And the set ceremony enacted for every US president through the centuries does not become "dead ritual" with use. Instead, it deepens in it's ability to draw us together as a nation and give us a collective voice.
Additionally, the rich symbols and pagentry of President Reagan's funeral gave an outlet to the sensual aspect of grief that a speech never could. For example, who can forget the image of a riderless horse slowly making his way down Constitution Avenue, empty boots backwards in the stirrups? Or the 21 gun salute over his grave? That imagery materialized a truth that a eulogy, no matter how carefully crafted, never could.
Similarly, the liturgy of the Church serves a very real and indespensible purpose. Far from mindless forms and deadening routine, the Divine liturgy of the Church calls us all to lay aside our personal individuality and draws us into the body of Christ. Worship is a corporate act at its center. The head, hands, arms, feet, of Christ coming together as a body to lift Herself up and offer Herself to God. Those that recite the Creed, make the sign of the cross, partake in Holy Communion mindlessly and without thoughtful reverence do so to their own condemnation.
By contrast, those who eagerly enter the Divine Liturgy in order to join with all saints living and dead, beside them and around the world, and to experience the presence of Christ with all their senses (through the incense, arrangement of the church building itself, icons) as well as their intellect (the recitation and preaching of the Holy Scriptures) receive unparalelled blessing.
But still I struggled with life long objections. Isn't being a Christian having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? It is. But it is also having a relationship the the body of Christ. Just because the soldier participating in the funeral procession undoubtedly had deep devotion and love for his President, that did not mean that he was free to express it individualistically at all times and places. Something very vital for the nation would be lost if his individuality were allowed to trump his duty to give the American people a collective voice. And so I have found it with the Christian life. Being a Christian means entering into a relationship with Christ on the most intimate and personal level. This is why we pray. This is why we read Scripture. But becoming a Christian also means entering into relationship with Christ's body the Church and this relationship, by its very nature, is corporate. When I gather with God's people on Sunday morning (or any other holy day) we are not just the sum of our parts. We are coming to mystically join together as a body. Liturgy helps take us to that place.
There is another aspect to religious imagery that is vital to a believer. As I mentioned above, imagery and symbols speak to the sensual aspect of our nature that cannot be gotten at through arguementation. In a word, it reaches that affective part of us that is separate from our intellect. I had to smile the other day when I attended a concert at a fundamentalist Baptist church. True to their heritage, they had stripped the alter of all religious symbol, including a cross (although there was prominently displayed a huge Bible that I'm sure was not used practically-as much a symbol as a crucifix since its purpose was simply to convey the centrality of preaching to their worship. But I digress). However, there to the side of the pulpit was an American flag. It is just deep within us to use imagery to convey realities. I found this to be particularly poignant the night Chloe died. We have on our wall the Resurrection icon. For those of you who have never seen it, it depicts Christ with Adam on His right hand and Eve on His left as He is pulling them from the grave. Under His feet death lies bound. As Chloe's heart slowly stopped beating and she died I raised my eyes to the icon. It's power flooded over me as it seemed to come alive. At that moment of deep grief, the mind's ability to reason its way to truth is completely gone. But the ability of images to lift our hearts to God is somehow intensified. So the sensual part of worship is just as vital as the rationa and true worship should encompass us in the entirety of our being.