Orders are barked in the mid-day stillness.
Raised ceremonial rifles burst forth, startling most witnesses -- human and animal.
A solitary bugle slowly sounds the familiar final strains. With crisp synchronicity, the national flag is folded according to a certain pattern, and presented to the primary survivor with brief sober words of appreciation. Such a well-known ritual is repeated in similar format every time a military veteran is laid to rest.
A ritual is a memorial.
The individuals, perhaps shivering, stand in white robes awaiting their turn to step down into the water to be fully immersed in symbolic cleansing and statement of religious commitment. This baptism ritual of many Christian churches has been practiced in several forms for some two millennia.
A ritual is symbolic.
The motorcycle was parked near the entrance to the funeral home, reminding gathering mourners of the many days spent on it by the one whose life had ended. The ceremony included memories recalled through words and photos, songs sung and prayers prayed. Afterward, the motorcycle was started up and attendees were invited to "rev" the engine as a final tribute -- a simple spontaneous ritual of goodbye.
A ritual is a tribute.
Christmas mornings, wedding ceremonies, religious worship, the handshake pledging one's honor, academic convocations and commencements, birthday parties, pre-game warm-up routines (whether at the sandlot or world championship), legal and legislative protocols -- all these and countless other rituals help participants and observers deepen the experience and meaning of a given occasion.
A ritual can be time-honored and precise like a tea ceremony, or spontaneous and informal like a communion service with crackers and water at a local caf.
Ritual matters because it gives our souls grounding in and expression of what matters. It has the capacity to speak deeper than thoughts or even feelings. Ritual touches the deep recesses of one's spirit where meaning resides. It can transcend or even unite different persons or groups in a common experience, like the national anthem prior to the big game, or the salute of one leader to another.
Ritual is rooted in what is meaningful; that is, in the religious depths of one's being. Remember that "religion" is not confined to a denominational faith perspective; no, it consists of the secular and sacred convictions that hold life together and make living it doable and worthwhile.
Finally, ritual helps us approach mystery -- those aspects of our existence that we cannot fathom but only respect. Death is the great mystery; but, gatherings and partings, gains and losses, joys and sorrows all challenge and invite us to draw near to the power of meaningfulness.
A bridal processional, one's morning or evening routines, a flag raising, standing out of respect, how the table is set and meal blessed, or floating flowers on the waters to honor and say goodbye -- all ritual is about giving and gaining meaning in life.
I believe that through ritual, we enhance our humanity and enrich our souls -- I'm willing to shake on it!
* Rev. Dr. Timothy Ledbetter is Hospice Chaplain for the Tri-Cities Chaplaincy. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email email@example.com.