Rituals and Memory
This wasn’t my first Bar Mitzvahs to witness. Growing up in Los Angeles and living my adult life in New York has given me many dear friends from all different religions. I’ve been to Christenings and Bar Mitzvahs and a beautiful Persian wedding. So the Bar Mitzvah itself wasn’t new for me. But the setting was different this time.
We were sitting in the space where we spend our Sunday mornings in worship. As I looked around the room I saw my Manhattan Church of Christ friends wearing kippahs, some wearing prayer shawls, preparing for the service. You see, Hans Cahnmann had just turned 13. His mother Emily was raised in the Church of Christ in Georgia, and his father Steve grew up in a Jewish home in Maryland. While both of these loving parents are followers of Jesus, they have committed to raising their son with a knowledge and appreciation of his Jewish heritage. We spent the day singing and praying, reading the ancient Scriptures, and reflecting on them in light of both Jewish and Christian understanding. We imagined Jesus as a 13-year-old boy in the temple with his parents. We lit candles and ate wonderful food and danced until our feet hurt.
At the reception we clapped our hands, circling around Hans who sat high in the air on a chair carried by his father and friends. I was struck by the visceral nature of the experience. Loud music playing in his ears; his eyes taking in the faces of family and friends clapping, dancing, and singing; feeling the motion of the movement and holding on to his chair so he wouldn’t fall off. His whole being was immersed in the celebration. This is a moment he will never forget.
We are forgetful creatures. In the heat of the summer we forget the bitter cold of winter. When our relationships are hard we forget our lonely longings for companionship. When we see hot chocolate chip cookies we forget our commitment to healthy eating. As much as we want to remember, it’s so hard for us, limited, frail creatures that we are. This is why we need rituals and celebrations—they mark the time and place where something happened. Something is said, something is done, the occasion is marked with memories and photos and stories and mementos. No matter where Hans Cahnmann goes in his life he will remember this day, and that will remind him of who he is and who he belongs to.
What are the rituals that mark the lives of Christians? In Restoration Movement churches we take communion every Sunday. This is a weekly ritual that involves all of our senses, the bread and the wine bringing us back every week to the center of our faith. We also practice believers’ baptism by full immersion in water. Like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, baptism happens one time and is forever held as a defining moment in a person’s life. Like Hans’s Bar Mitzvah, baptism is an intensely physical experience. In addition to hearing the words that are spoken, the songs that are sung, the prayers that are prayed, a person’s whole body—head to toe—feels the water. None of us fully understands what all is happening at the moment of our baptism. The spiritual significance of baptism is mysterious and profound, encompassing the whole of the gospel. But even with our limited understanding, we will never forget. No one walks away from baptism unchanged. We know on a very deep physical and spiritual level that this event, this ritual, this act of faith, means something profound. Like the Bar Mitzvah, it stands in our memory as a moment we were marked, claimed, celebrated and commissioned.
We are forgetful creatures. But we believe in a God who graciously jogs our memories with events and rituals. These moments stand out bold in the fuzzy pages of our histories, reminding us for years to come, who we are and who loves us.