On the one hand, the symbols are just that — symbols. They are not the thing itself. The key to mysticism is that we believe our current “reality” is just one huge deception. There are glimpses of ultimate reality and truth here and there, but we use symbols from this world to point our focus on that otherworld.
Further, we have a vast corpus of ancient symbols in the Bible. They arose from a specific time, place and people. On the one hand, God built up those things from scratch as the proper setting to reveal Himself. The revelation itself comes with a context, and it’s our duty to God to learn something about that context so we can understand the revelation. There is a sense in which the packaging cannot be separated from the contents. If you don’t learn to think in Hebrew terms, you cannot understand the God who created all things, because He specifically chose that context to reveal Himself. It may not point out how God Himself thinks, but it’s how He demands we approach Him.
But we received that path of approach in order to transcend it all and commune with Him personally. The definition of Christian Mysticism is the firm conviction that we can and must commune with God directly on some level even before we leave this existence. The whole point of worship and ritual is to ascend to His throne in that fashion repeatedly until we go to be with Him eternally. The very concept of transcendence is that what we have here in this broken reality is not fully binding on us. We belong outside of this; we realize that we were not made for this. We come to a full grasp somewhere deep in our souls that what we have here and now was not what God intended.
That this drab existence is not reality means we cannot trust it much. Don’t get me wrong; Creation isn’t fallen — we are. We cannot interact with Creation honestly without some awakening. That is, we cannot take our cues from what our human existence here tells us without that awakening. Resting only in our senses and logic, we get a very badly skewed image of things. We have awakened in us a very different range of perception, a faculty far beyond sensory data and reason. That faculty sees and recognizes things our senses and reason cannot handle. So we have to unlearn the wrong perceptions and begin the process of healing our souls and learning the truth.
We discover instinctively that this ultimate reality and higher perception is also supremely personal and individual in nature. It’s alive; it’s a person in its own right. There’s a certain amount of uniformity inherent in existence itself, but it’s also intensely personal in experience. So there’s a mixture of things common and unique. There’s enough common that we can share it, but enough unique to make us realize that we are getting personal attention from our Creator.
No human has any business telling you how to mix that commonality and individuality in your life here below. And yet, we must honor the common revelation of God in His Son. We each strive to find our own individual path to the foot of the Cross, and lay our lives down at the feet of the true and living revelation made flesh. He wants a living sacrifice, so for at least a little while on this earth, we have to find ways to silence parts of us that don’t belong on the other side of eternity.
We use rituals as part of that process of silencing, and some rituals are repeated over and over because the fallen nature won’t stay dead as long as we bear this vessel of flesh. As long as we are still here, we have to renew certain elements of that connection. Inherent in our existence is a measure of moral entropy. We have to kill one part of us so the other parts can stay alive. That’s just how it is. So we engage in various physical acts that remind us to keep feeding the truth inside. Those physical acts don’t really change anything on their own, but a ritual engaged with a true heart of commitment serves to drag the fallen flesh nature along.
How much ritual do you need? Well, a certain minimum is prescribed in the Bible. We have this thing we call “communion” that involves some earthly symbols to represent the body and blood of Christ. You can look them up for yourself; start with 1 Corinthians 11:23-29. Notice that in Matthew 26, starting around verse 26, Jesus takes a portion of the ancient Seder meal and gives it a new meaning. The Seder arose from that Covenant of Moses, and a critical element in this scene is that Jesus shows the old covenant is about to end. His death on the Cross ended Moses; His resurrection gave birth to a whole New Covenant. He kept some of the old symbols to show that the old pointed to the new all along.
The old covenant was a context pointing to something universal. And we’ve already established that the universal is not also uniform; it’s that mixture of common and individual again. The question is not merely how much ritual do you need, but what kind of ritual? Obviously we have a biblical record of two rituals commanded in a rather straightforward fashion: baptism and communion. Others are hinted at, or recommended at various passages of life. With a very raucous and mixed tradition of 2000 years of Church History, you’d be rightly confused about rituals in following Christ. If you ask me, I think a whole bunch of stuff has been lost on the roadside, and all kinds of silly stuff picked up and added that don’t matter.
The origin is a shared meal with God. If you eat with someone, you have declared a peace treaty. The emphasis is on the higher authority inviting you to a peace meal to declare terms of covenant. In the case of our God, it’s also to declare terms of adoption into His family. But God has no physical form, so what we do is a ritual of all that.
Notice something here: If you live as a nomad and forager, none of our rituals fit. You can give thanks and eat “in His Presence” as it were, but the ancient rituals we have start with human existence after the birth of cultivation and domestication of food sources. In the Ancient Near East, the prime symbols of agriculture are bread and wine. By the way, the symbolism is pretty specific to yeast that’s removed, not chemical leavenings. Yet the drink is supposed to be fermented, not straight. Again, the symbolism is pretty specific on that. I suppose if you grew up in places like the American Heartland, maybe it’s more like apple cider and cornbread. Do you think it matters? Shape your rituals accordingly, but always seek a clear conscience. Don’t just try to be cute and make it a game. Take it seriously, yet don’t feel bound by someone else’s answer.
The worst thing you can do is neglect the rituals. Your heart knows what you need, but without some of that ritual repetition, you could forget who you are in serving Christ. That’s the whole point.