Rituals of Intention

Rites of Passage

The operative word that gets used in describing rites of passage that we UU ministers do is often "celebration."  A baby blessing is a 'celebration' of a new life; the wedding is a 'celebration' of a marriage; a memorial service is the 'celebration' of the life of the deceased. 

I have to admit that I find the word "celebration" to be insubstantial when talking about liturgy; it seems one-dimensional.

I have been thinking lately about framing these liturgical events as a community honoring the intentions of people at some of the transitional moments of life.  

I started thinking about the intentions of the wedding couple while preparing weddings.  What are we all (the community -- the congregation) doing here at this ceremony.  It occurred to me that we were really witnessing and honoring the intentions of the couple to be faithful partners to each other for life.  We gather to witness the vows and promises that they make to each other.  Yes, we are celebrating their love, but many people are in love.   We are honoring their intentions. 

Intentions became the key for unlocking deeper meaning in the baby blessing.  Religious liberals have had trouble with baby blessings (just witness the number of names that we use to describe the ritual: baptism, dedication, christening, baby blessing.  

I have an liturgical element in both the weddings that I perform and the baby blessings I do.  I learned this from Rev. Barbara Merritt.  I ask the couple at a wedding, and the parents and godparents at a baby blessing, to prepare promises for the occasion in their own words.  Each participant.  The wedding couple tells them each other.  The parents tell them to the baby.  

Hearing all these promises over the years made me aware that people were bringing their best intentions to the moment: to be faithful and patient with each other, to be loving and generous parents to their children. 

These intentions are deep and solemn work.  They are resolutions against time and events and the uncertainty of life.  To promise to love one's child unconditionally is an intention that may be impossible to fulfill.  Fidelity in marriage have proven over time to be only a possibility.  The phrase  "til death do us part" foreshadows unimaginable grief at a time of great joy.  It is a promise not made lightly. 

Now, I am thinking about memorial services, and I think that memorial services are also promises and intentions made against eternity.  The community gathers to make a collective pledge to never forget the one who died, and to 'be there' for those who mourn.  I am wondering whether some ritual element of intentions could be worked into a memorial service.
When I start thinking about rites of passage as collective rituals honoring intentions, more rituals suggest themselves to me.  The divorce ritual, which always seemed to be grotesque when thought of with the word "celebration" is better framed as a ritual of intention.  The divorcing couple are bringing their intentions for a new and healthier post-marriage relationship, and the community is their witnesses.  


  1. I find it interesting that you appear to have chosen just one sense of "celebration," finding the word unsuitable for liturgical use, when it has been used of the Roman Catholic Mass, often paired with the word "solemn" since the Trinity was being gestated.

    The verb "celebrate" together with nominal and adjectival forms refers also to performance of a sacrament or ceremony, honoring by means of a sacred ceremony, and holding up for public notice. I think the word ""celebration" is a very good word - but not the only word - for the liturgical ceremonies you mention.

    And as for divorce, if "celebration" just sounds too crass when paired with "divorce" then maybe the question is what the celebration is about, really. Is it really about a legal decree? Or is it about acceptance of the reality that impermanence, which is central to human experience, provides opportunities for validation of past experience, of decisions reached, and of future possibilities. All of those sound like things to celebrate, both solemnly and raucously.


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