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Rituals of Transition

Updated: Jul 6




Recently I witnessed the liturgical rite of transition of a much-loved pastor and his wife, retiring from active, full-time Christian ministry. 


This special Sunday morning service was reverently planned and carried out in every detail–including the lovingly arranged flower displays, in their full-bloom. It was evident that many parishioners had contributed much of their time and talents in the planning and execution of every detail. 


The music and scripture readings, such as the Ecclesiastes passage: “for everything there is a season,” were selected as appropriate to the occasion. And has always been the demeanor of this priest; his fine sensibilities emanated forth as he served the Eucharist with reverence. 


Happily, there were some lighter moments too, such as when the pastor asked us all to “turn around and wave at the camera,” to those watching via the livestream. I’ll bet our virtual friends were delighted and certainly weren’t expecting that!  Maybe we should do this every Sunday morning. 

 

There followed a reception for the pastor and his wife, in the packed-out parish hall, which gently flowed over the course of several hours. There was no sense of hurry to “get the task done and get out of here.” A generous, sensory-popping food-line was laid out-–the likes of which none of our Baptist brothers and sisters could compete. 


The reception included happy musical selections and skits, composed and performed by talented parishioners. The pastor and his wife were duly roasted with playful teasing, joking and nostalgic memories. Several of the pastor’s clergy colleagues were in attendance to enjoy the happy occasion with him.


Many brought gifts to the reception, which were opened for all to share in the joy.  For weeks prior, parishioners had been invited to send money gifts–to be collected and given to this pastor and his wife–as a love offering–upon their retirement. I am easily convinced that the parishioners were exceedingly generous in our love gifts; because the love felt for this pastor and his wife is incalculable. 


In the concluding service rites, the priest laid his church property keys on the altar, along with his healing oils, chrism and other symbols of his office. Then he slipped off his chasuble over his head, and lovingly draped it over the altar railing. And then ad Orientem, in surrender, adoration and devotion, he knelt for a long time, for the last time, in front of the altar at which he’d served faithfully for many years. 


The emotional pulse in the nave and sanctuary was palpable. I imagined other parishioners’ sentiments were as complex and nuanced as mine. 


To achieve the stage of life called “retirement,” in possession of one’s good health, spouse and family, are graces–some would say luck–not granted to everyone. 


To voluntarily retire from one’s full-time profession–to leave at the top of one’s game–on one’s own terms–is supreme. 


To have achieved that stage in life where one has the wherewithal to be able to truly live an authentic life–to be and to speak without the requirement to care the slightest flip what anyone thinks about who you are, and what you believe, and what you might opine–is among life’s greatest gifts, if you can recognize it. 


To be able to look back over one’s life with reasonable satisfaction in one's accomplishments and overcomings–-this is a place in life to be like no other–and one to which not everyone attains. 


Therefore I was happily bursting with congratulations for the pastor and his wife, because for them, all these things and more, are true. They made it to this milestone; and now they are free in every sense, to seek new adventures, new meanings of life and new purposes in living, without the usual fetters. What could be a more glorious event to celebrate?! 


At the same time, like everyone else, I was so sorrowful to see them leave; I would lovingly miss them, as “my” clergy team. 


We don’t do rituals of transition well in our culture today. Mostly, we don’t do them at all. Not many would voluntarily give so much of themselves to plan such an event. It requires too much love, which we don’t see much on display these days, it seems. 


Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed some utterly cringeworthy retirement events; and I had determined early on that such would never, ever be my experience.


For example, after a lifetime of faithful service, a retiree is given a coffee mug, and summarily “thrown out,” and ripped off the email distribution list. His ID badge and business cards are demanded. In many (most?) instances we do not plan appropriate retirement events, at appropriate venues. We don’t give appropriate gifts indicating that even a moment’s thought as to the retiree’s life, accomplishments, and interests, had been considered. 


Many don’t know what to say or what to do; and have no motivation to consider such trivialities. Such would require too much time and reflection upon the individual retiree's life. Such would require too much loving attentiveness, and be too much of a bother. 


Rituals of transition are important in making sense of our lives. They mark coveted milestones; and for many persons, they are achieved after significant struggles to just “make it,” to said milestone. 


The exhortation to: “say the black and do the red” gives us metaphorical as well as real structure, when we don’t know what to say or what to do. 


Rituals of transition mark important stages in our lives that are significant not only for those who are respectfully recognized; but also for those who witness a solemn ritual of transition. From birth to death, rituals of transition give meaning to life’s passages, and attenuate our propensity to lose faith, and to despair that life is meaningless and inconsequential. 


If I could give you a gift, it would be that you too might participate in just such a poignant, rite of passage experience, where nuanced, complex, heart-choking emotions of our common humanity are born-–both from and within the overarching, all encompassing, spirit of Love. 

 

© 2024 Blaine Paxton Hall

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