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La Cosa Nostra, The New Year, and Ritual : Sunday, December 31, 2017

The First Sunday after Christmas:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

In the early 1960s Joseph Valachi testified before a Senate Committee in the US. He was the first member of the Cosa Nostra, or Mafia, to publicly admit to that organization’s existence, bringing it out of the realm of myth and rumour and into the public sphere. And in those hearings he describes the Mafia’s initiation ceremony:

I sit down at the table. There is wine. Someone put a gun and a knife in front of me. The gun was a.38 and the knife was what we call a dagger. Maranzano [the boss] motions us up and we say some words in Italian. Then Joe Bonanno pricks my finger with a pin and squeezes until the blood comes out. What then happens, Mr. Maranzano says, “This blood means that we are now one Family. You live by the gun and the knife and you die by the gun and the knife. ”



Now, I’m bringing this up NOT just to whet your appetite for watching the Godfather trilogy over the holidays. And I am NOT, I repeat, not condoning the actions of the Mafia and what they’re all about. But even while we should certainly distance ourselves from worldwide crime syndicates, Valachi’s testimony might ring some bells for us. A table; wine; blood; words and motions. Even talk of those involved being part of one Family. A bit like how in a few minutes we’ll pray in our Eucharistic Prayer: “Gather into one all who share in these sacred mysteries…”

What Valachi’s testimony does help us to see, however, is that the life and practices of the Cosa Nostra are highly ritualistic. Because rituals are part of how people engage with the world. Rituals have a power to bring people together, convey deep meaning, and open us up to mysteries. I suspect that the weight — the life and death weight — of what Valachi was entering into would not have been communicated with the simple signing of a paper and pen contract.

And we need not go to such extreme examples to see rituals in our everyday lives. At our Christmas dinners and family gatherings many of us shared in yearly rituals, like popping Christmas crackers and donning tissue paper crowns.

A couple of years ago my frustration with televised baseball increased when I noticed just how often players adjusted their batting gloves when at the plate. It’s literally after every swing, or sometimes every pitch, that they undo and then re-velcro their gloves. I’m sure that it doesn’t make that much of a difference. But for many batters it’s a ritual. Maybe a mindless one. An unintentional one. A negative example perhaps. But again, speaking to the pervasiveness of ritual.

And of course as Christians we are deeply familiar with ritual. (You can’t spell “spiritual” without “ritual.”) We have rituals, or ceremonies, or sacraments, that tend to accompany us on our life journeys, associated with stages of life or decisive moments. (Thinking of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and so on.) And more and more, we’re seeing people who don’t want to “trouble their families” with funerals. We see how without that communal ritual of grieving, remembrance, and thanksgiving, people’s healing process is often hampered.

And in today’s Gospel story we see how the Holy Family is committed to ritual and tradition. Two separate rituals — one related to birth in general, and another for the birth of the first-born son. Scholars will tell us that Luke seems to confuse or conflate these two separate rituals. And to us today, they might not make complete sense according to our worldview. But to Joseph and Mary they did make sense in some way, speaking to the miracle of new life, but also of how in that birthing event, mothers — and newborns themselves — came perilously close to death. These were events of such import that they could only be marked by ritual.

Tonight we’ll be reminded of various secular rituals associated with the coming in of the New Year. (Tonight I suspect I will ritualistically doze off around 11:30.) And while I’m aware that the New Year is not a church observance per se, it is a part of our context today, on the 31st of December. And, as a congregation, it is not just worth marking, but probably terribly important for the health of our congregation to simply take a moment to note that this past year (or year and a few weeks) has been a time of change and new beginnings at St. Andrew’s. But also, for some, a time of grieving. A time, I’m sure, of different responses and processing, as varied as the number of people there are in the pews.

And so, as you’ve probably seen in the worship guide, I’m proposing that we mark the passing of this last year with a ritual of sorts. An extension of the sacramental ritual of Communion. During that time when we share in Communion, I encourage you to search your heart. You might identify something that you recognize you need to leave behind. It could be something for which you’re thankful, or something for which you’re not. Something that’s part of your life as an individual; or as part of this community of faith. Or you might feel called to take something new on, or simply, to entrust a matter to God.

During Communion — either before or after coming forward to the altar rails — you’re welcome to get up and place that small insert sheet into the container just outside the worship space. Don’t feel any pressure, of course. But if you would find it helpful, consider it. And then after Communion we’ll have that container brought forward, and all of our responses prayed over, and then burnt, as a symbol of our openness to God and God’s ways as we embark on a new year.

As Paul wrote to the church in Galatia: “You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God.”

May we each find freedom and new life in the coming year. Amen.

© 2017 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter