Religion as a Window on Culture

THINGS TO DO IN ADVANCE

Allow time to view the video and review this section of the leader’s guide before meeting with your class. Determine what you will cover in the available class time.  Plan for any of the Optional Activities you would like to use and how you will integrate the work with the class.  Acquaint yourself with any terms that are unfamiliar (see glossary). Consult with members of your clergy when appropriate.  Finally, duplicate any materials you plan to distribute to the group.
PURPOSE OF THIS SESSION (5 minutes)

Prepare your group to watch the video.  (Read or paraphrase)

This episode examines sacred memory as expressed in the form of ritual.  A ritual is a ceremonial action performed in religious observance, such as a reenactment of a sacred story or idea. Think about your experiences in your faith tradition.  What is your earliest memory associated with your religious belief?  What is your most “memorable” memory?  What is your most “sacred” memory? Were rituals a part of these memories?

Direct responses towards memories of the faith tradition, house of worship, of activities within the faith tradition.  Note that participants’ earliest memories may be of a different faith tradition.

All religions have sacred memories that carry the faith from generation to generation.  These memories can be conveyed in rituals, which transform the believers’ view of life and the world.  Many of these memories are observed as holy days or seasons.  Most patterns of sacred memory are cyclical in nature, occurring over the course of a year and repeated every year.

These designated times provide balance and a measure of predictability both to religious life and to its intersection with secular life.  Rituals call to mind a particular event or revelation important to the religion.  These recurring themes insure that future generations will be exposed to the most important events, beliefs, and memories of the religion.

Sacred memory looks back into history, views the present in light of what has happened and how it has come to be understood theologically, and looks to the future to bring it into focus in hope and faith.

SHOW EPISODE IV

Allow time for members of the group to discuss what they have seen before proceeding with the rest of the discussion.

SACRED MEMORY IN RITUAL (10 minutes)

Many sacred memories as preserved in ritual correspond to a faith tradition’s most holy days.  Ritual is an effective way in which people can pass their most important sacred memories down from one generation of believers to the next.  These rituals often depict important events in the development of a religion.

Name several holy days of your faith tradition.  Consider the following points for one or more of your holy days:

  • Why are these days considered sacred?
  • How are they commemorated?
  • Are they primarily celebrations, times for contemplation, solemn occasions, or a combination of these and other traits?
  • Describe the rituals that surround the observance of these holy days?
  • What do rituals ask you to remember about your religious history?
  • What functions do they serve in your congregation and in your personal life?

In the video you are given the opportunity to see rituals from a number of faith traditions.  At Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church, you will see Orthodox Christian women and children ritually decorating the bier in preparation for Holy Week.

  • Does your congregation ritually decorate any parts of your building for special days?
  • Does your worship service have a different “look” at various points on the religious calendar?  Why?

Note the changing of the colors of garments worn by members of the clergy.  For some congregations that observe Easter, dark garments such as purple are worn until Easter when it is believed that Jesus rose from the dead.  At that point garments and altar decoration are changed for lighter colors, often white.

At St. Anthony Catholic Church you will see the faithful being marked with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, and you will see paste and rice being placed on the foreheads of Hindu believers at the India Community Center on the holy day of Rama-puja.

  • Are there any similar rituals that your faith tradition practices?

In the Jewish tradition a Seder dinner takes place in homes during Passover in observance of the Jewish liberation from Egypt.  Over dinner, the story of Exodus is recounted. In this video, you will see the participation of the family in marking this sacred memory.  The meal itself is ritualized.  On the plate are foods that symbolize aspects of Passover: unleavened bread since the Israelites did not have time to wait for yeast bread to rise; an egg symbolizing new life; a lamb bone for the blood of the lamb that was daubed on door posts as a signal to the angel of death to “pass over” their home; horseradish to stand for the bitter memory of slavery; and salt water as a symbol of the tears of the people.

  • Does your faith tradition celebrate any sacred memories in a similar fashion?

Many Christians have various ways of commemorating the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples.  While it seems a symbolic reenactment, believers consider it to be a transformation to the actual event of the past.  Different denominations practice this ritual in various ways, with different frequency, and call it by different names such as the Eucharist, Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper.

CHANGES IN RITUALS AND RELIGIOUS CALENDARS (10 minutes)

It may be helpful to discuss the history of ritual in your faith tradition with a member of your clergy before addressing this issue.

  • How has the observance of ritual changed over time in your faith tradition?  In the last few years? the last century? the last millennium?

For example, many religions in medieval times observed a holy day every few days.

  • When was the last holy day added to your religion’s calendar, and why?
  • Is it likely that more holy days may be added to your faith tradition in the future?

Why or why not?

  • What kinds of events or historical happenings might make adding a holy day more likely?
  • Are there any holy days that could be added to the religious calendar of your faith?

IMPACT OF HOLY DAYS ON SECULAR LIFE (5 minutes)

  • What holy days have become secular holidays?
  • How have schools and employers responded to the holidays of faith traditions that have not been “officially” recognized?
  • Should more holy days be recognized in the school and work settings?  How could this be accomplished?

HOLY DAYS OF “OTHER FAITH” TRADITIONS (5 minutes)

  • Why is it important to be aware of the religious practice of other religious faiths?
  • What is the purpose of talking about the holy days of other faiths and their meanings?

LIGHT IN RITUAL OBSERVANCE (5 minutes)

Many religions use “light” as a basic component of ritualized observances.  If this is true of your faith tradition:

  • List observances in which light is used.
  • What does light represent in these observances?
  • In what memories or rituals is light most commonly used?

CONCLUDING THOUGHT

You probably participate in several rituals of a sacred nature outside of your congregational setting.  Take time to review your actions each day in a variety of settings.  What takes place before you begin eating a meal with the family?  What do you do in preparation for bed or going to work or school?

Note:  Some viewers may notice the absence of prayer shawls or tallits during the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur.  The synagogue in which holy day observances could be videotaped was a reformed congregation where such garments are not worn.

In the video, the narrator refers twice to the birth of Rama Puja.  Rama is the name for a Hindu deity, an incarnation of Vishnu.  Puja is an observance or form of Hindu worship.

 

SESSION IV—OPTIONAL ACTIVITIES

Select a group of volunteers to explore holy days and their various meanings.

OPTION I

Prepare a list of different local religions.  Assign a person to each different religion.  That person is to go to a library and or contact someone from that faith and prepare a list of that religion’s holy days and their origin.  The group will then report their findings after the video.  Lead a discussion of the nature and importance of holy days in perpetuating faith and in protecting the faith’s directives.

Option II

Create a set of large cards or posters on which special days of celebration in your faith tradition are depicted.  After the video, have members of your class arrange the cards in order to illustrate the order of your faith’s calendar.