Christ is sufficient. That’s Paul’s message to the church in Colossae. I’ll return to this in a second, but first I want to point out the neat story of the Colossian church’s founding (and, to be honest) give myself an excuse to include a map.*
On his third journey, as we recall, Paul spent a few years living in Ephesus and guiding the church there. It appears that sometime during that stay, a man from Colossae (a smaller town just up the Meander river**) called Epaphras visited the Ephesian church and came away encouraged to start a church in Colossae. It’s to this satellite church that Paul writes.
As is becoming old hat for Paul, he is counseling a church to avoid the influence of a false teacher. This one is trying to infuse elements of magic and the occult into the Colossian church. Paul emphasizes to them that there are no charms, no tricks to being in fellowship with God. Christ is enough. There is no ‘Christ-and’. Just Christ.
This has prompted me to reexamine my growing appreciation of ritual, particularly those which the church coopted from pagan traditions as it spread into Europe. A seasonally relevant example would be structurig the church calendar so that the two biggest holidays correspond to the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.*** The argument against this ‘mixing’ of the sacred with the pagan stands on its own, particuarly if you read Colossians. But I want to offer two defenses:
First, there’s Lewis’ argument about how pagan myths and superstitions are not invented out of whole cloth but in some way capture an element of the truth of God. They’re still sinful wrong in themselves, but we can see in them the imprint of the gospel worldwide. Take the examples above. The winter solstice is that point of the year in which the sun is lowest in the southern sky (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), and the days are shortest and nights are longest. That we would celebrate the Incarnation of God on a saving mission to a fallen and broken world on the darkest day of the year, the day after which every day gets brighter and the sun gets higher, does not seem so odd, does it? Or that we would celebrate the saving death and resurrection of Christ on that date in the calendar when the daylight surpasses the darkness, after which the light will subdue the darkness? That doesn’t seem thoroughly cynical to me.
Second, while Christ is logos, the pure truth, we humans are fallen. We tie strings around our fingers to help us remember things we have to do. We come up with mnemonic devices to help us remember important concepts. We lack the capacity to contain in our minds at all time the perfect truth and peace of the gospel of Christ. That we should wear a rosary, or say specific vows in a wedding ceremony, or repeat the Lord’s prayer, or stick to a daily routine of devotional time, does not have to be a rejection of Christ in favor of something manmade, a trick to gain salvation. Our rituals are processes that tie us, as broken humans, to the divine truth. They, however incompletely, bridge the gap that exists between our imperfect faith on earth and our perfect righteousness in God’s eyes. As long as we stay mindful that the rituals are not God, they can be used by Him in our lives to His glory and our good.
Now, do you notice what I did there? I went from occult to coopted pagan holidays to daily devotions. The same? Not quite. I don’t think that there is a God-honoring way to dabble in occult or magic. So I don’t ultimately disagree with Paul. What I disagree with is the necessary extension of his logic against heretical elements to cover good faith rituals, regardless of origin, that have arisen in the lives of Christians over the last 2000 years.
* As if I’ve ever needed one before…
** Etymology note: how fast and straight do you think that river flows?
*** Come to think of it, that’s probably not how we determine Easter’s date each year, but I can neither make heads nor tails of it…