Reviving Our Rituals:
Is Symbolism in the Ordinances Enough?
Dr. David W. Manner
Charles Dickens told the story of an orphaned nine-year-old boy Oliver Twist. Oliver and scores of other orphans toiled in the miserable existence of a workhouse. The boys worked long hours subsisting on three paltry meals of gruel, a watery food substance of unknown character offering little nutritional value. On one occasion, the boys drew lots to determine who would represent them to ask for more food. Oliver was selected and timidly moved forward with his bowl in his hands to make the famous request, “Please sir, I want some more.” One of his caretakers shrieked, “What? … More?” And Oliver was chased around the dining hall tables by a band of well-fed caretakers.
Our understanding of symbolism and how it relates to the ordinances (ie. baptism and communion) has degenerated into a substance of unknown character offering little nutritional value. We know we have a spiritual mandate to participate in these ordinances, yet we often wonder, “Is this all there is?” Can we ask for more within the parameters of our doctrine, denomination, embedded theological understanding, and history without fear of being chased around the table and font by a band of well-fed doctrinal caretakers?
Kenneth Chafin wrote, “For many, observing the ordinances has become so routine that they no longer call forth the reality they symbolize.” Chafin continued by reminding congregations that, “There is a need to discover them again with such freshness that it would be like experiencing them for the first time.” Symbolism is the use of text, images, procedures, or actual physical objects to represent an idea or belief. We observe the ordinances as an act of obedience and symbolic remembrance. Observance is both an act performed for religious or ceremonial reasons; and the act of regarding attentively or watching. Both definitions and our actions in response to those definitions can often leave us feeling like outsiders looking in.
To illustrate on a personal level, as a result of my daughter leaving for her freshman year of college last year I am in the midst of a new season of remembrance. I miss the opportunities to spend time with her while she is away from home. In an effort to remember, I often observe her photograph on my desk or in my wallet. I also occasionally step into her bedroom just for a few moments to remember. Her photograph symbolizes her likeness, but her room symbolizes her life. Spending time in the midst of the twenty years of mementos scattered around her room allows me to enter in and live again in the remembrance and symbolism of her life. Sometimes living in the symbolism causes me to remember, grieve, and weep…at other times I remember and laugh out loud. When I live in that symbolism I discover that the remembrance is rarely manifested in the same way twice. That is why I return for more.
Wanting more will require worshipers to transform from the casual practice of just observing the ordinances to actually entering in and living in the symbolism and remembrance of those ordinances. Living in the symbolism does not change the physical characteristics of the elements…it changes us. Living in the symbolism allows us not only to remember Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, but also remember how those events impacted and continually impact our lives. When we live in the symbolism of the ordinances we remember that the story is not just Jesus’ story but also our story as we are invited to step into Jesus’ story. Living in the symbolism reminds us that the final chapter is yet to come and we get to be a part of the unfolding of that story as insiders, not just casual observers.
Once we grasp the magnitude of living in the symbolism and remembrance we will never again have to ask “Is this all there is?” In fact, we may actually receive immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). That is why we must return and ask for more.
Dr. David Manner is director of worship and administration for the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists.
 Kenneth Chafin, “Discovering and Preaching the Ordinances Again for the First Time,” in Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, ed. Walter B. Shurden (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1999), 129.