One of the thing I frequently heard as my ordination date approached was that ordination is recognition by an official authority of what God has already called me to and done in my life. The ordination ceremony therefore, although a joyous occasion and poignant reminder of what it means to be called by God to any ministry, is “just a ceremony.” I appreciate where these folks are coming from. For sure, ordination starts in the eternal will of God and his election of certain people to certain ministries within the Church. But we can’t discount the importance of the ceremony itself as instrumental in the process of that calling.
Take marriage, for example. There is a sense in which wedding ceremonies are a celebration of the love that has already developed between the man and wife – it would indeed be silly to claim that a couple isn’t truly in love until the moment they get hitched. However, it is true that they aren’t married until they make their vows and the minister declares them to be married. The relationship, intention, and love preexists, but the actual marriage begins in the ceremony. If we were to say that marriage really began earlier and the ceremony is “just a ceremony,” then why should we make such a big deal about sex before marriage? Fact is, marriage is an actual thing with a beginning point in time.
The same is true for ordination. The calling and gifting from God goes back some years – perhaps even into eternity past within the timeless will of God for all I know. But the ordination actually happens in the ceremony. I may have been called to be a priest for a while beforehand, but I was not a priest until somewhere around 5:00pm this past Sunday. The ordination was, in a sense, a confirmation of what God was already doing in and upon my life, but that work was realized (made into reality) in the ceremony, just as a committed love relationship is made into a marriage during a wedding ceremony.
The other things that we call sacraments or sacramental rites follow the same pattern. The Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of people before they even know it, but he doesn’t come to dwell within us until we’re actually baptized. In Holy Communion, the ceremony isn’t just a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifice is made real to us anew and all the benefits of Christ’s suffering & death & resurrection are actually given (hence communicated) to those who receive him in bread and wine.
And so on and so forth.
I don’t write this to rebuke the well-meaning encouragements that people give one another at ordinations and the like. Rather, I simply want to point out that when it comes to the worship and ministry of the Church, there is rarely such thing as “just a ceremony.” The Holy Spirit is too powerful and active let such moments go to waste!