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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker

Little Rituals and Time

Humans do some rather interesting things when we gather together in groups. We fight, sing, pretend, talk, drink, and so on. When we gather together in common interest or identity, as we do in faith communities or around niche hobbies or at sporting events, some wonderfully symbolic (and deceptively practical) group activities can come to life. When I was in college, for instance, spectators at a football game were tied together in our wearing the right colors, singing the right songs, making the right lewd hand gestures at the referees at the right times. We were certainly tied together by shared interest (our team winning), but we were also united in our corporate participation in symbolic performance, an affective being-together and paradigm setting for unity and (a very stereotypical kind of) victory.

What I am describing is the liturgical. Liturgy, defined by my teacher Theodore W. Jennings Jr., is a set or cycle of rituals intended for public or corporate performance, especially in a religious setting (I am drawing my research from his entry on Liturgy in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 8, ed. Mircea Eliade, which can be found on Internet Archive--a website everyone should know about). Liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia, "an act or work performed by or for the people") is a shared physical, verbal, and sometimes religious vocabulary and structure by which people live, gather, question, perform, and reinforce elements of communal life. It typically develops over many generations of appropriations and alterations (one religion borrowing from a parent religion, urban people assigning new meaning to agrarian rituals, etc.), but it also serves a variety of important, practical purposes. Jennings defines four: temporalization (marking time), socialization (reflecting and engendering corporate identity), coordinating (bringing together a variety of levels of experience), and setting forth paradigms (establishing examples and experiences of right action). There's a lot more to consider there than fits in a short essay, but I was recently reminded of a wonderful illustration of how ritual structures time that is worth considering.

First, it is essential to establish more clearly what is meant by "temporalization." For Jennings, it is evident that liturgy helps to structure time and helps humans to find meaning in it. Many priestly, textual, or ritual cycles have been coordinated with phases of the moon or different seasons of the harvest (or both). Liturgical structures are often yearly or have some yearly aspect to them, but they often transcend mere years. The Christian lectionary is read over three years, Leviticus 25 establishes a fifty year cycle for Judaism, and some indigenous American religions have cycles even longer than that. Moving into religious conception of history, apocalyptic speculation has long been an essential piece in the consideration of "eras" whether religiously or politically. "A principle effect of liturgy, then, is to structure time, thereby making it available for conscious experience and intellectual comprehension" (582).

There is an unbelievably relevant episode of the Cartoon Network series Teen Titans GO! that illustrates this very accessibly.

I will relentlessly stan Teen Titans GO! I haven't even seen the whole series or the movie, but I had the opportunity to watch it over my girlfriend's brother's shoulder relatively often when he was young enough to be the target demographic. It's incredible. Smartly, the show avoids trying to rekindle the drama of the original animated series and takes the Titans in a totally different direction. It's a sitcom for younger kids that is blissfully lesson-free and often quite high-concept. In fact, it reminds me more of NBC's cult classic Community than any piece of self-important DC animation. Sometimes, the show's commitment to relationally and conceptually interesting but not overly moralistic storytelling produces very interesting and unique results.

There is an episode of Teen Titans GO! in which the Titans ignore (or in Raven's case, forget) Beast Boy's birthday. The Titans don't like others' birthdays. They are boring and gross and only one person gets presents. Raven catches on right at the last minute that everyone else is avoiding celebrating for Beast Boy and tries to stop what she knows will be a catastrophe before midnight. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the Titans' unwillingness to go along with tradition and the absence of "Happy Birthday" from the public domain, the team is unable to properly celebrate Beast Boy's birthday before midnight. Trouble ensues.

Beast Boy is unmoored from time because the universe cannot make sense of how old he is without the liturgical involvement of the Titans, whose birthday celebration would have saved Beast Boy from being phased through different stages of life. The team's mission leads them to the center of the universe, where they have a limited time to fulfill all the proper ritual actions and save their friend.

When I saw this episode I was shocked at its seeming awareness of Jennings' writing on liturgy and temporalization. The idea that humans need shared symbolic experience to help us make sense of who we are and when we are, and how our knowledge of these inform our roles in our communities, is very easily and hilariously encapsulated. And the show does so with proper acknowledgement to the symbolic and the sacred within the "profane" ritual of birthday celebration.

Its invitation to liturgical reflection also invites us to examine where we are and what temporal thresholds we may be crossing more generally. We are all emerging into new epochs all the time—and leaving others behind. The march upward or onward or sideways through time can be exhausting and disorienting and terrifying. It is good, then, to gather with friends and to do the symbolic, gross, transcendent, or just ordinary, and to weather that journey in solidarity, common recognition, and celebration.

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