I’ve come to depend on the University of St Andrews’s time-honored graduation ritual to give sense and order to my academic year. The wearing of gowns, recitation of Latin, and tapping of heads with an ancient cap, these have no intrinsic value. But each year, the principal of the university begins by explaining their meaning, and, infused with renewed significance, the ceremony transforms graduands into graduates.
Graduation is canceled this year due to the pandemic, so alternative means must mark the occasion. Physical presence is important but has never been required—plenty graduate in absentia and receive their diplomas on the authority of the principal’s words.
What happens, though, when ritual requires physical presence?
Christians are poignantly confronting this question during Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, we traditionally gather to recount the Last Supper and re-enact it by sharing Communion. But during a pandemic, absence alters the ritual.
Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was a Jewish Passover—a meal always commemorated in person. Passover was a pilgrimage festival, meaning that Jews traveled from all over to Jerusalem to celebrate.
The original Passover was God’s opening act of redemption (Ex. 12). Israelites smeared sacrificial lambs’ blood on their doorposts to be spared from judgment and ate hurried meals from the roasted meat with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then God led his liberated people out of Egypt through the wilderness to worship at Mount Sinai. At first, they worshipped remotely. God descended onto the mountain in a terrible thundercloud, and Moses constructed a crowd-control barrier to keep people from deadly ...1
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