Why Ritual Prayers ?
Jesus prayed ritual prayers. The Jewish Passover service, which was called the Haggadah, that Jesus prayed on Holy Thursday is a long ritual prayer. One of the prayers in it is called the Great Hallel, Psalm 136. In it the phrase “God’s mercy endures forever” is repeated 26 times.
Actually there is a human need to ritualize the important events in our lives.
Words which we use to communicate are very limited in that they primarily convey intellectual concepts. However, the needs of the human heart go far beyond just the need to convey intellectual perceptions. We have emotional and spiritual needs. For example, we need: to love, and to be loved. We need: to be needed, to trust, to be trusted, to be important and have self worth, to belong to a community or family, etc. And we need to express our love and our compassion in meaningful ways.
What do we do on wedding anniversaries ? We get special chocolates, turn down the lights, put on soft music, and have a quiet dinner on special dishes on a table that has a table cloth and candles. Perhaps the gentleman gets down on his knee and professes his undying love to his beloved and says the words, “I love you.”
What do we do on birthdays ? We get a cake, and candles, turn out the lights, and sing a song. We sing the same song every year, every birthday. We all know the words to the song. The birthday person knows what we are going to say, and yet we say it anyway.
At graduations we have speeches. We call out the names of those graduating and have them stroll across the stage to receive a piece of paper with a ribbon tied around it and they receive a handshake.
At Christmas time we have Christmas trees, presents, tinsel, lights, caroling, eggnog, and special songs.
In summary, we ritualize these events because they are special and words alone cannot convey the depth of meaning that these events have in our lives. By ritualizing these events we express the depth of importance that these people to whom these events are directed have for us. Without rituals words alone are very limited in what they convey. A person can say, “I do” and it does not necessarily mean a whole lot, however if he says those words in front a minister and his fiancee as he puts a ring on her finger it changes his life forever.
Our worship must also be expressed in meaningful ways that go beyond just what words can say. So, we have need for ritualized prayer. For more on ritualized ceremonies in our own culture see the book Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard.
Isn’t spontaneous prayer from the heart better then ritualized prayer ?
In order to pray effectively we should say it with faith, that is, from the heart. However, that is not to say that ritual pray is not or cannot be from the heart. It does take effort to mean it from the heart as we say the words. And yet, to say spontaneous prays that are deep and balanced in their theology and which are not repetitive is probably even harder, and on some occasions our best of efforts will fail us. By ritualizing prayers Jews and Christians convey a special meaning that those prayers have and they convey the connection that these events have with the special events of salvation history. They bring to mind what God did then and help us to realize what we know by faith that He is doing now.