Rites of Passage
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17
Rites of passage, which used to be a common element in many cultures, are a form of dying before we die. They are methods of recognizing the end of one phase of life while celebrating the entry into another. One common and sometimes brutal rite of passage occurred with males in their teenage years. The ceremony symbolized the passage from childhood into adulthood. There were often elaborate and extended procedures whereby the young person had to prove themselves worthy of transitioning to life as an adult. A significant period of time alone in the wilderness, for example, might be required where the initiate would have to depend on his own resourcefulness to survive. Sometimes taking a spirit journey with psychedelics was a part of the process. Extended time alone to face one’s fears and assess how best to move forward into the new life was expected. It was also a time to determine what childish baggage would be left behind in order to make the transition into adulthood. These were serious, difficult, and often dangerous passages intended to kill off one’s old, childish tendencies so the inner adult could emerge.
These types of rites of passage were typically only for the males in a culture. Childbirth was considered the rite of passage for females. The nine months of pregnancy, the increasing challenges to mobility, and the hours of labor pains culminating in the birth of another human being could not help but transition a person into a new phase of life. The years of motherhood itself, typically concluding with menopause (a rite of passage of its own) was another phase of being where one’s life was focused on the nurture and care of other lives at the expense of one’s own. Post-menopausal women were often expected to become female elders for the younger females, which was yet another transition into a new phase of life. Each significant transition was marked by a rite of passage.
There are organizations today that require going through an initiation ceremony, but most are a far cry from what was required in more traditional rites of passage. Typically these organizational initiations require an oath that verbally aligns the intent of the initiate with that of the organization. Sometimes these oaths are accompanied by the learning of a secret password or some other private symbol of membership into an organization that serves to set itself apart from the rest of society in some meaningful way or purpose. Fraternities and sororities became notorious for hazing ceremonies for new pledges, although many of these more resembled excuses for excessive partying and humiliation of freshmen than legitimate representations of a passage into a new phase of life. The common thread among many initiations, as with other rites of passage, is the secrecy within which they are typically completed. Only other members are allowed to witness these ceremonies. Initiations are toned-down versions of traditional rites of passage that signify dying to one’s former life as a non-member and being reborn into a new life as a member.
Rites of passage are not always secret, dangerous, or difficult, however. Nor are those elements always required to affirm one’s passage from phase to phase in life. Indeed, in today’s litigious society, conducting such ceremonies comes at the risk of bankrupting an organization, morally and financially. We regularly witness public and safe rites of passage in religious settings with baptisms, confirmations, marriages, the issuing of last rites, and funerals, each of which signifies a death to the old and a birth of the new. Baptism symbolizes the washing away of the old self, allowing the beginning of the new self in God. Confirmations initiate a person into a new life as part of a worship community. Marriage symbolizes the death of life with one’s parents or as a single person and the birth of life into a committed union. Funerals are a rite of passage for the living, signifying a passage into life without the departed loved one.
The ultimate symbolism of rites of passage are their representation of our physical death. Life after the initiation continues, albeit in a changed way, just as our lives continue after our physical death, albeit in a changed way. While we can usually imagine what our new life will be like post-initiation, our life after our physical death remains invisible and mysterious to us. Regardless, rites of passage are important milestones that mark one’s growth and development, signifying an end and ushering in a new beginning.
This is the 47th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.