Stacey, Scott O'Grady's sister, was worried about him when he was missing in action. She said, "When you're not in control of a situation that involves a person you love with all your heart, you go crazy. You grasp for hope and a prayer." She could not see him, talk to him, or give him a hug. All she could do was to hug her brother's old and worn teddy bear, explaining later, "You cling to whatever you can." (Time, June 19, 1995, p. 26). Stacey had no access to Scott because he was out of reach.
Finally Scott managed to communicate by radio with an American pilot flying over Bosnia. The pilot could not see O'Grady, but he could communicate with him. There was access, but it was limited.
As sinful, mortal human beings we cannot see God. Our direct access to God was cut off when Satan "shot down" the human race by deceiving Adam and Eve. Because Adam and Eve sinned, they were banished from Eden and could not approach God as they had before (Gen 3:22-24).
We have lost our access, but not totally. God has been reaching out to us through messages recorded in the Bible, through Christ, who came to live with us, and through His Holy Spirit. Even though we cannot physically see God, we can reach out to Him through prayer, just as O'Grady could talk to a pilot flying an F-16 high above Bosnia.
Another limited way people have interacted with God is through rituals. An Israelite could come to the sanctuary, the "tent of meeting" (Lev 1:1, 3, 5), and give something tangible to God to express his/her devotion, thanks, or desire to receive forgiveness. God received the offering even though His hand did not appear from the sky to take it.
The sanctuary was a controlled environment that made interaction possible in spite of the separation between God and human beings. It was somewhat like the glass "bubbles" devised by modern medical science to protect people whose bodies lack functional immune systems. A few years ago there was such a "bubble boy," who would have died if he had ventured out of the environment that isolated him from germs. Through his bubble he could see people, talk to them, and come close to them. But he could not touch them or even sit on his mother's lap.
In the Israelite sanctuary, God came as close to His people as possible. But His glorious Presence was behind the inner veil in the most holy place. Only the high priest could enter there and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Even then, he had to be shielded from God's glory by an incense smoke screen or he would die (verses 12-13). Unlike the condition of the "bubble boy," God's holy glory was lethal to people outside. But just as the "bubble boy" had to be isolated from disease, God maintained a pure environment, separate from the world of sin outside.
To understand how God interacted with human beings through rituals at His sanctuary, we need to know how rituals in general work. First, a ritual is a system of activity. Such a system could involve slaughtering an animal, putting its blood on the sides of the altar, and burning its flesh (Lev 1).
Activity systems are not difficult to comprehend because we do many of them every day. Think of the system of activities by which you clean your teeth. Taking off the cap of the toothpaste tube, spreading the toothpaste on your brush, brushing upper and lower teeth, and rinsing your mouth are all included in the activity system because they are necessary for accomplishing your goal, that is, to transform the condition of your teeth from dirtiness to cleanliness.
Like other activity systems, a ritual has a group of activities united by a goal. The goal is to accomplish some kind of a change, such as to make atonement (Lev 1:4).
A ritual activity system has smaller systems making up bigger systems. A burnt offering included the activity of burning the flesh of an animal on the altar, which involved skinning the animal, cutting it up, and putting the pieces on the altar fire (Lev 1:6-8).
Nonritual activities also have smaller systems embedded in larger systems. When I plan properly for a long trip, I get my car ready by carrying out the following activity systems: do a tune-up if necessary, change the oil, check other fluid levels, and put air in the tires. Each of these systems has subsystems of activity within it. Changing the oil involves removing the drain plug, replacing the filter, putting the drain plug back in, pouring new oil into the engine, and cleaning up.
A ritual is a special kind of activity system in which the activities included and the order in which they are performed are fixed. They must be done in the way God has specified. For example, Leviticus 1 makes it clear that the burnt offering had to be a certain kind of animal that was brought to the proper place and sacrificed according to a particular procedure.
Rituals are not the only kind of fixed activity systems. If you use an ATM machine to withdraw money or if you access the Internet from a computer, you must go through a series of specified steps in just the right order. If you make a mistake, your process will be invalidated and you will have no choice but to start over again.
A ritual is a special kind of fixed activity system. It does not simply reach a practical goal by natural laws of cause and effect as when you use an ATM machine. The physical result of a burnt offering was to destroy a valuable, healthy animal. But this was not the real goal of the ritual. The goal was to give a token offering to God and to receive atonement/reconciliation with Him (Lev 1:4, 9).
A ritual reaches its goal because a kind of meaning is attached to its actions. The meaning of a ritual is such that its actions are interpreted as interacting with someone (such as a deity) or something (such as sin) to which we do not have access in the material world. For example, although God is supernatural, not part of our physical material world, He received burnt offerings from the Israelites.
Scott O'Grady's sister could not hug him when he was in Bosnia. She had no access to him. But he was still in the world as a physical human being. So when he returned home, she could reach out and touch him. But God is another matter. You can go to every nook and cranny of our planet, but you will not find God in physical form unless He chooses to appear that way.
One of the first Russian cosmonauts looked out of his space capsule into the starry heavens and proclaimed that he did not see God; therefore there was no God. He failed to grasp the fact that God is simply beyond the reach of human science (compare Job 11:7). God can accept a gift of food (Lev 1:4, 9), but He does not visibly take it unless He chooses to appear in human form (Gen 18:1-8) or sends fire to consume a sacrifice (Lev 9:24; 1 Ki 18:38).
A ritual can interact with something that is not physical, treating it as if it were a physical substance. For example, on the Day of Atonement the Israelite high priest was to do the following:
Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness (Lev 16:21-22).
Thus the high priest symbolically placed invisible sins upon a visible goat, which was then taken out of the camp carrying the sins as if they were baggage (Lev 16:21-22).
Ritual connects the seen and unseen worlds!
Children, whose minds do not lock everything into fixed categories, seem to sense connections between the seen and unseen worlds better than adults. When my daughter was three years old, she watched me reaffirm my Australian roots by throwing a boomerang in our large backyard in Michigan. With practice, I was able to make it circle around and land at my feet. Intrigued, Sarah asked to try it. Her throw made the boomerang wobble and land on the ground a few feet in front of her. She tried again with the same result. Growing frustrated, she threw the boomerang up in the air. When it came down, she exclaimed: "God didn't catch it!"
The next morning at breakfast I asked Sarah the meaning of her words. I was astounded to learn that she thought the boomerang came back to me because God was catching it and throwing it back to me. She thought I was interacting with the divine realm, playing catch with God!
If Sarah had been right, I would have been engaging in the kind of interaction that occurs in ritual. To use boomerang language, we could say that God did "catch" the offerings of the Israelites and "throw back" blessings such as forgiveness.
Ritual is powerful. It can do things that ordinary words cannot do. Like language, rituals communicate by means of symbols, but the power of ritual communication lies in the fact that meanings are acted out.
If you doubt the power of ritual, remember the funeral of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. The president's young widow planned the ceremonies, which turned out to be one of the great dramas of the twentieth century. Jacqueline Kennedy may have had her faults, but she was supremely good at ritual. Who will ever forget the riderless horse, the wail of a lone bagpipe, or the eternal flame? There was no need to explain these simple, elegant symbols. Ritual is a motion picture that paints ten thousand words. The world understood. And the world sobbed.
We have found that a ritual at the Israelite sanctuary was a special kind of activity system. In looking at how rituals work, we started with the large category of activity systems, narrowed our focus to fixed activity systems, and then narrowed once again to the unique category of "ritual." The uniqueness of "ritual" lies in the fact that only rituals are believed to interact with someone or something out of reach of our physical, material world.
Although we are "shot down" in this world, we are not cut off from God. He sends us messages and we can pray to Him. At the Israelite sanctuary, where God dwelt among human beings, He provided intimate interaction. Through rituals, it was as though the Israelites could reach out and touch Him. When Jesus came, people could touch Him because He came without a "bubble" to isolate Him from our diseases and sins. And our diseases and sins killed Him (Isa 53:3-5). But because He died, we can someday see the unveiled face of God.