I didn’t catch his name, but he incarnated “respect and honor.” He displayed it freely, and I was constrained to offer it in return. We didn’t even converse. He merely asked if I would take a picture of him with his wife and father in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. My wife, daughter, and I were taking photos in front of the evocative bronze commemorating the brave Marines planting the Stars and Stripes on the summit of Mount Suribachi. I was taking a “selfie” with my wife when he waited in the wings for us to finish.

I felt him before I saw him. No, it wasn’t a squishy gooiness, like seeing a celebrity emerge from a black SUV to the red carpet. Instead, it was gravity, almost as if the air was tinged with reverence. There was weightiness about his bearing—a weight of glory—like gold. He stood straight and tall, not stiff as a board but like a steel beam or a Spartan hoplite. When my “selfie” was done, I turned my attention to him. His gaze locked on mine, but I was not intimidated or cowed. There was respect. There was honor. I felt it was my privilege and blessing to do . . . what exactly? Take his picture? The power of his bearing, and the respect of his demeanor, made the mundane . . . magnificent.

Washington D.C. Temple

Hours later, we were making our way through the Washington D.C. temple open house. I don’t remember how many temples we have been through. As a family, we almost visited every temple in Utah within one year. Imagine that. Who would have thought a mere two decades ago that it would require a “goal” to visit every temple in Utah? Temple spires seem to rise in every community now, and praise the Lord for that. So, it was with delight and surprise when exiting the glorious celestial room in the temple when I saw a woman sitting in a chair “directing traffic,” as it were. She was seated because of an injury to her leg, but her countenance struck me like lightning from a clear sky.

She was dressed in white. I have seen countless members of the Church dressed in white. So, how was this different than any other Wednesday? She was sitting and offering a soft smile and kindly extension of the hand as to which way we could make our exit. There was nothing pretentious about her. Nothing in her apparel or style set her apart from anyone else inside the temple. But after experiencing the celestial room bathed in crystal light, she was the first one to greet us in the hall. It seemed the twelve porticos of chandeliers and décor that beckoned me to turn my gaze upward were somehow incarnated in this unassuming woman sitting at the exit. It was in her eyes. I believe I somehow glimpsed what our Lord taught on a Galilean hill, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).

Ritual. Rite. Sacrament. In contemporary culture, those three words seem passe at best and divisive at worst. If nothing else, they ring with “religion,”which many find neither the time nor the inclination to patronize. It would be unfair to call them secular or irreligious. Sure, some may spurn anything that smacks of the smell of ritual, but we find ourselves in a time and culture of busyness, as in, “busy-ness.” We are busy with many things ranging from bills to the boardroom. We even have two different prophets declaring our time as advancing at an “ever-increasing pace.” On the one hand, President Boyd K. Packer taught, “The moral values upon which civilization itself must depend spiral downward at an ever-increasing pace.”[1] On the other hand, President Russell M. Nelson observed, “The Lord declared that He would hasten His work in its time, and He is doing so at an ever-increasing pace.”[2]

I believe the redemption of culture is rooted in the redemption of ritual. But who am I anyway? I am not alone in this when everyone from the United States Marine Corps to the servers at Texas Roadhouse doing a line dance. Consider the Marines at Arlington National Cemetery. Why all the hubbub about marching “in step,” saluting, or standing at attention? What’s with the clean and pressed uniform, blood stripes on the sleeves, and the panoply of eagles, globes, and anchors? What if I joined the Marines and preferred to have my favorite bird on my lapel—the duck? Why adorn the flag with the Latin phrase Semper Fidelis? Why not just come out and say, like in High School Musical, “We’re All In This Together!” or something of that sort? Why not just let every Marine dance to his own ditty? Why conform to a universal standard?

(Left to right) Sgt. Benton Thames, Sgt. Jeff Binek and Spc. William Johnson change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The ceremony is full of tradition and meaning. For example, sentinels take 21 steps or stand for 21 seconds—honoring the unknown…
Photo credit: https://www.army.mil/article-amp/38013/the_tomb_of_the_unknowns

When we visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, we witnessed the changing of the guard. The Sentinels of the Tomb left me awestruck and, quite literally, with tears coursing down my cheeks. Their precision, perfection, and performance were impeccable. Twenty-one steps down the black mat behind the tomb, turn, pause for twenty-one seconds, and repeat the other direction. Why the pageantry? Why did the bugler play the twenty-four notes of Taps and not something from the musical stylings of Lady Gaga? Why not just let the Marines express themselves the way they prefer? Why not let them be, in the parlance of our day, “authentic to self”? What does it mean to be a self anyway?

Since time immemorial, human beings—children of God—have reverenced ritual. It brings unity, direction, and instruction to what matters most. In a secular age of “self,” such things are terra incognita, an unknown land, and considered antiquated. Still, even the most hardened heathen lives a life of ritual down to the point of a morning “routine,” or putting the same leg through his pants after rolling out of bed. We do it when we “set the table,” to line dancing, to eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Why can’t we, for once, have rib eye?! Apparently, so I am told, it is not the “way,” or the “tradition.” What do the Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrims care if I substitute my bird for a bovine?!

Furthermore, while I’m on a rant, why do I have to make the “vacuum lines” on the carpet when cleaning? Why can’t I vacuum like Jackson Pollock paints? Isn’t cleanliness the point? What do the lines have to do with anything? Apparently, the lines have everything to do with everything.

As children of God, we seem to delight in bringing order to the world. “Art, like morality, starts with drawing a line somewhere.”[3] As God is the great Creator by which he brings order, we glorify God when we engage in sub-creation and ordering our lives, homes, and communities with the order of heaven. According to Paul the apostle, the Lord intends us to become “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). As in any creative work, function precedes essence. That is to say, the artist, engineer, or architect organizes and builds to be able to perform the function they desire to accomplish. Thus, a parking garage is made of steel and concrete rather than balsa wood and twine.

As the Lord “organized and formed the heavens and the earth” from a state described as “empty and desolate” (Abraham 4:1-2), we glorify God by doing likewise. “Behold,” the Lord declared, “mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:8). When we bring order to the world in the name of the Lord, we are part of his priesthood, for it is “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:3). The Lord requires rituals and rites to connect us with something, or more appropriately, someone outside of us.

As we participate in the ordinances, we see the order of God. As we do so in the name of the “Order of the Son of God,” we are organized according to the “measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Thus, the Prophet Joseph Smith prayed that “we may grow up in thee, and receive a fulness of the Holy Ghost, and be organized according to thy laws, and be prepared to obtain every needful thing” (Doctrine and Covenants 109:15). The physical rituals and ordinances, the robes, aprons, broken bread, and baptismal fonts are not random gewgaws but designed for the ultimate denouement. They are types and shadows of the destination when the Lord rolls back the heavens, and we “see as they are seen, and know as [we] are known, having received of his fulness and of his grace” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:94).

Revealing the “mysteries of the kingdom” comes through the administration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. The indescribable glory of God begins to give life, like living waters, to our souls. “As the dews of Carmel,” the Prophet wrote, “so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them!” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:19). Therefore, the “key of the knowledge of God” comes through the sacred “Order of the Son of God” and “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:19-20; 107:3). No wonder, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

It seems the physical is the vehicle for the spiritual. Whether we are talking about marching Marines or disciples of Christ, the rituals are what they appear superficially to be, but they are also the modus operandi, or the means, by which meaning is rendered meaningful. The life of our Lord is demonstrable of this fact. Consider the physicality of creation, the Fall, the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s invitation to his disciples to “handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). The entire plan of God became tabernacled in the flesh, and we see not only who God is, but who we are in the image of the one who IS the Great I AM.

Rites, rituals, and sacraments merge the temporal with the spiritual. Indeed, a “spiritual body” is a body possessing a unity of flesh and spirit (see Alma 11:45; 1 Corinthians 15:44-46). Everyone from the Marines who salute, the actors who perform on stage, the children who play hopscotch, to the covenant disciple donning the royal robes of the priesthood, all yield to something beyond themselves. They subscribe to the rules of the game, the script of the play, the unity of honor, or oneness with Jesus Christ. Common among the endeavors, they become something more than they could as individuals in yielding to something outside of selfish whim.

Washington D.C. Temple

The Lord Jesus Christ taught, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[4] Apparently, that brief parable pertains to prospering in every expression of life. It is also something children learn at an early age. Thomas Howard wrote, “The truly free child is the one who has learned that satisfaction will forever elude the one who grabs, but will come, strangely, to the one who has learned to ‘bury’ self-interest in that odd exchange called sharing.”[5] If I am to prosper, if I am to thrive, I must learn to abide the Savior’s mandate: “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).

As children of God, we are forever acting out things and narratives. From the handshakes and fist bumps to the rituals of burying a loved one, we are playacting in the belief that what we do in time has some echo in eternity. We look for and act in metaphors. We adorn ourselves with pearls instead of frozen peas. We festoon our Christmas tables with ham and elaborate dishes. Somehow, bologna won’t do. What do we believe we are accomplishing? Gold, not dirt, is the right metaphor for glory, while white speaks of purity as a lamb does for innocence. It also seems vulgar for the man to speak to his beloved in such terms as, “I love you with all my quadriceps!” Why does it have to be the “heart”? The quads are a much larger muscle!

So then, my life was changed over the course of a few days in Washington, D.C. More to the point, in a matter of hours, I glimpsed eternity, experienced the steeliness of duty, and longed to be a man higher and holier. I was standing there in shorts and a light shirt, galumphing about, when the Marine standing behind me patiently waited in the blistering sun for me to conclude my “selfie.” I yearned for heaven. I longed to be “encircled about” in the arms of a loving Lord by passing through a chandeliered room and greeted by a crippled woman dressed in white whose eyes whispered the wonders of eternity. I experienced a bit of what Wordsworth described as “trances of thought and mountings of the mind.”[6] Except, these were trances and mountings of deep heaven—further up and further in.

Temple Doors

Moreover, the next time I’m in Texas Roadhouse and the servers start a rip-roaring line dance, it’s time to pause my face-stuffing. There’s more to life than simple sustenance. To have the experience, I must lay aside my fork and knife, put my hands together, and throw out a few “heehaws!” for good measure. Likewise, instead of yapping endlessly about having rib eye at Thanksgiving, perhaps I can turn to the turkey for joy. Apparently, there’s more to the Thanksgiving ritual than one’s choice of meat. As the family is gathered around the table, united and ordered with a finely set table, there is something higher going on at Thanksgiving. It begins with gratitude for something—Someone—outside of myself, and the trappings of the meal demonstrate that fact.

The Lord’s great Restoration project is about restoring the gospel, but what does it mean to have the gospel? Is the gospel something we have? Is it something we do? Is it something we celebrate? I think the answer to those questions is “yes.” Covenants and ordinances are gateways of grace. When I participate in them, I am playing a role. In subscribing and submitting to the order, I attain something higher than what I could accomplish on my own. I connect with and find oneness in the Lord Jesus Christ. As the temple is the gateway between heaven and earth, the sacraments and rituals are the gateways between the physical and spiritual. Indeed, the “spiritual” is the uniting of the timely with the timeless. Truly, “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest,” and “blessed be the name of God forever and ever.”[7] Now, please pass the turkey.

[1] Boyd K. Packer, “Do Not Fear,” General Conference, May 2004.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Pure Truth, Pure Doctrine, and Pure Revelation,” General Conference, October 2021.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, May 5, 1928.

[4] Revised Standard Version, John 12:24.

[5] Thomas Howard, The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007), 205.

[6] William Wordsworth, Prelude, 1.19.

[7] Doctrine and Covenants 84:20; Daniel 2:20.