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Leaving Pomp and Circumstance

The familiar notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” are heard each spring at countless commencement ceremonies. That tune was composed by Edward Elgar as a military march. Its title comes from a line from Shakespeare’s Othello: “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

The march was first played at graduation ceremony at Yale University in 1905. How or why it has become a standard part of graduations, I’m not sure. Perhaps to lend precision to the procession.

Or maybe graduations want pomp and circumstance to add an air of importance to the occasion. Somehow it just wouldn’t seem the same to hand diplomas out in the parking lot from the trunk of the principal’s car as students amble by in cut offs and flip-flops. Playing a march dresses up the occasion. And we dress up the poor graduates in robes and in a hat they would be embarrassed to ever wear on any other occasion.

Churches seem to like to add a bit of pomp and circumstance, too. Does that mean that we think the gathering of the body of Christ needs some jazzing up?

Early gatherings of Christians seem to have been fairly simple events. Consider, the Roman governor Pliny’s description around 112 A.D. of Christians gathering “to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath . . . and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.”

Makes “going to church” seem pretty simple, doesn’t it? But somewhere along the way, people added robes and rituals. Even marches.

Is there anything wrong with pomp and circumstance in church? Jesus said of religious leaders of his own day that "Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long” (Matthew 23:5). Given that he had just said, “do not do what they do” (23:3), it seems obvious that he did not approve.

He also said, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats” (Luke 20:46).

Somehow on Sundays we seem pulled toward special clothes – collars and robes and “church clothes”. Jesus seems to suggest that we are fishing in the wrong pond. So, let’s leave the pomp and circumstance for graduations.


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