Rites of Passage
The milestones of life can be positive changes
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2009)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the milestones of life as positive changes.
Preparation and materials
Optional - Have available the song ‘Changes’ by David Bowie and the means to play it during the assembly.
Imagine your life as a road. It begins at birth, and it comes to an end at death. Some of us are further down the road than others, but there are some events in our lives that are similar, or of which we all have some experience.
We have all had a first day at school. Some of us have graduated from university. Some of us have celebrated key birthdays, such as 16, the age at which you can buy a lottery ticket, and 18, the age at which you can vote in a general election. Some of us here have had other important milestones in our lives.
These milestones are known collectively as ‘rites of passage’. In this context, the word ‘rite’ is spelt R-I-T-E and a definition of it is ‘an established, ceremonious, usually religious act or process’. Rites of passage generally change an individual’s social status, such as marriage, baptism or graduation.
A rite of passage, then, is an event in our lives that sees a change in our status. Usually, a celebration happens at the same time, so that change is celebrated publicly.
Most rites of passage revolve around religion, as the definition pointed out. The birth of a baby, something that is valued in all cultures for the joy and hope that a new life brings, is often celebrated by a birth ceremony of some kind. For example, Sikhs have a naming ceremony and Christians baptize their babies. Both ceremonies thank God for the safe arrival of the child, and also welcome him or her into the religious family and community.
When the child has grown, we come to the teenage years. The growing of the child into an adult is also a celebration. It can mark the increasing responsibilities that growing up brings. In Judaism, a boy will become a ‘bar mitzvah’, which translates as ‘son of commandment’. This means that he becomes responsible for his own religious development.
In Hinduism, the ‘sacred thread’ ceremony is performed on boys who are usually aged between 8 and 11. The ceremony confers on the boys the duties that they must carry out as full members of their religion.
Both ceremonies show that a different set of expectations comes with growth and age. As a teenager, you probably grow and change more, both in appearance and inwardly, than at any other time. These ceremonies mark that change from child to adult, and celebrate it. It is a change to be embraced, not shied away from.
The next rite may well be marriage and, although some societies do not place as much importance on it as they used to, it is seen as the basis of family life for all religions. It is where two people come together, as single people, and are joined as one. Rites of passage are not necessarily about what you can see; they are also about inward changes.
This brings us to the final rite of passage, at the end of a person’s life. A funeral is a ceremony that is more for the people who are left behind than for the person who has died. It is a chance for the living to celebrate a life that has passed, and also to adjust to the change in their own lives. Much of the grief and sorrow around death relates to the gap left in our lives by the deceased, and the changes that those still living have to adjust to.
Time for reflection
A famous anthropologist, Victor W. Turner, wrote a book called Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. In this book, he talked about rites of passage as being ‘liminal’ and ‘post-liminal’.
The word ‘limen’ is Latin for ‘threshold’. As you approach the threshold of a door, or of a new part in your life, you are one thing. As you come out the other side, you become something else. Your status has changed.
A change in status is something to be celebrated and met head on. It is a celebration of a new stage in life, the passing of a milestone and a chance for a new beginning.
Allow me to accept and embrace change.
Let me see it as a confirmation that my life is moving in the right direction,
And that a rite of passage is a time for celebration of change.
‘Changes’ by David Bowie