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Have you ever graduated or suffered from ‘growing pains’? If so, then you’ve experienced a rite of passage! Learn more about these transitory periods of our lives in this lesson, where you’ll also find some common examples.

Rite of Passage Defined

Our first steps, our first words, our first days of school: these and many other events represent major milestones in our early lives. We may not think about them as such, but moments like these can be considered rites of passage: ordinary or ceremonial events marking the transition from one stage of life to the next.

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A History of Marking Transitions

Since we’ve been able to recognize it, humans have been marking the passage of time, noting lunar phases and solar cycles and changes in weather and landscape. We also noticed early on that there are certain markers to help identify the points we come to throughout our lives. In the earliest groups of hunter-gatherers, an accomplishment such as one’s first step would have been a major occasion.

This now meant that children were a little less dependent on their mothers, freeing them for more work, as well as on their way to becoming more able bodies that could soon help contribute. Whether or not they or we celebrate or otherwise officially acknowledge this achievement, gaining ambulation is nonetheless a critical point in children’s physical development and marks a distinct transition in their lives.Any sort of ceremony surrounding such an event in these primordial people’s lives is, of course, speculative, but we have thousands of other examples of ceremonial rites of passage across time and space. Each culture recognizes different occasions and accomplishments as defining moments in a person’s life, but many of them still correlate to physical changes, particularly reaching sexual maturity, another crucial milestone for ancient people. For instance, manhood was once – and still is in some places – marked by a boy’s first shave, or womanhood has typically been said to start with a girl’s first menstruation.As time has passed, we have incorporated more and more ceremonies into commemorating passages in our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives, as well.

Let’s discover some rites of passage in present use that cover a variety of life’s experiences.

Confirmation

The sacrament, or holy ritual, of Confirmation is an important turning point in the spiritual lives of many young Christians, but it is perhaps most closely associated with Roman Catholicism. For Catholics, Confirmation – after Baptism – is traditionally the second of the three Sacraments of Initiation into the Christian faith. During Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is said to be conferred on the confirmed through reciting special prayers, lighting candles, and ‘the laying on of hands’ by the presiding clergyman. This prepares the child (usually between 7 and 15) to participate in the final stage of initiation: celebrating the Eucharist.

Bar Mitzvah

The Bar Mitzvah is a spiritual rite of passage celebrated by Jewish boys at their 13th birthdays that also holds ties to the physical changes they’re undergoing (Bat Mitzvahs are the equivalent ceremony for Jewish girls, sometimes celebrated at 12 years of age instead of 13, depending on the Jewish movement they adhere to). The Bar Mitzvah roughly corresponds with the onset of puberty in males; however, it marks not only a young man’s sexual maturation, but also his more general coming of age, or arrival to the point at which one is held socially and morally accountable as an adult.

Ceremonial dress and reading from the Torah contribute to the ritual that makes the young man a Bar Mitzvah (‘son of the Law’), meaning he has now taken on a whole new set of personal, social, and religious responsibilities.

Marriage

Weddings have also typically celebrated physiological milestones (i.e., reproduction), but the institution of marriage and how it’s observed has changed radically over many millennia. One element that remains relatively unaltered after all this time, though, is that marriage represents a major directional shift in two people’s lives. The couple now shares a life together, which brings with it a slew of new and different challenges and social and even legal commitments.

In many cultures, not just American, brides are often ornately dressed for their weddings.

Graduation

Marriage celebrations nowadays can be found as either religious or entirely secular, and there are many other non-spiritual rites of passage. Take, for instance, a graduation. These ceremonies are often characterized by playing the familiar song ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ hearing various addresses, and by wearing the classic cap and gown. Whether from kindergarten, high school, a doctoral program, or the police academy, graduations symbolize a turning point in a person’s academic journey, marking a variety of levels of education and experience.

Lesson Summary

A rite of passage is an ordinary or ceremonial event marking the transition from one stage of life to the next. Rites of passage may range from something as mundane as one’s first steps or words, to events as significant as marriage.

Many examples of these turning points correlate to physiological changes, such as a Bar Mitzvah and a boy’s entry into puberty.Rites like these are commonly associated with coming of age, arrival to the point at which one is held socially and morally accountable as an adult. Some (i.e., in Christianity) might even be seen as or accompanied by sacraments, or holy rituals; however, there are others that are more secular but still hold a wide range of personal and social significance.

Rite of Passage Overview

barmitzvahritual
Terms Definitions
Rites of passage ordinary or ceremonial events that mark the transition from one stage of life to the next
Sacrament holy ritual
Confirmation an important turning point in the spiritual lives of many young Christians, especially Catholics
Bar Mitzvah a spiritual rite of passage celebrated by Jewish boys on their 13th birthdays
Bat Mitzvahs the equivalent ceremony for Jewish girls
Coming of age the point at which one is held socially and morally accountable as an adult
Marriage represents a major directional shift in the lives of two people who choose to make a life together
Graduations symbolize a turning point in a person’s academic journey; it marks a variety of levels of education and experience

Learning Outcomes

Review the lesson on rites of passage in preparation to:

  • Define rites of passage
  • Discuss them in a historical context
  • Emphasize the religious significance of some of these rites
  • Take account of rites such as graduations and marriages

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