Vol. XXVI No. 5 — May 1948

Masonic Ceremonies

Many of the important happenings of life are accomplished with the aid of, or are accompanied by, solemn ceremonies.

Few of these are single entities; usually they consist of several ceremonies, connected but distinct, together forming a more impressively complete whole when they are connected parts.

Church services differ, but many if not most have a certain essentials in common: prayer; a sermon; music; an offering-separate parts of a worship which, together form the whole.

Graduation from school or college is a solemn ceremony, made up of several parts: an assembly of graduates-to-be before their fellows, their relatives and friends; an address by the President; a valedictory by a member of the class; the presentation of diplomas; a prayer. These are part which, together, make up a complete whole.

A formal wedding in church, a burial, the consecration of a bishop, the inauguration of a president, all are examples of complete ceremonies made up of several parts.

The ceremonies of Freemasonry are usually thought of but as “the three degrees,” but each — Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason — is a complete ceremony made up of several parts. So, also, are the public ceremonies of Freemasonry-corner-stone layings and funerals, as well as those observances which are not concerned with making a Mason — installation, reception, Grand Visitation, etc.

The separate ceremonies of the three degrees of Freemasonry are not for individuals only; in general they are so arranged that many take part. They are not mere recitations to which a candidate or a brother listens, inactive, but formalities of dignity and importance which gain in both by the active participation of candidate and brethren.

The two most important events of a man’s life occur without his volition of consent; he is born, eventually he dies, and he has nothing to do with either (unless he commits suicide). But all else of importance that occurs to him during his life time (acts of God excluded) are to some extent a matter of his choice. He goes to school, takes a job, gets married, has children, engages in politics or the reverse, becomes active in the affairs of his city, state, nation, all of some extent at least of his own desire, intention and action.

It is the same in the lodge. What happens to him there, what he there accomplishes, is because of intention and desire. The ceremonies of Freemasonry emphasize that fact by including him in active participation, whether he comes fresh as an initiate or is already a member.

Some Masons have objected to two of their most familiar ceremonies, opening and closing, as “time taking” and some Grand Lodges have permitted their elimination in the first land second degree. In some Grand Jurisdictions a Master may “call off” from the Master’s degree to the first or second and “call on” again at its conclusion, thereby eliminating the opening and closing ceremonies of the first and second degrees. Other Grand Lodges however, insist hat these formalities are as important as those of opening and closing on the third degree and insist on their inclusion.

The opening and closing ceremonies for the third degree are generally considered as vitally important; so much so that only the Grand Master or his representative especially authorized, may omit them and open and close in brief form. *This, when done by a Grand Master, like all his opening and closing ceremonies is in “ample form”) The formalities of lodge opening and closing serve to remind all of the antiquity, the solemnity, the beauty, the importance and the sacredness of the whole system of Freemasonry. As all the brethren as well as officers take part in these observations, all have a continual reminder that they are as much a part of Freemasonry as Freemasonry is a part of them.

The Candidate meets his first ceremony in the preparation room. It is not until later that he appreciates the meaning of that preparation. At first it is something new, strange, at times “queer.” Later, as the explanations come to him, he sees it as inevitable, and so be it he is a man of feeling and understanding, becomes humbly proud that at the beginning as well as later in the lodge he did and had done to him as was done to all good brothers and fellows who went this way before.

Follow immediately two ceremonies, linked together, and yet actually separate; those of entrance and reception.

Entrance is not a mere opening of a door and passing through; it is accomplished by prescribed forms with words and actions of meaning. If these do not serve to impress a candidate that he is about to engage in a great and important undertaking, it must be either that he is of course fiber which cannot be impressed with what is spiritual, or because of the poverty of imagination which permits some officers to do work other than impressive.

The same may be said of reception. The first time an initiate steps within a lodge, his reception is not a perfunctory act; it is fraught with meaning and must make “a deep and lasting impression.”

In these ceremonies Freemasonry is very wise; first impressions are always lasting impressions. Preparation, entrance, reception, three parts of one whole, can make a mental picture which does not fade. So done, they are beautiful; done otherwise and they are a shame to the lodge which permits poor work.

Circumambulation is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the several ceremonies of Freemasonry. The ritualistic explanation is simple enough and of course the act does permit continued and lengthy inspection. But the explanation is so obviously made to fit the fact, was so obviously composed by men who had lost the knowledge of the real meaning of the ceremony, that few brethren are now satisfied that the ritualistic explanation conveys all the truth.

Whether in a Masonic lodge, any other society or a church, circumambulation is an humble imitation of the form of worship of those ancient men to whom the sun in the sky and fire on the stone altar were God.

Man imitates that which he respects, venerates or fears. Ancient man could imitate the sun by fire on the altar; he could imitate the sun’s movement by his own. The sun appeared to rise in the east, turn towards the south, then again towards the north to disappear in the west. Therefore, in his worship early an traveled about his fire on the altar east to west by way of the south, and west to east by way of the north, in imitation of the only god he knew.

From that far day to this, men have circled about or within their holy place from east to west by way of the south, though many if not most forget the reason for their movements.

Operative Freemasonry of the Middle Ages had valuable secrets which could not be communicated to the profane without injustice to the Craft. A boy served an apprenticeship of seven years before becoming a man, and if he proved his skill and character, being admitted as a Fellow of the Craft. Operative Masonry was to be his life work. With it he was to earn his living and provide for his family. By means of what he knew, and his acceptance, first as an Apprentice, then as a Fellow, he was able to travel “in foreign countries” there to prove himself and again receive “a Master’s Wages.”

All this he did as the result of training, experience, knowledge. To protect both the reputation of the Craft and the earning power of the individual workman, it was essential that the secrets of the operative art be well and closely guarded.

Hence the importance given to secrecy in early initiations; the stress upon the dire consequences of betrayal of trust; the condign punishments which a foresworn Craftsman might expect.

With the foregoing in mind, it is easy to understand that Speculative Freemasonry in her ceremonies kept the emphasis upon the importance of the secrets of a Freemason. The Craft still binds its devotees with the most solemn of covenants to preserve its esoteric aspects from those not of the Fraternity.

From another view-point it seems at times somewhat unfortunate that many brethren see the heart of the ceremony of obligation purely as a pledge of secrecy; an agreement to submit to penalties if secrecy is broken.

Secrecy is important now, as it was in an older day. But the pledges which an initiate takes upon himself; the agreements he enters into with his fellows to do certain acts, the covenant he makes not to do other certain acts, are far more important. Few Masons have told that which they were not opposed to tell; more, alas, have failed in one or more particulars in performance of their obligations.

To give a pledge for performance is as old as history. In an older day a pledge of life or of limb was given. Holding the hand aloft was a sign “you may cut off my hand if I fail.” Oddly, it survives in the childish exclamation “by golly!” today — a modernizing of “I swear by god” (god — the hand). Knights in armor held aloft their swords to pledge allegiance to their King — they pledged both the right to use the sword and the hand that held it.

In a court of law, a witness lays his hand upon the Bible to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is supposed to bind a man’s performance spiritually. But the law also provides a punishment for perjury. Freemasons use the Great Light on their Altars in their ceremonies of obligation, but there are also provided penalties.

As very informed Freemason knows, these penalties are wholly symbolic. It is their spiritual meaning, not their practical application, with which Masons are concerned.

Although the ceremony of obligation-that which, as long last, makes a man a Mason-is the very core and center of the Fraternity, and the pledge to secrecy, though a vital part of it, is still but a part, not the whole.

This ceremony, perhaps more than any other of Freemasonry’s observances, engages the active participation of every brother present. None are excused, or wish to be, all take an active part. All, constructively, live again the sacred and solemn moments of obligation; all thus reobligate themselves with every candidate they see partake of the rites of which “the mysteries of Freemasonry are safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts.”

When at long last the initiate leaves the Altar of Obligation, it should be — must be — with the thought that behind him he leaves something which he no longer needs, and that from the holy place he has taken something which will henceforth be a part of him.

Thus thought of, the central ceremony of the three Masonic initiations becomes high and holy observance; which make a great change both in the mental outlook and the spiritual inlook of those fortunate enough to take part.

In the Entered Apprentice Degree occurs the Rite of Investiture, in which the newly obligated Mason receives the badge of a Mason, the lambskin, or white leather apron.

In many Grand Jurisdictions the Apron Lecture is elaborate and beautiful; hence the name “lecture” fits it badly. What is then offered the candidate is a teaching, an exhortation, an inspiration-perhaps even a vision. “Lecture” seems to name it for much less than it really is.

The ceremony is of vital importance, for here at last is visual, physical evidence that this man is approved by his fellows. He has passed the scrutiny of a committee; he has passed the ballot of his lodge; he has been permitted to worship at Freemasonry’s Altar and has taken the first of Freemasonry’s vows. Then there is presented to him the sign and seal of the Fraternity that these are accomplished facts.

There is no other “badge of a Mason.” A man not a Mason may cover his coat with pins, wear a Masonic ring, hang watch charms of square land compasses upon him, with never a right so to do. He can obtain that right only in a lodge, and he cannot receive at any other hands a lamb skin apron with any meaning attached, save in a Masonic lodge.

Hence the ceremony of investiture becomes a real worth; only less than that of obligation, putting the sign and seal of value upon that has been up to now but a pledge of the word and an obligation of the spirit.

The Rite of Destitution is also very old; to remind those of “the household of the faith” to be charitable to their fellows is a doctrine as honored as sit is ancient. And perhaps no Rite of Freemasonry has been more misunderstood.

It is easy to translate it as “alms to a beggar.” But if charity began and ended with a quarter in the cup of the blind pencil vendor on the street, it would hardly persist beyond the grave through the boundless realms of eternity!

The Rite of Destitution, taught in an unspectacular way with simple every day objects, is intended to lay on the shoulders of the initiate the obligation of charity of thought, help for the helpless, the strong arm for the feeble. A man who faces any real trouble is in a destitute condition though his wealth is of seven figures. A Mason may contribute to relief in many other ways than by a ton of coal or a ten dollar bill! Heartaches are not eased with money; worry is not assuaged with food. He who receives the Tire of Destitution as it is intended to be understood, knows forever afterwards that a Mason’s charity begins with the spirit, continues with the letter. “The gift without the giver is bare” was written of the Pharisee who bestows a coin to get rid of a nuisance. “Organized charity, cold as ice, in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ” was written of public relief offered in the name, but not in the spirit of brotherhood. Masonic charity comes first from the heart, then from the picket-book. He who so understands the Entered Apprentice’s Rite of Destitution does indeed “know what it is all about.”

The Master Mason’s Degree is composed of three sections; the first two have several parts.

For obvious reasons it is difficult to write of these, but with the foregoing pages in mind, no Mason will have difficulty is resolving both the first and second sections into their separate ceremonies. He may name them as he will, but all will understand If those of the second section are here denominated reception, petition, drama or impersonation, raising and communication. All of these are integers in a complete whole, yet each is as distinct as it is sacred in purpose.

Without reception, there would be little point to the drama; without petition, there would be none of that deep feeling of exaltation which any candidate with an open spirit must feel; without the drama there could be no raising; unraised, there could be no communication. It is with the hope that thus analyzing one of the most inspiring ceremonies ever to evolve from the minds of men will aid all who behold it more completely to appreciate and value its solemnity and power.

The beauty of the Fraternity is not only in its three degrees and their several ceremonies, but their combination in one great system of initiation which forms “a beautiful, perfect and complete whole.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America