Friday, December 30, 2016

IN DEFENSE OF TRADITION

If there ever is a time when we are reminded of traditions, it is at Christmas. Every family has them. At this time of year, it sometimes seems as if every move is governed by tradition. There are Christmas-time customs that tell us where, how, and when we should decorate the tree; where, how, and when we are to have the Christmas meal; and where, how and when we are to open the gifts.

There is the traditional Christmas program that we all must attend. We sit in the darkened church, watching the little children recite the lines that they so laboriously memorized with the help of their moms. Sympathetically, everyone in the crowd silently prompts these shy performers as they try to remember the next word. Throughout the hushed audience, unspeaking lips move, hoping that their silent utterances will somehow help this tender little one through his or her piece.

Of course, not all the children are so inhibited. Some kids grab the microphone as if they grew up under the tutelage of Sir Winston Churchill himself, and bellow out their lines as if they had just learned that everyone in the church had discovered that their hearing aid batteries had gone dead. Then, as a final flourish, these little performers finish with a grand bow.

We sing the traditional hymns. We snack on traditional munchies. We find great comfort in tradition.

Not everyone who likes tradition, however. They find it boring and unimaginative. Some secretly delight in upsetting tradition. Some find excitement in the new and unique.

Each has his own perspective. I, myself grew up with many traditions at Christmas time. Our Christmas Eve Day was the very definition of predictability. It included the Christmas Eve program at the little church down the road that we always attended after the evening chores. After the program, we would always stop in at my Grandpa’s and Grandma’s house for a few moments. I am sure it was only a few moments, but for me, it always seemed like hours. This was because, according the traditions of our family, it was only after the program and the visit to the grandparents that we were able to go home and finally open our presents.

But my adult years have been quite different. For many of these years my own family and I lived overseas and often found it more difficult to have one Christmas even remotely like the previous one. (to continue, please press the READ MORE button below)
A Christmas Traditional or Non-traditional?

Having these two perspectives, one that was heavily regulated by tradition and one that was not, I would like talk a little about the subject of the place of tradition in our celebrations. Actually, I would like to say a few words in defense of tradition.

First it is necessary to understand from where I come. Growing up on a farm is the very seedbed of tradition. Our days were always very much the same. As kids, we would wish for a little variety. However, farm life does not lend itself to variety.

Cows do not understand the words “we will be doing things a little differently tonight.” It is the very sameness of their day-to-day existence that translates into good milk production. If their schedule is altered in some way, it is noticed in how much milk the cows give during the evening chores.

Because of this and other farm-life realities, when I was a child our Christmas activities could never vary too much from one year to the next. Even as if in some made-for-TV Christmas miracle, enough money suddenly found its way into my parent’s bank account, we could never have winged or driven our way off to some distant location to celebrate a special Christmas. Who would do the chores?

So it was that, when I was a young boy, our Christmases were very much the same from year to year. They were very traditional.

Now, I am a small boy no longer and have my own family. Even our kids all grown now and have their own lives. However, when they were still home, their experiences at Christmas was quite the opposite of what life was for me when I was their age. The Christmases in our family were rarely ever the same.

At some periods of our lives, in three years consecutive years, we celebrated Christmas in three different countries. This was not because we were traveling on a Christmas vacation trip, but because those were the countries in which we were living in those years. In some of the years that we lived overseas, all or most of our family could be together, but sometimes only one child or even none.

In some ways, the changes in routine can be enjoyable. It is interesting to see how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world and in other families. But do not imagine that we preferred it this way. What we would have chosen, if the choice had been entirely our own, would have been the opportunity to build some family Christmas traditions with the whole family together every year. In some ways, we could build some traditions, of course, but one had to be imaginative. 

The Value of Traditions

What is the value of tradition? Is its value only in knowing that in tradition we are comfortable? Tradition does not ask us to change or even to think. There is a certain comfort in knowing what to expect.

While it is true that we often find comfort in doing things in a traditional way, this can actually be more of a danger than it is valuable. If we cling to tradition simply because we feel it is “the way things ought to be done,” we have lost the importance of tradition. At this point, tradition simply becomes a security blanket. We feel sheltered in our tradition, but we do not know why.

Rather, the strength of tradition is to be found elsewhere. The true value of tradition is that it can be a means of helping us to remember what is important. Comfort and security come not only because things are the same, but they come because we are again reminded of what is essential.

What is important at Christmas? As we do things together as a family, we should remember that it is not the family traditions that are critical. The traditions themselves are nothing. Rather, it is the family itself that is important.

As we, as a society and as a church, follow the traditions of Christmas, it should also be because these traditions point us to what is truly important. As we attend the Christmas programs and sing the Christmas songs at church, we should remember that it is not that all the children performed well that is important (although every child I have ever seen do their part in the Christmas program has always done very well – each in his or her own way). It is not that the choir sang the Christmas cantata flawlessly. It is not that the pastor had a good sermon. What is important is that these traditions help us remember what is essential and true: The Eternal King was born to us 2000 years ago. So great was His coming to us that we still celebrate it. 

False Values of Traditions

 But there are also false values in traditions. Jesus rebuked some Pharisees and scribes who held on to traditions but who had lost all meaning of their significance. Jesus said to them ... “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?... You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ ” (Matthew 15:3-8 NIV).

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the embodiment of the misuse of tradition. The traditions that they had established to regulate their daily lives had become so important that these customs even exceeded the written commandments of God. All meaning and all significance of what was truly important was lost to the Pharisees. It was only the outward actions that mattered to them.

This was also the Apostle Paul’s concern for the churches that he had founded. He warned the church in the city of Colossae that they should “See to it that no one takes [them] captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men…rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NAS).

Paul spoke from experience, since he had been brought up and educated in the tradition of these Pharisees who had distorted what was real. “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely jealous for my ancestral traditions,” Paul said (Galatians 1:14 NAS). 

The True Value of Tradition

However, this is not all that Paul had to say about the value of tradition. He also knew that if we retain the true meaning of our actions, there is great value in tradition. Paul wrote to another church, the one in Thessalonica: “And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians. 2:14-15 NAS).

In this case, the traditions were not something simply passed on from one generation to another as the way that things ought to be done, but without any understanding of the reason for it. Instead, Paul was speaking of traditions that had real meaning and that were passed from one generation to the next by the process of teaching.

Paul actually had quite a lot to say on the great value of properly placed traditions, He said to yet another church, “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2 NAS).

In fact, so important had these traditions become that Paul warned the Christians to “Keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6b NAS). 

The Author of Traditions

Indeed, God Himself is the Author of many traditions. The Old Testament Jewish calendar is replete with feasts and festivals that commemorate various acts of God. The feast of the Passover, for instance, was the first of these festivals on the yearly calendar. God initiated the feast of the Passover to commemorate the Exodus of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

At the time of the Exodus, the Jewish people were instructed to smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the door in their homes. The Lord told Moses that on that night, God would go through the land of Egypt and strike down the firstborn of every household. It was only those homes that had the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the frame of the door that God would pass over so that the firstborn would not die.

Then God initiated the traditions involved with the history of the Passover night. “This day will be a memorial to you,” God told Moses, “and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance” (Exodus 12:14 NAS).

God then gave the people instructions as to how they were to observe the day. The instructions included many traditions, including the abstention of the eating of leavened bread for the seven days of the feast and even the removal of all leaven from the houses.

The reasons for such traditions were clear, as Moses later told the people. “You shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. When you enter the land, which the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes’” (Exodus 12:24-27a NAS).

Certainly, these events were the beginning of strong traditions, but they were not empty or hollow traditions. They were traditions that had meanings that were to be passed on from generation to generation.

What is more, these traditions were not to be observed simply because “it was the way things ought to be done.” Instead, they caused the children of Israel to turn their adoration to God. After Moses told the people these things, we read, “And the people bowed low and worshiped” (Exodus 12:27b NAS). 

Traditions that are Beyond Emotion

There are often very strong emotions involved with traditions. The observance of traditions evoke deep feelings within us and remembrances of other times, perhaps happier times. This is not necessarily bad, but there is a danger in carrying out traditions simply based on the emotional impact that they have on us.

The traditions we just mentioned concerning the Passover, for instance, were followed with strong emotional connections. However, the value was meant to be placed not in evoking an emotional response, but the traditions were meant to be a means of keeping the story alive of what happened that eventful night in Egypt; how God rescued the people of Israel not only from the death of each firstborn, but how He brought them out of that land of slavery.

Keeping the history of God’s deeds alive is the true purpose of traditions, and it is the reason that Paul told the Thessalonians, “brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us”.

If our own observations of traditions in our homes lack meaning for us, it is not that it is the traditions that are always at fault. More often than not, it is the way that we approach the traditions. The same is true in regard to the traditions of Christmas. This year, as you decorate and wrap, cook and eat, sing and listen, remember the meaning of the tradition.

This is the meaning: The Eternal King was born to us 2000 years ago. So great was His coming to us that we still celebrate His birth.

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