As we draw closer and closer to Christmas, I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions. One of my favorite family traditions is watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation after Thanksgiving dinner. Another “unofficial” tradition was wrapping covered boxes that my mom passed out the door on Christmas Eve while sitting on the top landing. My sister and I would sit outside the door, and she’d shout a name and pass out a box through the cracked door, then shut it and box another gift up. We always seemed to wait until the last minute to wrap those gifts.
I have always loved the traditions of the Christmas Eve service. The candles shining forth like the light of Christ, while the packed church sings out “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light” and “Joy to the world, the Lord its come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room.” To this day, Christmas Eve is one of my very favorite services of the whole year. I love traditions.
It is funny how things become “tradition” in our lives. Sometimes it’s deeply meaningful moments that were intentionally crafted—like the hymns and carols of Christmas Eve. But sometimes, we make traditions out of what has simply been done. We find ourselves saying “that’s just the way we do it around here.” Jaroslav Pelikan wrote of our Christian tradition, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Tradition isn’t meant to strangle us. When “traditions” are driving the car, we will soon discover that the car is parked. Because traditions are servants, not the master. Where traditions fail to communicate the reality and truth beyond themselves but continue to dominate, we have made them masters.
When traditionalism overtakes our lives or our faith, we have substituted the experience of the Living God for the idols of the dead. Even good traditions can become idols when we reduce them to nostalgia. Even traditions that once held deep meaning can become traditionalism when we refuse to let them speak a new word to us.
By contrast, ancient traditions come alive when we are constantly using them to connect us back to the world that God loved. The traditions we keep are meant to form us in the ways of Jesus. To “conform us to the image of Christ” (Romans 8:29). Tradition is receiving the gifts of the past that we need to carry us into the future with a deep connection to our shared story. Like the sharing of the light from the Christ candle, reminding each of us that we can share the same gift
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, a lot of our favorite traditions had to be put on pause or thrown out altogether. They weren’t even bad, in and of themselves, but we had to find new ways to point to the truths they carried. Because a greater tradition took precedent—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” As Methodists we carry this tradition in the Three Rules: Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.
This year, we are making another set of new traditions. We will gather as we did years ago—we will sing some of the same songs that have been sung for a few hundred years We will light candles and remember the birth of Jesus. We will cling to our old traditions in the midst of new ones—we will sway and snap with a jazz ensemble. We will smile with our eyes behind masks. We will wave our hands over our candles to put them out (I promise that it works!!).
We will tell the same story, as it has been for over 2000 years. We will tell the story of God coming to dwell with us. The Good News of God welcoming the least likely and least deserving.
Things didn’t go back to the old normal this year. But the traditions that we need the most can always be adapted ever so slightly, so they can continue to speak to us and carry us forward. The tradition of God’s radical love breaking into a world full of anxieties and uncertainties. The tradition of God’s peace and hope flooding into our weary hearts, giving us enough manna for the day. The tradition of God’s joy swooping upon us in the ordinary gifts of this amazing world full of amazing people.
May you find those traditions and wrap them up in your heart, opening them anew every day.
Photo by De an Sun on Unsplash