My grandparents worshipped at an old, high Episcopal Church. Once a year or so, we’d be visiting and join them at their church. Now, certainly not all Episcopal churches are the same, and my memories of events fifty years old might certainly be skewed; but I remember really being confused throughout the service. The congregation relied heavily upon the Anglican Book of Common Worship for written prayers, responses, and songs. That’s fine, except that the service jumped around back and forth through the book with seemingly no pattern. Everyone else seemed to know where to go next, but I was always wondering…
I suspect that there was more direction going on than what I was aware of. Perhaps something was written somewhere (an “order of worship?”) or someone was leading, but what I really suspect was that the congregation’s familiarity with the weekly rhythms of worship enabled them to know exactly what was coming next. What was confusing to me was second nature to them, since they had seen it over and over again.
One of the great benefits of having traditions is that we know what to expect, and we can develop a comfort level with what is happening. Family traditions help establish a pattern or rhythm. Picture how a common family gathering, such as a holiday or birthday, goes. The traditions might be elaborate or simple, but almost always, they guide our expectations of how we will interact with one another. The traditions are incredibly meaningful, stating in concrete, common experiences the intimacy which exists for a family. Other customs have the same force—national traditions (e.g., national holidays), business traditions (staff interactions, office practices), even sporting events (singing the anthem, sideline events, etc.)—our common familiarity helps make the experience more meaningful.
Of course, there are dangers to traditions as well. Some traditions can become stifling. Some are outdated or no longer helpful. Some can be simply bad for us. But one challenge that always confronts a tradition is when it loses its meaning and simply becomes “what we do”. Anytime a once-beneficial practice becomes “what we do” without meaning behind it, the tradition is in danger of becoming “traditionalism”. While a tradition is an action or practice which carries great meaning, doing an action or practice simply “because” is the essence of “traditionalism”. For a vibrant Christian faith, our traditions can be incredibly helpful; while an empty expression of “traditionalism” will easily distract us from a meaningful relationship with our Lord.
Spiritually speaking, a good way of thinking of this is that traditions are “the living faith of the dead”. Traditionalism, however, is “the dead faith of the living”. Traditions connect us to our rich faith heritage. Traditionalism is a lifeless expression of “how we always do it”.
This challenge—to develop a rhythm or pattern which anchors us in our experiences, yet without losing track of the meaning or purpose behind the practice—confronts us throughout our Christian experiences. Our worship can easily slide from a beneficial interaction with tradition to a dangerous traditionalism. Our daily Christian disciplines of reading the Bible and praying can become rote and meaningless. Our service in God’s Kingdom can shift from an expression of our deep gratitude to our Lord to an empty ritual.
How do we navigate such a course? How do we experience the benefits of a faith anchored in good, meaningful experiences without losing sight of their purpose? We do so by expressing again and again our need and dependence upon our Lord. Relying on Him to invigorate our worship, our devotion, and our service to Him, we will, God-willing, continue to practice our faith in meaningful, intimate, and appropriate ways. All to His glory!
As you prepare for worship this week, read John 2:13-22.
1. What is the connection between the Passover and Jesus going up to Jerusalem?
2. Why would there be money-changers and folks selling animals in the Temple? What would be the reasoning behind something like this?
3. What is behind Jesus’ words about not making the Temple a house of trade? What is Jesus’ concern here?
4. In verse 17, His disciples remember a line from Psalm 69, an incredibly moving Psalm. Take some time and read it. Wow!
5. Why are the Jews looking for a sign? A sign of what?
6. How does Jesus’ answer, about His body as a Temple, answer their question of a “sign”?
7. Obviously, Jesus is anticipating His resurrection here. What is the connection between His body and the Temple? Why does He link these?