Lifeless tradition?

One thing I often hear from people is a concern that my penchant for the “liturgical” is a foray into some kind of “lifeless tradition” or “tradition for tradition’s sake”. They seem unable or unwilling to see how it is that ancient practices and words could have much, if any, bearing on spiritual life in our current situation. Many of them have not necessarily, or at least not consciously, been co-opted by the modern penchant for the novel, the believe that newer is better and novelty brings satisfaction. They just don’t see how some of these traditions, often traditions that are foreign to their own church experience, can have relevance today.

One of the first things I ask someone, when they say something like that to me, is “What about the Bible?” After all, the Bible certainly fits into the “ancient” category, with writings that record communal memories stretching from two to as many as four thousand years ago! I often get a response something like “well, of COURSE the Bible is relevant, it’s God’s word and it’s ALWAYS relevant, in every time and place!”

I agree, of course, though possibly for different reasons than my discussion partners (or at least with different shades of meaning), but then I have to ask the follow-up question: “If the communities who gave us these traditions were guided by the Bible, and these traditions are rightly seen as coming out of these communities’ understanding of the Bible and of the faith they received from those who came before, doesn’t that at least open the door to allowing the traditions they’ve passed on to us as relevant?”

Here’s the thing about traditions, in my mind: there is a reason why they become traditional. There are reasons why these practices and prayers and ways of speaking were passed down from generation to generation, and that is because the communities in which they were born found them to be extremely meaningful expressions of faith and their life together. If they have become “dead tradition”, it is only because we have lost sight of the very things that gave them life. This is not something that only applies to tradition, by the way, it can apply to many things – relationships, organizational memberships, and so on.

In a world that is infatuated with the novel, where tomorrow’s big new deal seems to become yesterday’s news before today has even passed, returning to ancient practices can be a necessary corrective and even a subversive movement. The drive for novelty too-often creates violence, both within the heart of the consumer, in the localities from which natural resources are extracted, and other places. Returning to the practices embedded within our historical memory can lead us to seek a point of groundedness that challenges the never-ending carnival of novelty which really turns out to be the same thing, again and again – the same failure to provide that which it promises, the same slavery to stuff played out in different shops, different web sites, different neighborhoods, different towns.

Novelty for its own sake is its own kind of institution, and, far from being institutionalized and stifling, these classic Christian practices, the liturgy, the service of the Word and Table, praying the Kyrie and Sanctus and Agnus Dei, can in fact be a catalyst for breaking the power of these very structures. Ancient prayers that refuse to separate sacred from secular, Sunday from Monday, religion from politics, remind us that life is a connected whole and that the Spirit seeks to transform us in all areas of our being and doing. These voices from the past challenge us to reconsider who we are and what we do. That is why we say the Trisagion together, and read the Psalms responsively, and say the Canticles. That is why we say the Creed, like a “Pledge of Allegiance” to God, instead of pledging to any flag. The Word and Spirit move the church, and in the church the world is to be re-created.

Let us follow in the footsteps of the one who truly makes all things new (Rev. 21:5), speaking words of truth that have been given to us by those who followed before us.

~ Jason

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~ by Jason Barr on August 27, 2008.

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