I've been thinking about tradition lately. This means that at random intervals throughout the day I throw my arms in the air, begin shaking them, swagger forward and burst out singing "Dai dai dai dai, Dai dai dai dai...Tradishun! Tradishun!"
This is the kind of thing that made me a hit in third grade classrooms.
This is the kind of thing that makes my college students very, very uncomfortable.
I've always been a big fan of tradition. When I was a little girl I convinced my younger sister to participate in a yearly Christmas tradition: at least once every childhood Christmas we waited until everyone had fallen asleep, put on our fluffy white slips, and crept out to the Christmas tree where we danced and twirled in the colorful glow of twinkle lights. It was lovely, and I wish we still did it.
My favorite childhood tradition, though, was going out to breakfast with my dad for my birthday. I’d go to bed with excited butterflies in my stomach the night before (no surprise there) and dream about the imminent excursion. I loved this tradition so much that my college roommates and I continued it. Whenever someone's birthday rolled around we'd roll out of bed at an ungodly hour and drive to our local pancake house, where we'd groggily celebrate the years God gave us by stuffing down colossal stacks of chocolate chip pancakes lathered in whipped cream.
Sometimes I like to play the "What is your favorite childhood memory" game with new friends. Invariably, family traditions are right up there with digging a swimming pool in mom's garden and making perfume for her with the neighbors' roses. I think this is because there is something in us that reaches for tradition and wants to weave its colorful textured threads into our living tapestries. Maybe this is because Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof is right: Maybe, with the right kind of traditions, "everyone of us knows who he is."
Of course our starting place for knowing ourselves is knowing God, but I think Tevye is onto something. Here’s why:
Traditions can orient us in God's story, reminding us that we're part of something bigger than ourselves.
As a kid my mom did a unit on Jewish celebrations with me and my siblings (we were home schooled. That may explain a lot about me). We learned about the Passover, during which Messianic Jews remember God's faithfulness to spare the Jews from death before freeing them from slavery, and then look forward from the Exodus to the Cross where Jesus frees us from the bondage of sin. We built a sukkot or booth when we learned about the Festival of Booths that reminds Jews of the years they spent in the dessert, headed toward the land God promised them. We also read about Purim, the festival of lots, during which Jews remember the way God saved them from annihilation as recorded in the book of Esther.
These and other Jewish holidays are structured opportunities built into yearly living that help participants shift their gaze from the stress and uncertainty of daily living to the faithfulness of God. They help to center the hearts of humble celebrants on the sovereignty and provision of God throughout his salvation story that spans the centuries, a story we have become a part of. They are reminders that the same God who fought for them thousands of years ago fights for them today.
The older I get, the more I realize I need this kind of reminding. Because, like the Israelites who grumbled while wandering in the desert after God freed them from Egypt, I am quick to forget God's nearness, power, and faithfulness.
Church and family traditions are also an expression of solidarity, reminding Christ-following participants that they aren’t sojourning through this salvation story alone.
The church I grew up in holds a candlelight service every Christmas Eve. My favorite part of this service is during the last Christmas carol of the evening, when everyone’s candle is lit. As voices fill the once silent sanctuary I find myself wishing I could creep up onto the stage and watch everyone as they remember that silent, holy night so many years ago that changed the course of history.
Instead, I crane my neck, taking in as much of the room as I can from my position. Light dances off the walls and faces, a reminder that we’re a city on a hill, a lamp on a stand, a light that cannot be hidden. And I’m struck by the reality that every believer in the room is part of a Body that spans the globe; a Body that celebrates Christ’s birth in unity because of the cross; a Body that’s been carrying its cross for thousands of years and that grows in grace as the centuries unfold.
I know that when the final song ends and the last candle is snuffed we will disperse, returning to our responsibilities, our hardships, our victories, our pain. But we are all filled with the Life that is the Light of men, reminded afresh that we do not bear our crosses alone.
Finally, what we do with our bodies affects our souls. Traditions and customs can put our bodies in positions that open our souls to growth and change.
This is amazing to me. I’ve heard the whole “what you do with your body affects your soul” talk during many a youth group “sex talk,” but I didn’t really get it until I ran collegiate track.
Day after day in college I ran to the point of blacking out, vomiting, and seizing up with excruciating pain. There came a point during each practice when all I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position under the bleachers, but I kept moving, pushing my feet into the track, fixing my eyes on the finish line, centering my mind on the upcoming competition.
In that physical pressing and striving something happened to my soul: it began to understand victory over pain and yearned more deeply for heaven. My sturdy body housed a steadily sturdier soul.
I think something similar happens with traditions and customs.
When we kneel to pray we feel the posture that our heart should take, and our hearts may understand humility in a new way. When we fast we know the feeling of sacrifice that results in gain and emptiness that leads to fullness, and our understanding of Christian paradox deepens. When we lay hands on fellow believers to pray we feel what it’s like to support and rally around fellow Christians, to be united as a Church, and our paradigm for living in a Body shifts.
Mysteriously, the seen shapes the unseen, so that one day we can clearly see the fruit of spiritual formation through tradition.
I've focused a bit on Jewish traditions in this blog because I think I can learn from them. In fact, as my soul craves a more textured tapestry of tradition I'm realizing I can learn from other denominations that participate in spiritually forming traditions that are unfamiliar to me.
So I'm curious: what traditions make up your family and church tapestry? I'd love to hear about them as I embark on my summer quest to discover new TRADISHUNS! In the meantime, I'm going to go watch Fiddler on the Roof.
Dai dai dai dai....