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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sanctuary Lamps and Electric Guitars: What of Tradition?

By Jtdirl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary are soon to be entering what could be dicey ground.  Beginning with the the epistle reading this coming Sunday, we will be spending some time in the epistle of James.  From the looks of internet banter among the Christian blogging community and its readers, some of the issues raised by a reading of James are areas of friction in our current Christian climate. These might include legalism, pursuit of holiness, and observance of tradition.

This Sunday's Old Testament and Gospel readings cover some related ground.  Our gospel reading, (Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, and 21-23), presents the story of the Pharisees confronting Jesus since some of his disciples break Jewish tradition by eating with unwashed hands.  Jesus replies:

 "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
    'This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
    in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

All varieties of Christian expression have traditions.  Some bodies of tradition are older than others, but we all have it.  All churches have an order of service, a "liturgy" of sorts, even if that order of service includes drums, electric guitars, and a bouncing red ball following along with lyrics on a projector screen.  The raising of hands in worship is a physical action that conveys a spiritual reality.

2011-04-11 Ewiges Licht Gro├če Synagoge Budapest 01
Sanctuary Lamp in a Synagogue
By Deutsch: Wo st 01 (Derzeit befinden sich 668 Bilder in meiner Kategorie
English: Wo st 01 (There are 668 Pictures in my Category) 
See also Toolserver (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de
 via Wikimedia Commons
It is currently popular to criticize the older traditions as "man made" and to teach that more modern approaches to worship are ritual free and untouched by human hands.  In fact, they are just more familiar because they are more in line with modern culture.  The worship that went on in Jesus time,  and in the early church years that followed, had far more to do with traditional Jewish worship than with microphones and praise anthems.  

That is not to say that one approach is better than another.  It is merely to say that tradition does not necessary equate with "oldness".  So what is Jesus talking about here?

Of course, Jesus is talking about a ritual practice, not a worship style.  He is talking about a human practice that evolved in an effort to follow the law.  Like us, people at the time must surely have found it easy to lose sight of the heart of God's direction for their lives, in an effort to follow the letter of it.  It is, after all, much easier to follow a checklist of "must do-s", than to completely let go and truly immerse one's heart in the Heart of God.  However, the Heart of God is where the grace flows.

Like the Jews in Jesus time, traditional Christians have practices which have been handed down, generation to generation, which are rooted in scripture and keep our hearts and minds focused on God. When we cross ourselves, when we bow at the name of Jesus, when those of us who veil don lace, we are reverencing our Savior. We are placing the word of God upon our very physical body, and through our actions, saturating our souls in Him.
By adriatikusAdriatikus at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.5
 (], from Wikimedia Commons
The problem comes when one does as these Pharisees did, and separates the action from that which it represents and communicates.  Crossing oneself isn't about placing fingers to forehead and shoulders; it is about remembering our baptism, and about doing all things in the name of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." (Matthew 29:18).  Bowing at the name of Jesus, and before the altar/aumbry light, (which represents the presence of Jesus in the Sanctuary), is not about bowing to words or to inanimate objects, it is about the fact that "every knee shall bow" before him. (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10). These actions keep us mindful of the point of it all.  They keep the Word of God continually on our minds by our actions.

We are human beings who live in physical bodies.  Our worship of God in spirit can be schooled, supported, and enriched by physical actions.  The problem creeps in when we lose sight of what the physical actions represent, and begin doing them for themselves, rather than for God.

Jesus words here are an important caution for traditional Christians.  We ought to know the Biblical bases on which our actions and observances are founded.  We ought to know why we do the things we do.  We ought to teach our children these things.  If we do not, we are coming dangerously close to the place where the Pharisees in our gospel reading stood.

Pax Christi, Dear Ones,
May we be ever mindful of doing all things his name,

For readers who attend churches which do not follow the Revised Common Lectionary, it can be accessed here.  We would love to have you follow along with us!

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1 comment:

  1. I always found this interesting how different traditions try to "bash" other's traditions. I think sometimes the different churches get caught up in the protesting tradition of the Protestant thought or the "classical" tradition of the East and West churches (among other things). I agree that we all have traditions in our different churches but we should focus on the things we have in common with the Church at large rather than the small tradition differences among us. Definitely a wonderful and intelligent post as always.


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