Download or listen to Advent Midweek III, “Water Everywhere” (Isaiah 35:1-10)
Traditions are funny things. For humans, who are always tied to some tradition or another, we tend to hold them very tightly, and we get a little unnerved when something of long use is changed. “Tradition” itself is a slippery word. Some people think it’s a bad thing; some people think it’s a good thing. Some people have a lot of traditions, some people don’t think they have any. The Church, and especially particular churches, are known for having traditions, and some would say the Church is “bound by tradition,” meaning that they—we—can’t ever do anything new or different. I don’t know if you’re of the “tradition is good” or the “tradition is bad” camp, but the word “tradition” simply means “what is handed down.” Whatever foods, or customs, or activities you have that surround Christmas, the things that you do every year, those are your traditions, even if you are not “traditional.” The things you are used to seeing every year when you come here or to your church, those are traditions. They are simply the things that have been handed down from parent to child over however many years or decades or centuries. Traditions, like any other habit, can be good or bad, helpful or harmful, meaningful or done just for the sake of “keeping up tradition.” The thing with traditions, especially in the Church, is that you can fall into the ditch on one side just as easily as into the ditch on the other side. That is, you can observe traditions (and we all do it sometime) without thinking about what you’re doing, because you’ve done it so many times. On the other hand, if you try to make a new tradition, you may spend so much time thinking about what you’re doing that you can’t actually worship.
There is no way around this problem. We are all creatures of habit, and we require our habits in order to go deeply into the meaning of our traditions; and, at the same time, our habits can dull our senses to that same meaning. As far as the Church is concerned, the only good Church traditions are those that clearly proclaim the simple facts of the Christian Creed: Christ was born, Christ died, Christ rose from the dead, Christ will come again—all for you. Whatever proclaims those things is a good tradition; whatever doesn’t is a bad tradition—or, at least, a tradition that doesn’t belong in the services of the Lord’s House. But even those traditions that clearly proclaim Christ for you can easily become mere habits in which we lose all meaning. For me, that happens with hymns like “Joy to the World.” I have to force myself to associate something with that hymn other than “this is the end of the Divine Service on Christmas Day.” I have to force myself to listen to the words.
And maybe it is so for you. Maybe the words of these profound hymns are lost in the simple fact of singing them like “we always do.” Maybe the words of Luke, Chapter Two, are lost in the simple act of reading them like “we always do.” “What we always do” is not bad, but once Christmas begins to exist for the traditions, rather than the traditions existing for Christ, there’s no longer any point to all of this. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men” becomes just another holiday slogan, rather than a proclamation from the army of God’s angels that something completely unique and original has occurred. “Joy to the World” becomes a generic wish, rather than God come down into the midst of everything that steals joy. And I, for one, doubt I’d know what to do with a silent, holy night if I had one.
This is a time for tradition, but my prayer for you is that under all the wrapping and tinsel, the stark and startling fact of God being born in your flesh, God being born to die, to take away your sin and your death—all of this for you—that that fact would shine through clearly in the midst of all your traditions—this morning, next week, and every day after that, until He comes again for His own. I pray that the ancient confession that “for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” would be more than a vague truth, more than an historical event, more than a tradition; that it would be the very food and drink of your existence. As you hear and sing the Word of God this morning, I pray that you will hear Christ Himself speaking to you of your salvation, that God Himself will bless you by that Word and give you His peace, which the world cannot give. Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/13/13