One of the things I love about the Christmas season is that regardless of wherever you attend church, chances are you’ll sing some traditional Christmas carols. I love Christmas carols; and I love hymns. It seems that Christmas is the only time of year that those churches who sing only modern music will actually break from the mold and pull out the old hymns.
In the past two weeks we’ve sung (sometimes in a modern arrangement) songs like Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and What Child is This. There’s something about singing a song that dates back the Civil War (What Child is This?), or a song older than our country (Watt’s Joy to the World from the early 1700’s), or even back to Medieval times (O Come O Come from the 9th century A.D.). It’s a connection worth remembering.
Don’t get me wrong – I attend what many would consider a modern church, so I having nothing against modern (contemporary?) music. Yet at the same time, and perhaps it’s because I spent my elementary years attending a liturgical church or my school years attending a Christian school largely influenced by more liturgical churches, I find the traditions of the historical church something special. There is, after all, a wonder that comes from reciting the Lord’s Prayer with a room full of believers, or a sense of family that is created by the regular participation in communion (Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, whatever you want to call it), or a sense of historical communicated through the words of songs that are centuries – even millenia – old. It’s a reminder to me that the Church, the body of Jesus, extends not only beyond myself but also beyond the four walls of the building I’m standing in when I worship. It’s an acknowledgement of community and connection with my brothers and sisters around the globe who may attend a different church than I do, but who, none-the-less, belong to the same Church as me.
One of my struggles with modern Christianity is the emphasis and stress on the individual. Again, don’t mis-read me here – I believe that we are saved through an individual relationship with God through Jesus. And yet I’ve seen what I consider simply an infection of the church by the American consumerist mentality that “church is about me”. If we don’t like the style of music that is played, or the amount of times communion is observed, or where the offering is placed, or even the time of the service or the dress code of the congregation, we leave to find another church because, well, we can – there’s a church on every corner competing for our attendance, and we’re bound to find one that fits “my needs”. But sometimes – often times – we forget that when we come together corporately we are to worship corporately. And that looks different than worshiping as individuals.
Which is why I appreciate the institution of traditions in the service. Not just traditions that are traditions for an individual body (such as, “Since our church was founded 35 years ago we’ve celebrated Homecoming on the 2nd Sunday in September”), but also – and perhaps more-so – the traditions that extend throughout history. Singing “O come, o come Emmanuel” helps me see myself in that long line of saints that Hebrews talks about. It takes me back to the the time of the medieval monks, and I realize that I’m singing in a choir that transcends not just space but also time. I see the body of Christ become much larger than anything I’ve ever imagined. Traditions help us do that.
Now the extreme of this is to over-emphasize tradition, which is what the Pharisees did and for which Jesus condemned them. Or the other extreme is to ignore all traditions in an attempt to not over-empahsize them, and we become just as legalistic yet in a different sense. I’m not advocating either of these. These thoughts, in fact, are directed more towards those who tend to disregard the importance of tradition than those who over-emphasize it. Traditions aren’t always bad, in fact they serve a greater good. I can’t over-emphasize this fact: traditions connect us with the church beyond space and time and helps us identify with the Church – the whole church – in a way that “new” can not. They must not be practiced to the exclusion of “new”, but neither should “new” (modern/contemporary) be practiced to the exclusion of the old.
In this season of Advent it’s easier to remember tradition and practice it because we see it around us in the secular world: Christmas trees, stockings, outdoor lights, etc. And as a Church we find it easier to incorporate it into our worship services because, well, who doesn’t like a good ol’ rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing – even Charlie Brown sang it! But traditions shouldn’t be limited to just a couple weeks a year.
Advent, another “tradition”, reminds us that we are eagerly awaiting the return of our coming King; it’s the beginning of a new year, not in our calendar but in the Church’s calendar; it’s the reminder that we are in the world but not of it. It’s a connection, beyond space to time, to those saints who live around the globe but also who lived throughout history. And when we dismiss, downplay, or forget that, we do ourselves (and our Savior) a great disservice.
Let’s not forget what Jesus said in Matthew 13:52: “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.” (The Message)