How do we know when tradition is helpful or harmful? How do we know when tradition breathes life and hope into the people of God? Or when it becomes a barrier to the leading of the Holy Spirit for our time? This is a critical matter the church must be constantly discerning. Is tradition serving as a propeller or an anchor?
In a well-known tale, a young girl asks her mother why she cut off both ends of the ham prior to placing it in the roast pan. “Well,” the mother responded, “I think it might be to let the juices soak through the meat, but I’m not too sure. You’d better ask your grandmother. That’s who I learned it from.”
Upon calling her grandmother, the girl received the exact same response, with a referral further on to her great-grandmother. “Oh, sweety,” the dear old lady chuckled, “I only cut off the ends of the ham because I never had a pan large enough to fit the whole roast!”
Everyone had a good laugh, as the source of what had become a family tradition was discovered. What was a necessary tradition at one time had become nonsensical traditionalism.
I find Jesus’ experience at the Festival of Booths in John 7 to offer interesting insight into this whole question of tradition vs. traditionalism. It’s a sad story, really.
At the Festival of Booths, Jews from all over the empire returned to Jerusalem for a joyous, eight-day celebration. They built make-shift shelters to sleep in for the week. This was to commemorate God’s guiding hand through the wilderness prior to entry into the Promised Land. God had provided, protected and led them through ordinary ways and mighty acts. It was a celebration of God’s activity among them.
After briefly stalling, Jesus eventually arrived at the feast and began teaching. But his welcome was not warm. The Jewish leaders wanted to kill him. Those in the crowd who appreciated Jesus only whispered their admiration for fear of the authorities. Others declared that Jesus was a deceptive character. These were the rumblings that would build up to his eventual crucifixion.
This is all so very sad. As the Jewish people gathered to joyously commemorate the ancient works of their God, at that moment they missed his presence and power in their very midst. It’s not only sad. It’s ironic. They were so focussed on living out the traditions of old that they simply couldn’t recognize the new season the Messiah arrived to usher in. Tradition had become traditionalism.
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” These are the wise words of Jaroslav Pelikan. You see, tradition can be a marvellous gift from God. In fact, it was he who called the Israelites to celebrate the Festival of Booths annually so that future generations would know the power and faithfulness of God. As the living faith of the dead, it had marvellous potential to propel the people forward with confidence and hope into a new era of following their God into new territory.
However, sadly it served as an anchor. The Jews cared far more about preserving and honouring what had been, upholding the institution they had developed, rather than acknowledging that, in Jesus, God was at work in new ways.
How do we, the church, discern this? What are the traditions we need to cling to, and plumb the depths of, which will propel us forward? In what ways are we tempted to embrace the traditionalism that has an anchoring, rather than freeing, effect? May we not carve the ends of the ham off simply because it’s what great-grandmother did.
Ryan Jantzi pastors Kingsfield-Zurich Mennonite Church, Ont., where he’s fascinated with exploring the interplay between traditional church and new expressions of mission.