One Memorial Day a few years back I was reflecting on the value of ceremony and tradition. Depending on your background, it may be critically important, or not at all important. I think of it most often in the context of the church, since, sad to say, that’s where we most often fight over it. Churches I grew up in expressed disdain for tradition, failing to realize how much of it they retained or that they had simply replaced the ones they so despised with different ones. Anyone who dares suggest that the old ones were better is labeled as a Pharisee, or an “old wine skin.”
As for me, I ask the same questions I try to ask about everything. What does God want? Does it accomplish anything? Of course, if the first answer is that God values it, then the second is yes, though we may not always be able to see the purpose in it.
Does God value tradition and ceremony? When we read the Old Testament it would seem that He very much does. Then we read the New Testament and things seem to have radically changed. Is that so? If “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” what changed? It seems that the value of tradition in the Bible is only to lead us to Jesus. Paul said of the law, (the instructions to the Jews in the Old testament) that it is “”a “tutor to lead us to Christ.”
Yet the New Testament is not entirely devoid of ceremony and tradition. Two are generally recognized by the church, though the practices differ significantly between different groups. Paul indicates that there may be others at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 11, but I will focus on the two. The first is baptism, signifying the new believer’s burial and resurrection with and through Jesus into life as a new creature. By the way, one is not buried by sprinkling a little dirt over the body. This is obviously important, since it is part of the commandment that Jesus gave his disciples before going back to Heaven. He said, “…make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…”
just as we tend to do with everything else, we’ve developed all kinds of ideas on exactly how baptism should be done. Depending on the denomination, one may be sprinkled or dunked. Some say the name of Jesus must be used exclusively. Others say we must use the words “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This hair splitting is done by pulling different snippets from the various accounts of baptism and instruction on baptism that can be found in the Bible.
It all misses the point. Looking back at the Old testament, we see that if God meant for a thing to be done a certain way, He knew how to be specific. He laid out design of the tabernacle, the implements and practice of sacrifice, the clothes the priests had to wear, what sacrifices were required in under what circumstances, and so on. There was no room for doubt or improvisation. In fact the slightest deviation from His specifications put one in danger of instant death. This served to illustrate His holiness and our inability to be in His presence without the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. If he meant baptism to be a wrote ritual, would he not have laid it out in the same fine detail? I think so. God has always been more concerned with the motivations of the heart. The significance of baptism is the public commitment of the new believer to walk in the new life given to him by Jesus’ sacrifice.
So let’s move on to the second New Testament tradition. Depending on your background it may have been called communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist. We’ve gotten really crazy on this one. Again I think we totally miss the point. We’ve got it wrong on two counts. First, we have taken a simple meal shared among believers and turned it into a stilted ritual. 1 Corinthians 11 starting in verse 17 is a well-known warning against taking communion unworthily, but what we miss in this passage is that it was clearly a meal shared together. that leads me to the second thing, that we aught to be thinking of any meal we share with the same gravity we associate with our little ritual. I don’t see the ritual as a bad thing, but I think that by focusing on it as the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “do this in remembrance of me” we miss the full scope of the instruction.
I’ve lumped ceremony and tradition together, but they are separate things that kind of overlap. It would be fair to say that what I’m really talking about today is more ceremony than tradition. Both have their place. I think my second question regarding what they accomplish must be answered case by case and even individual by individual.
If God gave them to us then they must have value, but what about the ones we invented? In our society, with the written word and other ways of capturing memories and instruction readily available to most anyone, their value as memory aids would seem to be reduced. Yet we seem to need them. In fact, eschewing them in many cases will be looked upon as an indicator of bad character. Since it was the genesis of these reflections, I’ll take up Memorial Day as an example. I’ve heard many lament the fact that most of us take the day off as an opportunity to cook out or hit the sales rather than a solemn remembrance of the soldiers who have given their lives to make us free. I’ll agree there is something to that. As a country we lack an appreciation for what we have and what it takes to keep it. We would do well to take time to remember these things and to personally thank the living families of those we have lost.
However, I was asking myself that second question on that day. Linda had been talking about attending one of the memorial services in the area, and wanting to accommodate whatever she felt was necessary, I agreed to go. Privately I was thinking, “who will be any better off because we did this?” I suppose there is some value in standing with others, thereby affirming our support and sympathy, but I’m looking for some kind of practical benefit that I can offer. In the end, thinking of my difficulty standing in one place for long periods of time and Linda’s sensitivity to heat, we opted to visit a friend in the hospital instead. Serving a friend in need doesn’t’ seem like such a bad way to celebrate what we have been given.