10 December 2010

An Ecumenical Appeal to Tradition

An Ecumenical Appeal to Tradition

Sometime in ages past, we in the west decided “tradition” was a bad word. Venerable began to mean the same thing as corrupted, ancient began to mean the same thing as dead. What we sought instead was that which was fresh and new, that which was novel and exciting. We are still doing this today, having discarded even the novelties, once their shine began to dull.

Tradition has come to imply a Pharisaical rule, set up in opposition against the law of God. We see it even in our Bible translations. In the New International Version, for example, the Greek word paradosis (παράδοσις) is translated as “tradition” when it is used as a negative, and as “teachings,” when it is used as a positive. And yet, it is the same word in the original language.

The Apostle Paul tells us, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions [paradosis] which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (KJV) Yes, there are some traditions of men that should be discarded, but there are also holy, sacred traditions passed down to us from Christ and the apostles. Even the Scriptures themselves are part of what is often called Sacred Tradition.

We as Christians have such a rich storehouse of tradition, inherited from our forebears in the faith. And yet, we have cast so much of it aside, treating it as something of no worth. We have come to believe that what our ancestors valued highly is, in fact, the equivalent of last week's rubbish, which ought to be taken out before it begins to smell.

I believe this is a great tragedy for our culture, and a great tragedy for the Church. However, there is hope. We can hold onto what we still have, and we can work to reclaim that which we have lost.

Here I am, as a non-Catholic (so far), arguing people across the Tiber again, some might suspect. However, I am appealing to all Christians to reclaim their traditions, and I must point out that the Catholic Church is by no means immune from the deliberate rejection of tradition we have experienced in our day. In fact, the “modernization” of the liturgy, along with the accompanying—and likely connected—decrease in knowledge of the faith by clergy and laity alike, makes me far more wary of the Catholic Church than I would have been in Newman's day or even Chesterton's day. Still, there is reason for hope.


In what may prove to be a controversial move, I will first address the term “Christian.” It is a noble term, and one with a long history. As the Bible says, in 1 Peter 4:16, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” (KJV) For centuries, men and women have died, proudly claiming the name Christian. In our time, however, many have come to believe the name contains too much baggage. Seeing that there have been some bad Christians, many modern followers of Christ have attempted to disassociate themselves from those in the past who did not quite measure up. “Christ follower” is one common substitute, though others are likely in use.

What troubles me about the alternate terms is not so much what they say. After all, every Christian should be a Christ follower, and that is even one of the definitions of the word. What concerns me is what the new terms are trying so hard not to say. It is as if the modern believer says to God, “Thank you that I am not like the Christians who fought in the Crusades or ran the Inquisition, or burned “witches,” or walked around in suits with their fifty pound King James red letter Bibles. I am a Christ follower, and I am hip and modern and wear American Eagle and drink fancy coffee. May the world see that I am approachable.”

There is something of a fad in all of this. Soon, even “Christ follower” will fall out of favor, as people discover that Christ followers, just like Christians, can be self-righteous and hypocritical, full of sin and human failings. Perhaps “Jesus admirer” will catch on next, followed by “Divinity sympathizer” or something equally inspiring.

What I propose is that, rather than ditch the name “Christian,” we fight to show the world what it really means. If some have not been worthy of the name, then let us work to be as worthy of it as we can. It is our word, a word we share with two thousand years of our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us and now sit with the Church Triumphant, awaiting our victorious resurrection, by the grace of Christ our Savior.


One of the greatest possessions of the Church, which I remember with great thankfulness from my Protestant youth, is the overflowing treasury of hymns we have received. I could go on and on, listing my favorites. They were hymns of great beauty, but also great holiness. There was doctrine in the hymns, and one could be grounded in the faith without listening to a single sermon.

By contrast, the music of today does not even approach the majesty of what was written by our ancestors. One could argue about why this is so, but I think it is largely because we have lost a sense of the sacred. The writers and composers who put the old hymns on paper were overwhelmed by the glory and grandeur of Almighty God. They were also unafraid to point out that we are sinners in need of God's grace, and they rejoiced in praising His power, love and mercy.

Today, we sing vague songs about how God loves us, and how we love Him, but the lyrics could just as easily refer to a sappy relationship between infatuated teenagers. We could throw the songs onto the pop radio station, and many people would not even know they were about God.

I believe we need modern music, as we need to encourage the next generation of Christian writers and musicians. However, we still have the old hymns, and we should not let them pass away. They are priceless, a great gift to pass down to our children. Please, sing a couple on Sunday, in addition to the more modern selections. And writers and musicians, do not look only to pop music—rarely good for congregational singing, as it is—for your inspiration. The secular musicians have that covered, and they are consistently making better pop music than you are. Instead, look to the hymns of the faith, look to the Scriptures, and let the Sunday morning worshipers sing beautiful, holy, songs to our God and King.

And Catholics, please bring back the occasional Gregorian chant. Even the Protestants are making you look bad, and they sing better, too.

The Church Calendar and Special Events

In the liturgical churches, there is the idea of the Church Calendar, where special dates are celebrated, certain saints are honored, and certain customs are practiced. The Christian lives through the year, celebrating with his or her fellow believers, sharing in fast and feast alike.

Modern non-liturgical Protestantism is barely hanging onto Christmas and Easter, but there is often nothing else. No Epiphany, no Ash Wednesday, no Lent, no Advent season. Even Christmas and Easter are in danger. How many of you have been to an Easter Sunday service where the pastor did not preach about the resurrection? How many of you have been to a Christmas Sunday service where the music was no different from that sung the rest of the year?

There is something very important about special days and special times. Consider how excited we get about birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the Super Bowl. If we can rejoice in these secular events, why can we not share in joyous commemoration of our Christian faith?

To this I would add noteworthy events in the life of the Christian. Baptism is a time when sin is washed away, and God's grace fills us, and this event should be celebrated by the whole Church. Families should come, the date should be written down, and the Church should welcome a new brother or sister.

In the same way, receiving Communion should be an incredibly important event. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, it is offered every Sunday—and every day in the Catholic Church. Receiving our Lord in the Eucharist is the central point of the whole service. The Orthodox serve communion even to infants, and the Catholics celebrate a child's first Communion.

In our more “modern” churches, we make a point of celebrating Communion rarely, fearful, perhaps, that having it too often will cheapen it. This is odd when one considers how we have already stripped away the sacramental, horrified that the spiritual could become physical. One wonders how we have managed to maintain our belief in the Incarnation, God made flesh.

These special observances, in the lifetime of a Christian, and in the liturgical year, serve as milestones in our lives. They make each day special, they unite us with our fellow believers, and they help us see our place in the vast company of the faithful, past, present, and future.


I read an article recently by John Zmirak (http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/stitching-in-limbo.html), in which he said, “Most 19th-century prisons look more humane than churches built in the 1970s.” I agree. Our culture used to value beauty in its art, music, architecture, and worship. We have now become utilitarian, churning out soulless and drab substitutes that fail to satisfy.

Several centuries ago, some people decided that churches should not be beautiful. They removed the statues and icons, they whitewashed the walls, and they turned Sunday worship into “four bare walls and a sermon.” They took away the incense, a visible reminder of our prayers rising to God. They took away the images, which reminded us of the Incarnation and the physical reality of God's work. They took away the beautiful music which united the worshipers with the Heavenly choir.

People need beauty. They long for it, they seek it out. The man who stares at splattered paint on a canvas in a modern art museum and says he prefers the Renaissance painters is not a philistine; he is a normal human being. The woman who prefers the “smells and bells” of traditional liturgy to power point and rock and roll is recognizing the beauty and reverence of the former, a beauty and reverence which the latter, for all its energy, cannot match.

Beautiful buildings and beautiful services draw our hearts and minds to God, the Author of beauty. They are also a way of honoring God, by giving Him our best. Our ancestors knew this, which is why Europe is dotted with beautiful churches.

Some will say that beautiful churches cost money, and that the money would be better used to serve the poor or support the ministries of the church. Beauty, however, is not always a matter of expense. A small chapel can be beautiful, and a large mega-church can be an architectural monstrosity. And so often, the money we save by making a bland building simply goes to folding chairs, drum-sets, sound systems, and coffee supplies. Sometimes it really is better to break the bottle of perfume over Jesus' feet and give Him the honor that is is His due.

I ask you to consider beautiful music. Consider putting a cross in front of the sanctuary, for all to see. Show scenes from Scripture in stained glass. Dare to cover the walls with the stations of the cross or icons of the apostles and saints. Do not be afraid of the physical reminders of God's grace. If you are building or remodeling your church, honor God even in that.

In Closing

I thank you for reading my appeal. There is much that unites us as Christians, and we can all work together to do the will of God. May He guide us through our disagreements and bring us into all truth. As we move forward, let us take hold of our common heritage, honoring those who have gone before, and preparing the way for those who are to come.