At this time of the year, the lure of tradition is stronger than ever – it is almost irresistible.
We are overwhelmed with tradition –
- people who hate snow find themselves dreaming of a white Christmas;
- unbelievers are swept in a nostalgic brand of piety;
- those who are normally oblivious to those in need begin to imitate the generous.
In many instances tradition is a good thing – but it is not everything.
Tradition, for example, is not the whole story of what God did for us 2000 years ago, and continues to do for us today.
As we get deeper into the annual avalanche of Christmas traditions, I would like us to consider what today’s Gospel reading has to say about the limitations of tradition.
John the Baptist had been preaching by the River Jordan – in fact, he had been creating quite a stir!!
People came to hear John preach to try to make sense out of who he was, what he was, and what he was saying.
Those who understood Jewish traditions tried to find the appropriate pigeon-hole in which to slot him – was he the Messiah (the Anointed One of God), or could he be Elijah?
But, of course, John would not be contained within one of their neat boxes.
John told them that, through him, God was doing something way outside of their cosy traditions – and he was warning them that this was just the beginning – there was something much bigger about to happen!
One way of looking at tradition is to view it as a vehicle for wrapping up truth in little packages – a way of taking a tiny piece of truth and isolating it carefully and lovingly.
Tradition is to truth as a bottle of water is to a great river – the water in the bottle came from the river, but the river itself is so much more than that tiny bottle can ever contain.
In the same way, the traditions of Christmas – the star, the manger, the wise men, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, even the baby Jesus – are just tiny pieces in God’s vast and sweeping plan for this world, and for us.
Just as those first century Jews were trying to use their traditions to understand the teachings and actions of John the Baptist, so we do the same thing at Christmas time.
We want God to fit our traditions. Like trying to capture the true essence of that great river in a bottle – it simply cannot be done.
The Spirit of God at work in Advent and Christmas is far more than our traditions can embrace.
- You see, traditions are predictable – the Spirit of God is certainly not;
- Traditions are comforting – the Spirit of God is disturbing;
- Traditions tend to affirm things we like about ourselves – the Spirit of God is always challenging us to change our lives.
Tradition has a way of being isolated from life – that’s what we find so comforting about our Christmas traditions, everything gets back to normal in January.
BUT … tradition does not know how to relate the softness of the season to the hard realities of living in the real world – the Spirit holds them in a challenging and constant connection.
Like our predecessors, we come to this time of the year with wonderfully crafted boxes of tradition – the whole Nativity scene set out in our own personal versions of the Christmas pageant.
BUT … the truth of God will simply not fit into the traditions of Christmas – it is so much bigger than that.
Of course, our Christmas traditions are good and powerful, but we do need to keep them in perspective.
We need to hold on to the fact that the traditions we hold so dear are to the work of God as a bottle of water is to a mighty river.
In the days ahead, may you enjoy the bottled water of tradition, and may God grant you a glimpse of the mighty river of the Spirit from which they come.