Meaningful traditions and empty rituals

On Saturday, it was the Queen’s official birthday. Her actual birthday is in April and so it has been the custom for her to have an official celebration in June enabling the pageantry of the Trooping of the Colour with less risk of bad weather. It makes sense and has become part of our customs and the fabric of the nation, an annual event that helps mark the times and seasons of the year along with the FA Cup Final, Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve.

This year however, we were treated to the peculiar spectacle of a private, socially distanced and massively reduced Trooping of the Colours within the grounds of Windsor Castle and a few people and institutions sending birthday wishes via Twitter.  Something that made sense normally seemed to make very little sense in lockdown.

You may know that I have similar feelings about running Christian festivals like Keswick, Spring Harvest and Word Alive online. The beauty about those events is that they give Christians the opportunity to enjoy a holiday enjoying terrific scenery, hopefully good weather and the opportunity to relax whilst gathering with thousands of others to enjoy praise and preaching together.  For many of us, those events have become customs and traditions, part of our calendar, something we look forward to each year. But again, strip away the holiday, the sense of being part of a great crown of worshippers and the opportunity to meet up again with friends and what do you have? Essentially you have some online preaching from people who, at the moment, you could easily watch on their Facebook page or church Youtube channel. My preference would have been that those events enjoy a well-earned break this year and plan for fantastic gatherings in 2021.

We all have customs and traditions, nations have them, churches have them, even individual families have them.  For example, as children, we knew how Christmas Day would happen each year. We would wake up early to find stockings filled with sweets, satsumas and small presents. We would then bring those into our parents’ room and each of us in turn would open a present.  Then after breakfast we went to church, picking up Grandma on route. Back at home after church, we were allowed into the front room which had been off limits until then. There we would find a pile of larger, more expensive presents. Again, we would open one in turn, taking a break for Christmas dinner. Having had opportunity to enjoy playing with new toys, reading new books or listening to new radios there would be an evening meal of pork pies, cold meats, pickles etc followed by mince pies and Christmas cake.  That was a family tradition that made sense in my childhood. Today, as an adult with a church family here in the West Midlands and physical family in the North and the South  (and two different sets of traditions) it makes less sense to attempt to follow those same traditions.

We are starting to see the difference here between a healthy tradition and empty ritual. There is nothing wrong with having traditions per-se providing that they are helpful, connecting the outer routine with our inner heart thoughts. Some traditions are specifically given to us by the Lord such as the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper and the baptism of new believers. However, traditions risk become things that we do without thought, rituals that bear no relationship to the state of our hearts, or worse still, activities driven by fear that if we do not do them harm will come and false hope that if we do follow them, the good things will happen.  These traditions become rituals when:

  • We are driven by legalism. We do it because others (or even our won consciences) demand that we must continue. We associate this with phrases like “we have always done it this way.”
  • We are caught up in superstition. For example, may make sense for a football player to follow a particular training routine because certain exercises lead naturally to others or because the routine develops healthy habits but when he starts to think that if he does things in a certain order it will guarantee victory then he is in trouble.
  • We believe that if we do not keep participating in certain things then we will be forgotten, excluded, dispensable.
  • We have just been doing something for so long that we have forgotten why we do it.

It is good both in our personal life and church life to take stock every now and then and think through why we do certain things. We may choose to continue to do some things, stop doing others and rethink how and why we do others.

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