Come 12 p.m. on Thanksgiving, my holiday cheer wakes up and kicks into overdrive. I set any and all Christmas music on repeat right up until January (I even have a Christmas station on Pandora just for Sabbath). I decorate everything within reach of the ladder. I wear my classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” t-shirt. My entire year pretty much builds to the month of December.
It probably has a lot to do with the fact that my family always made Christmas a big deal. Early in the month, we’d take (what felt like) a long drive to a tree farm and cut down the perfect, full-bodied evergreen tree. We’d decorate it with lights and ornaments that my family has owned for years and year. I loved leafing through all of the memories in those Christmas boxes. My Mom would share with me the stories about each and every ornament. She’d explain to me why she picked this one out when I was born, or how I’d made this one at school in the 4th grade. I always looked forward to the one special gift that my parents would give us to open ahead of time on Christmas Eve. We’d leave milk and homemade cookies out. Christmas day was marked with exciting presents, great food, and irreplaceable time with my family.
Looking back now, I try to figure out why it meant so much to me. Undoubtedly, it was a lot of fun. However, I think there’s more to it. I think I loved all of the traditions. We had a lot of traditions. In a world filled with so much chaos, there’s something reaffirming about knowing exactly what to expect. At a time when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, there’s an unmatched level of security when you have something to look forward to, something you can count on.
As an adult, I think I appreciate the stability that Christmas affords like I never could have as a child. Perhaps it’s silly, but to some extent, I feel like even if the world is falling apart, at least we’ll have Christmas. I know. Christmas is often materialistic and cheap, shortsighted and a bit vain, but there’s more to Christmas than that.
There’s more to Christmas than all of the glimmering lights, shiny bows, and Santa-printed paper. There’s so much discussion and controversy over the origins of Christmas, but I’ll let you in on a little realization that occurred to me several years ago. In Jerusalem, there are at least two recognized sites that claim to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s a great deal of discussion as to which site holds the greatest claim, and to be honest, both sites have reasonable pros and cons as to why they are the true location of Jesus’ crucifixion. On my first trip to Israel, we visited both of them. While at the second site, I tried to figure out if the fact that there were two potential sites for Jesus’ death took away from the experience. You know, did the fact that there were two possibilities lessen any of the significance? And, I realized that I could honestly answer no to that question. Jesus’ death is so much larger than one physical site. The fact that there were two possible sites where this great event could have actually taken place only adds to its historical veracity.
In the same way, Jesus’ birth is so much larger than one particular day. It doesn’t matter what time of year Jesus was born as much as it matters that there is a time of year when we focus on this magnificent event. It doesn’t so much matter what ways Satan tries to detract us from focusing on Christ’s birth as long as we are aware of the methods of distractions and seek to actively keep Jesus as the focal point of our season.
Okay, now back to traditions. There’s a place for them. However, I think there comes a point where traditions can serve as more of a hindrance than a blessing. Before we even realize it, traditions can become a means to an end in and of themselves. If Christmas is all about traditions, then you are missing out on the heart of the holiday.
Let’s go a few steps past December. The same is true in our Christian walk. As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a LOT of traditions. Cultural Adventism, or a state where one practices certain lifestyle qualities of Seventh-day Adventism while largely forgoing the beliefs behind those practices is a thing. While I believe there’s merit in traditions, I also think our use of traditions can quickly turn awry. Here’s what to look out for when evaluating your use of traditions.
1) Traditions go awry when they become the end-goal and keep us from searching for deeper truth.
What is the purpose of traditions? If your purpose for the practice does not have a deeper connection than there’s probably something missing. How often do we sit down and repeat the exact same prayer verbatim before lunch? Yeah, we want to hit all the same points, however the before-meal prayer needs to sprout from an honest desire to connect with God in earnest thankfulness before our meal. Traditions can often serve to numb us from the need for more. This is precisely one of the main issues that the Pharisees had going on in the New Testament. They came right to the point of accosting Jesus for what they perceived as the apostles breaking tradition (Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:3-9). Jesus responds to them in Matthew 15:3, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus recognized that there was a huge issue in the way the Pharisees viewed tradition. It was all they had. They missed the commandments that the traditions were based on. The entire idea of traditions is that they are passed down. I love that about them! However, I think that can blind us. We can become so focused on the traditions that they become our crutch. Our daily or yearly practices are often exactly the same. For instance, every single morning, I wake up and read three chapters of my Bible (e.g. Joshua 1, 2, 3). It’s the start of my morning devotions. I do it because it keeps me consistent. However, at times, it keeps me too consistent. By reading three chapters in a row every morning, I’m not challenging myself to do anything different. I could read three chapters on a specific topic. I could read more chapters. I could start my day with my Sabbath School lesson or a book. While in this example all of those practices might be equal, traditions may keep us from growing. We may become so intent on our traditional approaches that we forget to search our new ones. We may become so used to how we do our devotions that we never develop deeper levels of our conviction or commitment to God. We make be so wrapped up in how Christmas is supposed to be that we forget to enjoy the extra time with our family and our God.
2) Traditions go awry when they become a substitute for passion/conviction.
While I think it’s noble to do something because it’s “the honorable thing to do,” if you are always making decisions for the sole reason that it’s “the honorable thing to do” then something is missing. Commitment is good, but commitment has to be based on something. It’s crazy to think that we can be committed without even knowing what or whom we are committed to. I know a lot of dear people in my life like this. They are so desperate for lasting commitment that they don’t always take the time to figure out what they should be committing themselves to. They just want to belong somewhere. They just want be working toward something. However, God is polarizing. Our commitments should come with feeling/conviction. I choose to love my husband (ongoing/continuous commitment), because I fell in love with my husband (feeling/conviction). James speaks to this relationship. In James 2:18, James writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Here, James demonstrates the mutually reciprocal relationship between conviction (faith) and visible commitment (works). We can operate solely off of commitment for a while. However, if we’re always operating solely off of commitment, we will come to the point where we burnout. If you notice that your actions are becoming more commitment-based than anything else, recognize that it’s an okay place to be. It’s not an okay place to stay. If this is the case, we have to do a major triage of our relationship with Christ to figure out what’s missing and what we need to change.
3) Traditions go awry when they stand-in for commitment.
The opposite could also be said in the spouse analogy from above. I continue to fall in love with my husband (ongoing/continuous feeling), because I chose to love him (commitment). In the same way that commitment has to come from deeper conviction, passion has to come from deeper commitment. Titus speaks to this group of people who only care about one-half of the equation. In Titus 1:16, Titus says, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” This might be more of the struggle for the vast majority of our generation. We’ve seen so many people that we love make commitments to the wrong person or thing that we are desperately afraid of being too tied down. We don’t commit, because commitment could take us down a rabbit hole that we might not be able to escape from. I think older generations see this as being commitment phobic. However, maybe it’s not so much that we are refusing to take commitment seriously as it is that we value commitment so highly that it becomes almost sacred ground. We are so desperate not to break our commitments that we become almost obsessed with our feelings. We think our feelings will lead us to the right commitments. It’s the counter logic to the “I’m going to do this because it’s the honorable thing to do” group. For this group, the only honorable thing to do is be true to yourself above all else. It’s very postmodern, and it’s hard to blame us for the logic we’ve been culturally indoctrinated into for so long. I think the problem becomes when we use our traditions (knowingly or unknowingly) as an excuse not to commit. If you follow me, Christmas may be a religious holiday, but it shouldn’t be your religion. Basketball may be a great way to connect with a group of people over something, but that isn’t enough. We short-change ourselves when think traditions are enough without any commitments.
I greatly value traditions (both of the Christmas and Seventh-day Adventist variety), but I do think we have to be aware of their propensities. At one point in time or another, we’ve probably all fallen prey to a combination of tradition’s tendencies. I certainly don’t think we could or should throw out our traditions, but I do think it’s super helpful to find ways to balance out their shortcomings.
So, there’s some of what I’m thinking about with Christmas fast-approaching. What do you guys think? In what way are traditions good? In what other ways do they go awry? How can we balance out the tendencies that they have the potential to create in us?